Tiller's death rekindles abortion clinics' security concerns

Wednesday, June 3, 2009 | 9:38 p.m. CDT

WICHITA, Kan. — Four layers of bulletproof glass serve as windows at the clinic where Warren Hern performs abortions, a testament to the small fortune he's spent to protect himself and his staff against threats in the two decades since someone fired five shots into the building.

But the killing of longtime friend and colleague George Tiller in Kansas, and new threats received by Hern since Sunday's shooting, reminds the Boulder, Colo., doctor and abortion providers nationwide that only so much can be done to discourage violent opponents.

"They do write to me and say, 'Don't bother to wear a vest. We're going to go for a head shot,'" Hern said Wednesday, declining to say whether he owns a bulletproof vest or to discuss further security details for fear of aiding would-be attackers.

Many clinic officials share Hern's reluctance but have acknowledged contacting law enforcement and re-evaluating security measures since Tiller was shot to death. Tiller was shot not at his clinic, but while serving as an usher during a Sunday church service in Wichita. Scott Roeder, 51, whose last known address was Kansas City, Mo., has been charged with first-degree murder.

"As we see what happened with Dr. Tiller, you can have all the security in the world and still not be safe," said Tammi Kromenaker, director of the Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo, N.D.

Still, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered federal marshals to increase security for "a number of individuals and facilities." Boulder police spokeswoman Sarah Huntley said marshals are protecting Hern's clinic and that police have added patrols.

"I can think of all kinds of things I could do last week that I can't do now," Hern said, without elaborating.

Violence against abortion providers in the 1980s and 1990s prompted many to hire guards, install metal detectors, fortify clinics and even drive reinforced vehicles. Some trained to deal with shootings and firebombings. Tiller's clinic was bombed in 1986; he was shot and wounded in both arms outside the facility in 1993.

Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said violence subsided after the 1990s with increased security and the 2000 election of former President George W. Bush, an abortion opponent.

But Michelman fears Tiller's death could be a harbinger now that Barack Obama is president. Obama has expressed support for the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, has opposed restrictions sought by anti-abortion groups and has quickly reversed a policy that kept federal funds from going to international groups performing abortions.

"Historically, when those who oppose a woman's right to decide are frustrated politically, they get more violent," Michelman said. "I have been thinking about this ever since the election."

Tiller was among a handful of U.S. physicians with a clinic specializing in third-trimester abortions, as is Hern, leading to greater scrutiny and protests by anti-abortion groups. Group leaders have distanced themselves from violent tactics and denounced Tiller's shooting.

With its Roe v. Wade ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws banning abortion. Still, various states have passed legislation to limit procedures, especially in the final months of pregnancy.

"We're equally shocked and horrified, and we are taking this week to grieve," said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue.

At Buffalo Womenservices in Buffalo, N.Y., Tiller's death is a difficult reminder of the 1998 slaying of Barnett Slepian, a physician who worked at the clinic and was fatally shot in his suburban home. The building has security cameras and requires everyone entering to show identification, but spokeswoman Susan Ward said the staff is reviewing security measures again.

"It just brings back all the memories that we had when Dr. Slepian was murdered here," Ward said.

Officials elsewhere acknowledged vigilance.

"I wasn't scared and I'm not scared, but there is a need for heightened awareness," said Pat Sandin, executive director of the Midwest Health Center for Women in Minneapolis.

Michelman said she believes clinics are safe but that doctors will remain ill at ease.

"In the end, as this horrific incident demonstrates, if someone is out to get you and they are determined — and have a chorus encouraging them and drawing a bull's-eye on Dr. Tiller's back — there's not much you can do to stop them," she said.

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