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new hope in stopping anti-choice harassment

October 13, 2011

Ever since Dr. LeRoy Carhart opened an abortion clinic in Germantown, Md., last year, extremists have been targeting it with their usual tactics.

Dr. Carhart, whose mentor Dr. George Tiller was the victim of a 2009 anti-abortion murder, doesn’t say much to reporters about the specifics of his safety and security. But when traveling to Maryland, he tries not to stay at the same hotel twice and takes a different route to the clinic everyday. Dr. Carhart didn’t stop performing abortions in Nebraska even when anti-choice activists burned down his farm house, and he hasn’t bowed to pressure from extremists in Maryland, either.

Seeking what they may have imagined would be an easier target, Defend Life and Maryland Coalition for Life soon began harassing the clinic’s landlord, Todd Staves. When hundreds of phone calls and emails did not convince him to close the clinic–which he does not have the legal power to do even if he wanted to–Defend Life protesters began picketing his daughter’s middle school. That’s right; a middle school. As per usual, they carried signs showed aborted fetuses along with the full name and phone number of the landlord. Staves told the Washington Post:

It’s horribly outrageous that they’re going out in front of a middle school. It is way crossing the line. I very much respect the right of the protesters to do so in front of the clinic, or the steps of Capitol Hill, or the courthouse. But in front of a middle school is really not an appropriate place to do anything except protest for better teacher wages or the school budget.

Some of his friends asked what they could do to help. Staves decided to give them the names, phone numbers and emails of everyone who had contacted him. Those friends called a few of their friends and together they got back to each and every one of the harassers, thanked them for their thoughts, and told them that Staves would not be closing the clinic.

In a matter of days, thousands more people offered their help to stop the intimidation of Staves and his family. The campaign was so successful that the anti-choice bullies began calling, Staves promising they wouldn’t do it any more and begging to be taken off the list. Apparently they couldn’t take quite as good as they could give.

As Staves told Rachel Maddow in a recent interview, “They picked on the wrong guy this time.”

Staves and his friends have since founded a pro-choice organization with the mission of using these successful tactics to help other victims of harassment:

Voice of Choice” was established as a calm, measured response to anti-abortion activists who engage in misguided, raging protest tactics that are often ill-informed and only serve to victimize women, pro-choice professionals, law-abiding businesses and unaligned bystanders. We use email, telephone and social media in peaceful, person-to-person counter-protests, against groups that target abortion facilities, providers and patients, as well as their families and communities. We don’t question anyone’s right to express opinions and ideals; we challenge their bullying tactics and their contempt.

Voice of Choice has the opportunity to make a real difference in the fight to keep abortion legal, accessible, and affordable. By having personally responding to harassers in a civil manner, the group takes a big step towards overcoming the dehumanizing rhetoric that gives anti-choice activists the moral “permission” to bully and intimidate in the first place. And by turning the tables on bullies and making them the target of email and phone campaigns, they are  putting the harassers in the shoes of the people who usually get harassed–clinic owners, abortion doctors and their employees and patients.

Both of these tactics can go a long way towards creating empathy. Persuading extremists not to bully may just be a first step in persuading them that abortion workers and the women they serve are not “baby-hating murderers” but real people with real lives and real rights.

Volunteer to call or email for Voice of Choice here.

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