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Turning the Telephones on the Anti-Choice Bullies

Today's post is from Carole Joffe, author of Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients, and the Rest of Us. Joffe is a professor in the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco. This post originally appeared at RHRealityCheck.

Joffe“Such hypocrites! They don’t like getting unwanted calls at home!”  

In an irony that he clearly relishes, Todd Stave, a Maryland entrepreneur, is telling me about the abortion opponents who contacted him and asked that he suspend the phone campaign he initiated against them.

Stave is currently the subject of a certain amount of buzz in the abortion rights community, after his appearance on The Rachel Maddow Show. He came to Maddow’s attention  because of his innovative, some would say ingeniously simple, way of responding to harassment from anti-abortionists. Stave is the owner of the property in College Park, Maryland on which sits the clinic building rented by Dr. Leroy Carhart, a longtime Nebraska abortion provider and former associate of the late George Tiller. After Tiller’s assassination, Carhart became a leading target of antiabortion forces, especially so when he began recently began performing later abortions in Maryland. (His move was a result of Nebraska legislation, targeted specifically at him, that banned abortions after 20 weeks). Besides vociferous protests at the site of the clinic itself, abortion opponents showed up on Parents’ Night  at the middle school of Stave’s daughter. Brandishing signs with the usual mangled fetuses, as well as Stave’s name, photo and phone number, the protestors urged people to call him and ask that he “stop the child killing.”

Stave was no stranger to anti- abortion activity. His father, the late Carl Stave, was himself an abortion provider in the same community in the period immediately following Roe and was the recipient of protests as well, including a firebombing of his clinic. His son took these earlier protests quietly. But showing up at his daughter’s school was too much for him. He noted the phone numbers of those who called him and organized a group of 20 friends to call the antis back. In a polite but firm way, Stave and his circle of volunteers told the abortion opponents that Stave would not back down from the agreement with Carhart.  Moreover, Stave asked his phone support team to notify their friends and associates about this activity and to contact him if they wished to be involved.

As Stave told me, to his astonishment within several weeks some 3000 people contacted him--“from all the U.S., from Europe, from Japan, I couldn’t believe it”-- asking to help with his campaign of call backs. Those who called or e-mailed him told how outraged they were by anti-abortion tactics and how happy they were to take action. Even more volunteers contacted him after his appearance on the Maddow show.

In his most recent campaign, Stave on very short notice mobilized his network to call the leader of a Maryland anti-abortion group that was planning to protest a “Run for the Cure,” in Baltimore, sponsored by the breast cancer group, the Susan G. Komen Foundation. (The Foundation has recently been targeted by abortion opponents because of donations it gives to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings). Stave, who had subscribed himself to an anti-abortion listserv under an assumed name, read of the planned action, and saw to his delight that the leader had posted several phone numbers. Plausibly, he gives his volunteers credit for the reports that the “the planned protest fizzled to nothing.”

Stave has no illusion that campaigns of this nature will end all harassment from the opposition. “About 80 percent of people will stop the harassment after being contacted, 20%, the hard-core, won’t,” he speculates.  But there is no question that his campaign has struck a nerve--both among some abortion opponents who have experienced the unpleasantness of receiving unwanted phone calls, and  also among the large  mass of people who are  “pro-choice,” but one step removed from the abortion conflict—“civilians in the abortion wars” is how I have elsewhere referred to them. The response Stave has received thus far suggests the hunger among this group to find acceptable and feasible ways to counter the excesses of the anti-abortion movement. Stave has established an organization, Voice of Choice, which is currently operating with a small, mainly volunteer staff, and which continues to sign up volunteers willing to make phone calls on behalf of those who are harassed. As the organization’s website states, “Now it’s our turn.”