“When it got to the murders, I think I was surprised by that”: An abortion provider's story

Antiabortion terrorists burned his house and harass him constantly, but he knows why he continues: "The patients"

Published May 2, 2015 3:00PM (EDT)

James Kopp, convicted of murdering abortion provider Barnett Slepian; Scott Roeder, convicted of murdering abortion provider George Tiller.   (Reuters)
James Kopp, convicted of murdering abortion provider Barnett Slepian; Scott Roeder, convicted of murdering abortion provider George Tiller. (Reuters)

Excerpted from "Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism"

Rodney Smith has worked in abortion care for decades. He went to medical school for general surgery while in the Air Force and then served in the Air Force until the mid-1980s. When he retired from active duty, he opened his own private general surgery practice. In the late 1980s, Rodney started performing abortions part time for a West Midwest clinic that was separate from his own practice; he has provided abortion care in many different regions of the country ever since. Given the length of time that Rodney has worked as an abortion provider, his stories with targeted protest range from very recent to over two decades old.

Rodney’s first experience with targeted protest came as a result of the regular large-scale protests outside of the clinic where he first worked as an abortion provider. Two of the regular protesters were the parents of Rodney’s son’s fiancée. When they learned that their daughter’s soon-to-be father-in-law was a doctor at the clinic, they forced her to move out of their house and cut off their support. When the two were finalizing their wedding plans, protesters made it clear that they planned to target the wedding. The priest for the wedding threatened to call the police if the protesters interrupted the services and told them, “If a priest has you arrested, it’s not going to do your cause any good.” The priest did not allow any protest but allowed the protesters to stand in an anteroom where they could see the services but could not be heard.

By the early 1990s, the protesters started targeting Rodney in a much more direct and violent manner. One day, Rodney was working at the clinic when he received a call from a police officer who told him that his house and barn were on fire. The fire was so large that an Air Force plane flying over the scene saw the fire and reported it. Rodney said that despite the call from the pilot, it took three calls before firefighters appeared. By the time the firefighters arrived at the scene, the fire had been burning for nearly two hours. Rodney and his family lost everything they owned other than what they were wearing at the time. They lost their house, their barn, and three separate outbuildings. Their dog, cats, and seventeen horses were killed. Thankfully, the human members of Rodney’s family were not injured because none were home at the time.

Rodney was in disbelief when everything he owned was destroyed. Before the fire, he did not think that anything like this could be possible. Looking back, Rodney remembers that the arson occurred on the same day that anti-abortion legislation went into effect in his home state. Rodney had testified against this law and thinks that the arson occurred in response to his public opposition.

The authorities never caught the arsonist. Someone mailed a letter postmarked the morning of the fire, justifying killing the animals on Rodney’s farm because Rodney “murdered little children”; however, the letter was untraceable. The investigation into the fire revealed that it originated from thirteen different sites on Rodney’s property, but beyond that, Rodney explained that the investigation was thwarted by city incompetence or maliciousness. For example, rather than preserve the crime scene for a full investigation, the city demolished the property the day after the fire. When the state fire marshal arrived, at first he wanted Rodney arrested for destroying the crime scene. When he learned city workers had done this at the behest of the chief of police, the fire marshal left and the investigation ended. Rodney attributes this mix-up to confusion between the city and county over responsibility for fires as well as to his identity as an abortion provider:

I don’t think the abortion issue helped a heck of a lot either. And I’m sure that’s why they pushed everything in a pile, so that there was no way that anybody could be prosecuted. I mean, there’s just no doubt in my mind about that. And the fact that the fire was called in by the air force at 12:28, and they didn’t respond until five minutes after two, when they finally got a third call from a passerby.

Rather than deterring Rodney, the fire that destroyed his home and left him with nothing strengthened his resolve. “That was the last day that I did abortions part-time. I quit doing the general surgery practice. I went to the hospital and told them I was going to resign my privileges on the staff there and I was going to travel and do abortions.” From that point until now, Rodney has been a full-time abortion doctor who has provided abortions in many different regions of the country for his own clinic as well as other clinics that need his assistance.

The targeted harassment did not end with the arson. Immediately after the fire destroyed their home, Rodney and his family rented an apartment. The first weekend they were there, protesters broke into their apartment and wrote all over the walls. Rodney’s new neighbors identified the people who broke in, but the police never prosecuted them. It was then that Rodney realized just how vulnerable he was as an abortion provider. He likened his vulnerability to his time in the Air Force during the Vietnam War when he knew that any day he could be killed. Nonetheless, he found himself more committed to the cause because of the high stakes.

In the 1990s when anti-abortion extremists started murdering doctors and clinic workers, it was obvious to Rodney that the anti-abortion movement’s goal was to frighten everyone in the field into not working. “No matter who you were, a nurse or a staff member or an anything, you were vulnerable. If you can agitate or put fear into all the workers, you do a lot more damage than if you just make the people at the top of the organization worried.” He understood this plan but insisted on continuing “to help carry on the movement.” Though he recognized that the people who opposed him “were crazy,” he was willing to live with the risk:

I’ve always said, if you work at the post office or the 7-11, you probably had a higher chance of getting murdered or shot in a robbery than you do doing abortions. That’s probably still true today. Not every career field has its risks, but many of them do, and if you believe in what you’re doing, I think that it’s worth taking those risks.

Over the years, Rodney has become more and more visible as an abortion provider: he has been involved in high-profile court cases, worked with other high-profile doctors, and become known as a doctor with expertise in late abortion care. He has had several death threats, mostly during the time of the fire and then again in the late 1990s. Much more recently, a protest organizer told him, “You’re not going to be here to do this much longer.” This comment may have referred to Rodney’s age or to some sort of violent crime that the protester planned to commit against Rodney. Either way, Rodney explained that he was not going to take any chances, so he notified the FBI, federal marshals, and local police, who investigated the comment.

Rodney’s involvement in high-profile court cases has also placed him at the center of anti-abortion protesters’ attention. Rodney and his lawyers have hired personal security to guard him during court appearances and events related to the cases. The security could not help him, though, in the US Supreme Court courtroom, where a few years before we interviewed him, Rodney was physically attacked by a protester:

He was wearing one of these very anti-choice T-shirts. He pulled a chair up. There wasn’t even a seat there, but they let him bring a chair up and sit in the aisle behind me on the right-hand side. And my wife and I were sitting there. I thought that just seemed really strange because nobody else was doing it. But the case was going on, and he stood up and yelled some kind of a profanity at the Court; and he grabbed me, pulled me off my chair, and knocked me to the ground.

While Rodney was on the ground, the protester pummeled him with a chair. Luckily, the courtroom deputies were able to stop the attacker before he severely injured Rodney. “The deputies immediately swarmed all over the protester and arrested and took him out, and I had to go fill out all this paperwork. We pressed charges and he was convicted.” Rodney attributes the attack to the fact that the Supreme Court did not allow Rodney’s private security inside. Rodney had been assured that “nothing ever happens in the Supreme Court.”

In the 2000s, Rodney worked with another high-profile doctor performing abortions in a very conservative Western Midwest state. The protesters there were relentless. Rodney stayed in the same chain hotel each time he traveled to the clinic, and the protesters staged anti-abortion demonstrations outside of the hotel. The protesters also wrote to the hotel’s corporate headquarters saying they were going to protest all of that chain’s hotels around the country. Eventually, the tactics worked, as the hotel prohibited Rodney from staying there in the future.

The protesters have also targeted Rodney’s family. The day after Dr. Tiller was murdered, someone called Rodney’s daughter in the middle of the night and said, “Your mother and father were both just killed.” For some reason, Rodney’s and his wife’s phones were not working that night, so their daughter could not contact them immediately. She finally tracked them down through one of the women who worked at their clinic, but for a period of time she panicked because she thought both of her parents had been murdered.

Rodney started working for a clinic in a South Atlantic state about a year before we interviewed him. Once Rodney started working there, the protesters targeted the clinic in ways they had never previously done. In the past, the clinic rarely saw protesters; now, the clinic is under siege. Protesters appear in numbers approaching fifty or sixty, and they show up all the time. They bought an office in the building across from the clinic so that they can continuously monitor Rodney. They come right up to the door and incessantly scream at Rodney when he comes and goes from the clinic. From his long career, Rodney is used to this type of verbal abuse and sometimes reacts in kind. When a priest called him a murderer, Rodney responded by calling the priest a child molester. When protesters told Rodney they were praying for him, he responded, “You mean you’re preying upon us. There’s a difference.”

Rodney also described his extensive experience with law enforcement. For example, within an hour of Dr. Tiller’s murder, US Marshals were at Rodney’s clinic to protect him. Rodney explained that they had a list of a small number of doctors around the country who they believed were “significant risks.” Rodney had a full detail of marshals protecting him for the next three months:

We didn’t get to drive anywhere. It was nice. I suppose you could ask them to do anything and they would have, but it just was easier to stay home and call somebody and have them pick stuff up at the store than to go out and go shopping or go out to dinner or anything. So it was quite restrictive that way, but, again, it was quite reassuring to have somebody that seemed like they cared. That was cool.

For reasons they never disclosed to Rodney, the marshals stopped their detail after three months but restarted for another six weeks later in 2009. They ended their detail by the end of the year, but they still check in with him almost every week to make sure that there are no problems. He feels that the Department of Justice under President Obama is “really very aggressive” with their counterterrorism efforts in this regard. “They’ve told us about problems before we even knew there were any plans.” Rodney appreciates all the work they are doing to make him and others safe.

Rodney’s experiences as a target of this anti-abortion protest have made him significantly alter his life. He does not eat at the same restaurants on a regular basis, and when he does go to a restaurant, “I try to be in and out within 30 minutes so that if somebody sees me and calls, before somebody else can be there, then we’re not there.” He does not use his real name to make reservations. He has an arrangement with airlines so that he can fly on a different flight from the one he reserved without telling them ahead of time. The most important thing, according to Rodney, is to vary your routine so that there is no plan that others can discover.

When he first considered incorporating abortion care into his medical practice, Rodney discussed the risks with his family, but none of them anticipated the extent of the crime and violence that would occur. “When it got to the murders, I think I was surprised by that.” Nonetheless, Rodney takes a very calculated view of the risk he faces. He does what he can to improve his security, but he also accepts that life has risks and that targeted harassment is one of them:

Relatively, I mean, you can’t drive without being aware that something can happen. You know? And I think that my whole family knows that something could happen because of the abortion issue, but something can happen for a number of other reasons too. I think I’m probably almost at as great a risk of a car accident or something while working here as I am from the protesters here. It’s just a risk that I have to take. Maybe ignoring it is my way of coping with it.

Looking back on his career, the only thing Rodney would do differently is that he would have started working in abortion immediately after his residency rather than waiting fifteen years. He articulated a very simple, yet powerful, reason for this and for continuing to work in this field despite everything he and his colleagues have been through: “The patients. It’s clearly the patients.”

Excerpted from "Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism" by David S. Cohen and Krysten Connon. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright 2015 by David S. Cohen and Krysten Connon. Reprinted by permission.

By David S. Cohen

David S. Cohen, associate professor at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, is co-author of a forthcoming book about anti-abortion terrorism, and was co-counsel for plaintiffs in Ballen v. Corbett. Follow him on Twitter at @dsc250.

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By Krysten Connon

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