Mayor Janice Kovach of Clinton kicked off a Jan. 21 National Council of Jewish Women’s panel on the anti-abortion movement with a dramatic gesture.
She flung open her pink jacket to reveal a black bulletproof vest, and told 200 people in the Congregation B’nai Jeshurun social hall her purpose was “to remind people that individuals who work in reproductive health risk their lives and many of them wear Kevlar vests every day. These are not people involved in law enforcement, but they are people who are doing something they are passionate about every single day.”
It was the start of a 90-minute forum at the Short Hills Reform synagogue called “Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism.” It was sponsored by NCJW’s Essex County Section on Jan. 21, a day before the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the United States Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.
Since 1973 there have been some 7,000 violent attacks on abortion clinics and providers, including 12 murders, 42 bombings, and some 280 acts of arson.
In an opening presentation delivered jointly, David Cohen, a law professor from Drexel University in Philadelphia, and one of his students, Krysten Connon, described what motivated these medical risk-takers. The two coauthored Living in the Crosshairs, a study featuring interviews with 90 providers.
Cohen acknowledged that such attacks “receive national headlines, as they should.” However, he said, “the things abortion providers deal with on a daily basis — at home, at work, and around the community — those things don’t get talked about.”
One of their interviewees, “Christina Rivera,” recalled the escalating pressure from protesters at the clinic where she worked. Protesters would follow employees and bombard them with threatening phone calls and e-mails, often highly personal.
“Rivera” told the authors that every day she recoils at the murders of Dr. Barnett Sleppian, who was shot to death in the kitchen of his Buffalo, NY, home in 1998 shortly after returning from a synagogue, and Dr. George Tiller, who was gunned down while serving as an usher at his Wichita, Kan., church. Yet she opted not to carry a gun for fear that she might shoot herself.
“I decided to take my chances,” Rivera told her interviewers.
Cohen called for laws “that punish this harassment more seriously and laws that protect the identity of providers from being discovered in public data bases. Ultimately that should be considered as terrorism.”
Panelist Dr. Jennifer Amico, a gynecologist, spoke about her work with the New York-based Physicians for Reproductive Health. She said she was disturbed that her name appeared on an anti-abortion website “that said I was part of a mounting abortion cartel.”
Despite her fears, Amico told her audience, “I love my work. I know I am doing something really special for my patients. It is an amazing experience to provide a very medically uncomplicated five-minute procedure and be able to change somebody’s life…. It is worth the harassments I have had. It makes us stronger as a group and more dedicated to this work.”
Panelist Eric Boehlert, senior fellow at the liberal watchdog group Media Matters, spoke of the shooting last November at a Planned Parenthood center in Colorado Springs, Colo., where a police officer and two civilians were killed. The accused gunman was charged with nearly 200 felony counts.
Boehlert linked that shooting to “right-wing terrorism” inspired by the election of President Obama in 2008.
But, Boehlert said, in contrast to acts committed by Muslim terrorists, attacks on abortion clinics, mosques, black churches, and synagogues are not covered by the mainstream media “in terms of a dangerous movement that is growing in power and influence.
“We need to connect the dots,” he said.
Later, in an interview with NJ Jewish News, Boehlert cited a 2014 study conducted by The New York Times and the Police Executive Research Forum.
According to the study, an average of nine American Muslims per year have been involved in terrorism-related plots against targets in the United States since 9/11. By contrast, right-wing extremists averaged 337 attacks per year, causing 254 fatalities.
In addition to the NCJW sections of Essex, Bergen, Union, and West Morris counties, the event was cosponsored by many organizations, including American Association of University Women, Alliance for Justice, BlueWaveNJ, Center for Reproductive Rights, Community Relations Committee of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, League of Women Voters of NJ, Hadassah of Northern NJ, National Organization for Women, NJ Abortion Access Fund, NJ Citizen Action, NJ Public Policy Network, Physicians for Reproductive Health, Planned Parenthood Action Fund of NJ, Reproductive Justice Committee of the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, Reproductive Justice/Health Task Team of Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of NJ, Sierra Club, and Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston.