Will Jeff Sessions protect abortion providers?

On a Friday night in October 1998, as he stood in his kitchen, Dr. Barnett Slepian, the physician who provided abortions at a clinic in Buffalo, was shot by an anti-abortion zealot.

The following Wednesday, the director of that clinic traveled to Washington to meet with the late Janet Reno, then the Attorney General in Bill Clinton’s administration. “Tell me what you need to keep your clinic open,” Reno said to her visitor.

{mosads}What the director needed most was protection for those doctors who were willing to fill in at the clinic until a permanent replacement for Slepian could be found. Reno immediately complied by dispatching teams of marshals who offered round the clock protection, both for those who worked at the Buffalo clinic and for abortion providers elsewhere in the region who were considered at risk for more anti-abortion terrorism.

Reno’s commitment to assuring the safety of abortion providers did not stop there. Shortly after the Slepian murder, the she established the National Task Force on Violence Against Health Care Providers, an interagency unit staffed by attorneys and investigators from the Department of Justice, as well as representatives from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the U.S. Postal Inspection service, and the U.S. Marshals Service.

For the remainder of her tenure as Attorney General, Reno continued to be vigilant about the safety of abortion providers, including sending marshals to protect providers in different parts of the country where there was a credible threat of extreme violence.

The Task Force that Janet Reno established in 1998 exists to this day. Besides occasionally deploying federal marshals to protect clinic staff, it also has played an important role in bringing charges against those who violate the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), legislation passed in 1993 which makes it a federal crime to impede access to abortion facilities.

Obviously, the Task Force has not been able to prevent all acts of violence, as the tragic murder of Dr. George Tiller in 2009 makes evident. But undeniably lives have been saved because of the Justice Department’s ability to act when deemed necessary.

But action by this Task Force that is deemed necessary is ultimately a judgment call, and whoever is Attorney General has a lot of discretion in this matter. And the abortion providing community now is deeply worried about the steps that Jeff  Sessions, President-elect Trump’s nominee to be Attorney General, will — or, more precisely, will not — take act to protect providers.

Sessions’ record of staunch opposition to abortion is very alarming in this regard. In particular, the pro-abortion rights group NARAL reports, he has voted several times against protections for abortion clinic staff, including measures that would hold anti-abortion activists financially accountable for acts of violence or harassment, and, most recently, against the establishment of a fund for clinic security.

Reflecting with me on Sessions’ record as a senator, Vicki Saporta, the president of the National Abortion Federation put it bluntly, “We have serious concerns about the safety of abortion providers under a Sessions-led Justice Department.” In contrast, Troy Newman, head of the extremist group Operation Rescue — who has written that abortion providers should be treated as murderers — declared that he “could not be happier”  about Sessions’ nomination.

Obviously, public servants, like Americans generally, are divided about the abortion issue. But whatever his or her personal views, we should expect that the leader of the Department of Justice is committed to preventing violence against healthcare professionals and is ready to use all available tools to do so.

At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and their fellow Committee members must ascertain if this is true of Sessions.

Carole Joffe is the author of Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients, and the Rest of Us, and a professor in the Bixby Center for global Reproductive Health, at the University of California, San Francisco.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags anti-abortion Bill Clinton Chuck Grassley Healthcare Jeff Sessions Patrick Leahy pro-abortion Women's health

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