Abortion Rights And Wrongs

After the murder of Buffalo-area doctor Barnett Slepian, a new alert to abortion clinics was issued urging doctors to wear bulletproof vests. CBS News Sunday Morning talks to abortion providers who live with fear, to medical students who must decide whether providing abortions is a risk they're willing to take, to abortion foes who condemn the violence, and to the Justice Department whose task force is charged with addressing the issue. The following is Correspondent Allison Stewart's report.

Fred Hopkins, 39, is training for next month's San Diego marathon.
"I run when I can," he says. "Sometimes a half hour, sometimes an hour or two on weekends."

Running provides a release from the tensions of his day job. "My work is intense. I take care of people at a very intimate time in their life," he notes.

Hopkins is a physician with Planned Parenthood. His job includes various aspects of women's reproductive health, including abortions.

He recalls a recent conversation with a patient: "I think the thing most recently that really affected me was, after taking care of a client she shook my hand and said, 'thank you so much', and she almost had a tear in her eye. She said 'thank God we're not in my hometown'. And I asked her where she was from and she said, 'I'm from Pensacola, Florida, and they kill doctors like you there'. And I felt afraid."

Attacks against clinics and abortion providers like Dr. Hopkins are on the rise, with more than 16,000 incidents of violence and disruption since 1996. Advocates worry that this atmosphere of intimidation is reducing access to legal abortions.

Clinics have heightened security with video monitors and bullet-proof glass. Doctors have taken precautions like unlisting phone numbers and alternating driving routes.

Dr. Hopkins was recently fitted for a bullet-proof vest. But he says he's angry that extremists are defining the terms: "If you are harassing people, if you are invading their privacy, if you are threatening them and their family, if you are shooting them, you're bombing their clinics...that's terrorism."

Doctor Barnett Slepian took precautions, too. Still, he was gunned down six weeks ago in the kitchen of his home outside Buffalo, New York. This attack mirrored four similar shootings of abortion doctors in the region in recent years.

Dr. Slepian's death was just the latest act of clinic-related violence. There have been 6 other deaths since 1993. This summer, 20 clinics were sprayed with acid. This fall, two clinics suffered from arson and bomb threats.

Now, the Justice Department has gotten involved. Attorney General Janet Reno formed a task force to crack down on the violence.

In announcing the task force, Reno said, "These attacks and others seek to undermine a woman's basic constitutional rght to reproductive health care, and while some people may oppose that right, no one should ever use violence to impede it."

Bill Lann Lee, acting head of the department's Civil Rights Division, chairs the new task force: "The purpose of the task force is actually to do a better job of law enforcement," he said. "This is not an issue about ideology. This is not an issue about abortions or not. It's an issue about simple law enforcement. No one should have to live under conditions, and practice their profession under the condition of terror."

Another task force was formed in 1994 in response to the death of a doctor and his security guard outside a Pensacola clinic. That task force investigated the possibility of a national anti-abortion conspiracy. It found none and disbanded in 1996.

Also in 1994, a law took effect barring anti-abortion protestors from blocking clinic entrances. It's been successful. Demonstrations at clinics have decreased. Some say that has frustrated anti-abortion radicals.

Sarah Weddington was just 26 years old when she successfully argued Roe vs. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that made abortion legal. "I think they have long used a strategy that said, 'if we could close the clinics, we can make doctors and clinic workers so afraid that they won't provide abortion services, we can keep women from having access'... That's what's happening."

That is what's happening. The majority of Americans, though not necessarily pro-choice, still accept abortion in certain circumstances. Sarah Weddington says she "never envisioned that 25 years later we would be mourning another doctor shot, several clinic workers dead. All the bombing. All the violence."

Bishop William Lori, auxiliary bishop of Washington D.C., also is appalled: "That is not part of a pro-life movement. It's part of a pro-death movement. Our only response is to denounce it."

On Nov. 18, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a strong policy statement opposing abortion. The measure passed after a sentence was added condemning violence and threats against abortion providers.

"Every bishop wanted it in because I think we all feel very strongly that murdering in the name of the pro-life movement is a contradiction in terms," explains Bishop Lori.

Many other anti-abortion proponents have condemned violence by extremists.

Allison Stewart asked Bishop Lori: "Do you mainstream religious, pro-life advocates have any responsibilities for these zealots?"

Bishop Lori's response: "When you speak out on any issue, whether it is human rights, whether it is human life, whether it is civil rights, there will be some, unfortunately, who react in the most inappropriate way. But that doesn't mean you should not speak up... I think the pro-life movement has to speak prophetically to our nation, has to speak the truth... and that doesn't mean when somebody goes off and commitan act of violence that a pro-life person is responsible for that."

"Dr. John Doe" once worked at a clinic that was bombed. "It's the threat of the violence that is damaging to your life, to your practice," he says now. "The threat is with you every day, and you try to put it out of your mind." He adds, "There's always been violence against abortion in one way or the other. Ten to 15 years ago the violence was concentrated against abortion clinics... Now the climate of the violence has changed to become much more personal... There are mechanisms through the Internet where names and faces of abortion providers are made public to anyone that wants to see them."

He now teaches abortion procedures at a medical school. He recognises that "It's a very controversial area of medicine. Many medical schools don't offer training in abortions even for their residents, or minimal training. I think the environment around abortion care, through subtle and not so subtle intimidation, has many schools that merely don't provide the instruction...Will our financial support disapprove?...Do we want a community relations problem?...People are frightened of the issue."

A majority of abortion providers are over 65. As they retire, there are fewer physicians to replace them. From 1982 to 1992, the number of abortion providers has declined 18 percent. That trend is continuing.

Medical students want to learn abortion procedures, but they are undecided about being providers.

Two students, Carin and Hillary, explain:

Carin: "You can be pro choice but then, as a medical student, it takes it to a different level. You can be an activist and support choice, but then it comes to the question of whether you're willing to provide it."

Hillary: "I've thought about providing abortions in the context of a practiceÂ… instead of just specifically working at a clinic. Just because I don't particularly want to be a target."

Dr. Fred Hopkins doesn't want to be target either. But he won't let the violence stop him: "Are we going to support doctors in just wanting to take care of women? If I go underground, if I become silent, if all my peers and all the people I trained with become silent, those terrorists win, and they are not just terrorizing me, they're terrorizing women in this country and I can't tolerate that."

How is he coping with his personal fear? He laughs, and says, "I run."

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