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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Even under a ‘settled’ Roe, doctors risked their lives to provide access to abortion

A draft Supreme Court opinion that would throw out the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights ruling that has stood for a half century was leaked and published by the news outlet Politico late Monday.
A draft Supreme Court opinion that would throw out the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights ruling that has stood for a half century was leaked and published by the news outlet Politico late Monday.

In the 1990s, I lived in beautiful Bozeman, where a woman’s access to an abortion – a supposedly settled constitutional right – was nevertheless precarious.

As was the personal safety of the doctor who performed them.

Dr. Susan Wicklund became a heroic figure in the fight to preserve the rights of women to make their own choices about their own bodies, in the face of extraordinary threats to her life.

In the early 1990s, Wicklund moved to Bozeman from Minnesota, where she had suffered continual harassment and threats. Her commitment had included working as a “circuit rider,” traveling to states like North Dakota that did not have any abortion doctors.

Wicklund had come under the intense and threatening scrutiny of the so-called Lambs of Christ. These lambs surrounded her home in Minnesota for weeks at a time, shouting “Susan kills babies!” In 1991, these groups reached as many as 50 people.

They blockaded her driveway and broke into her home. They followed her to the airport, where they shouted at her fellow passengers that they were traveling with a baby killer, and slashed her tires. She once returned from a flight to find her car painted with: “Killer!” and “No More Dead Babies!”

They went after her daughter at school, passing around pamphlets that read, “Sonia’s mom kills babies.” One lamb was caught in the school library, trolling through yearbooks – apparently looking for pictures of Wicklund’s daughter.

Wicklund found herself forced to take extraordinary measures to protect herself, sneaking away from her home and through the woods to reach a friend’s home; following circuitous routes to her clinic or the airport; carrying a gun, wearing a bulletproof vest, employing a security guard and guard dog. She did this in Minnesota and later in Bozeman, where she moved in 1993.

“I am always on guard,” she told the Washington Post. “If a car passes my house twice in an hour, I can tell you the make, model, license plate number and how many people are in it.”

These insane, violent “pro-lifers” – these lambs – were literally threatening her life and the life of her child every day. They did this in the name of Jesus Christ. One of them would shoot another abortion doctor in Kansas, George Tiller – who was later killed by a different violent pro-lifer in a separate shooting. Still another protester would be sentenced to federal prison for setting fire to Wicklund’s clinic in Bozeman.

I was reminded of this recently for obvious reasons. Whatever happens with Roe, a disastrous rollback of civil rights for women seems imminent. And while Lambs of Christ-style zealots do not make up most of the significant minority of Americans who oppose Roe, the reality is that opposing abortion has been the nucleus for a whole suite of cultural issues aimed at eroding civil rights across the board.

If you doubt that, consider two nuggets from the response to the Roe leak. One came from Ben Shapiro, the smarmy conservative commentator, who spoke in favor of striking down the Obergefell decision, which legalized equal marriage rights.

Another came from white nationalist Peter Brimelow, who tweeted: “Next stop: Brown v. Board! (and Sullivan).”

In other words, some of the people celebrating the seeming end of Roe have a few other elements of modern society they’d like to undo as well, such as the desegregation of schools and freedom of the press.

Brimelow, you may recall, is the head of VDare, and has left a trail of repugnant bigotry in his wake. But he is not some outlier, way beyond the mainstream.

A few years ago, it emerged that Spokane’s Innovia Foundation had been funneling a local donor’s anonymous contributions to VDare; it stopped when the practice became embarrassingly public, though a former leader of the foundation had already been pressing the organization unsuccessfully to put a stop to the practice.

These days, the racist notions that fuel VDare, and that fueled the marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, are available nightly on the Tucker Carlson show. Which is to say that Brimelow, and his desire to resegregate America, may represent the fringe, but the fringe isn’t as fringey as it was.

The head of the Lambs of Christ, Norman Weslin, helped inspire a network of violent action against abortion, evolving into Operation Rescue and other extreme movements that included believers in the “justifiable homicide theory” for abortion providers. He was often celebrated by more mainstream pro-lifers as being nonviolent.

Those who study American extremism have noted intersections between that network and white supremacists and anti-government patriot and militia groups – where the belief that “sodomites” should be murdered and Jewish globalists control the world may ride side by side with anti-abortion views.

The fight against abortion has always had these ugly contours, and the settled state of Roe has often been highly unsettled.

What comes next will not mean the end of abortion, nor will it be the end of these unsettled states. Access to abortion for the least powerful women in our society – the poorest, the youngest, the most trapped in their circumstances – seems likely to worsen, but it does not minimize the severity of that change to note that such access has been a problem even under Roe.

People like Susan Wicklund did what they could to remedy that, and they will again.

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