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Copyright © 1998 The Seattle Times Company

Posted at 02:13 a.m. PST; Friday, October 30, 1998

Tension rises for abortion doctors

by Lynne K. Varner
Seattle Times staff reporter

The evening after a New York abortion doctor was killed by a sniper, Dr. Deborah Oyer sat down with her young daughter and asked her this:

"What would you do if Mommy suddenly fell down and hit her head?"

Oyer, a Seattle physician who performs abortions, wanted to make sure her daughter knew how to react in an emergency.

The bullet that killed Dr. Barnett A. Slepian a week ago has had a ricochet effect, further damaging a tenuous sense of security among abortion providers throughout the country.

"It's horrifying that I have to put my children through this," Oyer said. "No child should have to live in fear of their parents being killed."

But the extreme tactics employed in the abortion wars have grown more personal. While mainstream abortion foes still carry their protests to legislative halls and clinic sidewalks, some radical factions target individual physicians and their families. Wanted posters and Internet sites list doctors' names, home addresses and driving routes.

Slepian was shot in his home, in front of his wife and son. He was one of several doctors named, below a dripping red line of "blood," on an Internet Web site called the Christian Gallery's "Nuremburg Files;" after the shooting, a line was drawn through Slepian's name.

"Not a day goes by that you don't think about the possibility (of violence,)" Oyer said.

As anti-abortion tactics have shifted, so have physicians' safety precautions, says Marcy Bloom, executive director of Aradia Women's Health Center. Some doctors wear bulletproof vests; others carry firearms.

When Oyer attends social gatherings or meets new people, she deflects questions about her job, telling people only that she is a family practitioner. She takes care not to be specific about her daily habits and leisure activities: Letting slip whether she bikes or plays tennis might reveal too much about her daily routine.

Some doctors won't comment, even anonymously. "Look, you're putting me and my family in danger," said one of the doctors named on the anti-abortion Web site. "I beg of you, don't use any of this information, please."

This week, the National Abortion And Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) issued a new alert to clinics nationwide, urging doctors to wear bulletproof vests, change their driving routes and avoid leaving or entering their homes after dark.

Mainstream abortion foes disavow any link to last week's slaying and caution that radical actions, such as shootings and clinic bombings, aren't condoned.

"Every responsible pro-life organization across the country, including Human Life, deplores the violence," says Mary Jo Kahler, co-president of Human Life of Washington. "We don't want to focus the attention on the aberrant act of one individual."

Since 1993, seven U.S. abortion clinic workers, including three doctors, have been killed, according to the National Abortion Federation, an abortion-rights group. In Canada, three doctors - one in Vancouver, B.C. - have been injured in their homes by sniper fire.

A series of arsons in 1983 closed an Everett family-planning clinic that provided abortions.

When Dr. Suzanne Poppema opened the Aurora Medical Services in Seattle 13 years ago, the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue was organizing clinic blockades across the country. She had just sold her family medical practice to specialize in family planning, including providing abortions. She said she didn't worry much about personal safety until a Florida abortion doctor was killed in 1993.

Now she has professional security checks of her house and the route she drives to work.

"My kids get upset when I'm late and don't call," Poppema said. "And my son says, `Don't worry, Mom, I'll take the bullet for you.' "

Poppema says some of her colleagues have opted out of their abortion practices; in one case, she said, anti-abortion protesters were following a fellow physician's child on the school-bus route.

"I would not have contempt for someone who said, `I'm sorry, I can't do this anymore,' " she said.

In 1973, the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that women had a constitutional right to abortion, there were 71 abortion providers in Washington, including doctors, clinics and hospitals, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a national reproductive-health research organization.

Those numbers topped 100 in the late 1970s. In 1992, the most current year for which state numbers are available, that number had dropped to 65.

Last year, there were about 27,000 abortions performed in Washington state - a number that has remained fairly constant for 20 years. Researchers say that physicians who perform abortions now do more of them and travel over a wide region to work at hospitals and clinics; in 1992, 84 percent of all counties in the U.S. lacked an abortion provider, the institute found.

Physicians who retire or stop doing abortions aren't being replaced in comparable numbers, said Stanley Henshaw, deputy director of research at the Guttmacher Institute.

Few medical schools teach abortion. At those that do, abortion is one of the few obstetrics and gynecological subjects that a medical resident can choose not to learn.

The University of Washington School of Medicine offers an upper-level elective, "Voluntary Pregnancy Termination: An Overview of Medical and Social Issues." Two students are enrolled in the class, but they do not perform abortions as part of the course. If they want direct experience, they must make individual arrangements with a provider or clinic such as Planned Parenthood.

UW spokesman L.G. Blanchard said the curriculum is appropriate.

"As medical students, they would learn how to tell if a woman is pregnant, but not how to perform an abortion," he said. "Just as they would learn as a student how to read an X-ray of a broken leg, but not how to set the bone."

But Medical Students for Choice, a national abortion-rights organization, argues that medical schools should teach abortion procedures as standard practice.

"It's not just about doing abortions, it's about our ability as doctors to be sensitive and compassionate providers to our patients," said Sascha Dublin, a UW medical-school student. "Whether or not doctors want to do abortions, they need to know the mechanics of it."

Abortion-rights advocates worry that each new spate of violence, such as last week's sniper attack, will further erode the ranks of physicians willing to perform abortions - and will limit access to legal abortions in the future.

"It's fear, no question," said Dr. Sheldon Biback, professor emeritus at the UW School of Medicine.


Copyright © 1998 The Seattle Times Company