Can the Internet save Dr. Hern?

Blogs and Twitter are helping to shape the discourse about anti-abortion terrorism, but how much is that worth?

By Kate Harding

Published June 5, 2009 4:06PM (EDT)

Thursday, Sarah Seltzer wrote at RH Reality Check about how the Internet has changed the national conversation about anti-abortion terrorism. "While the pro-choice community in the '90s reacted to Dr. Bernard Slepian's murder with the same outrage and hurt as it has this week to Dr. George Tiller's, the Internet has provided us with tools that have enabled us to more effectively shape the discourse." Blogs and social media allowed for quick, plentiful and vociferous responses; online video clips provided sharp counterpoints to right-wing pundits' and anti-choice activists' claims that their rhetoric wasn't inflammatory; and the availability of women's own stories countered misinformation about late-term abortions. This time, the conversation has been strongly influenced by what Seltzer calls "an engaged, savvy and active blogosphere and twittersphere of feminists that have been able to launch accurate, appropriate language into circulation and gather evidence that this assassination was part of a larger pattern of purposeful hate and intimidation."

That's the good news. The bad news is, the Internet also provides space for anti-choice zealots to post the home and work addresses of abortion providers, so people can go "protest" -- by harassing the doctors, their families, their employees and their neighbors. Three days after Dr. Tiller's murder, Jill Stanek posted pictures on her blog of Dr. Leroy Carhart's clinic -- one of the two left in the United States with a resident doctor qualified and willing to perform late-term abortions. Ostensibly, her purpose was to illustrate how aesthetically unpleasant the "filthy mill" is, suggesting this is evidence that Carhart could not possibly be running a safe, respectable operation. Ostensibly.

To find out a few good reasons why abortion clinics might be housed in buildings that lack in the homey appeal department, take a look at the profile of Dr. Warren Hern, the other remaining late-term abortion provider, in today's LA Times. "At the Boulder Abortion Clinic, Dr. Warren Hern leaves no window uncovered. Full-length blinds shroud the bulletproof entryway; in his office, vinyl shades block a small window. This is one of the facts of Hern's life -- no windows, ever. That was how Dr. Barnett Slepian's killer shot him in upstate New York, through a kitchen window." Another fact is that he started keeping a rifle by his bed after one too many death threats came in on his home phone line. And this: "In 1988, a gunman fired five shots into his clinic's waiting room, prompting Hern to install four layers of bulletproof glass and an electronic security system." Doctors who have long been the target of violent anti-choice zealots aren't concerned with curb appeal; they're concerned with keeping the innocent people inside their offices safe from terrorists.

And meanwhile, our president continues to insist that we should be looking for the common ground between people who trust women to make their own healthcare decisions and fanatics who need handbooks to tell them how to avoid "appear[ing] callous by showing no concern for women who die." It's heartening that the Internet has made the public response to this tragedy so different than it was after the last. But until the folks in power step up to call terrorism by name, to unequivocally denounce not only the deadly violence but the thuggish campaigns of harassment dressed up as "peaceful protest," all the passionate retweets in the world aren't going to change the national discourse as much as it needs to be changed.


Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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