We Spoke To Children of Abortion Providers About Growing Up In A Climate Of Fear


For 43 years, abortion has been legal in the United States. And for 43 years, a woman's right to have an abortion has been under attack in the United States.

On Jan. 22, 1973, the Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade firmly established the constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, theoretically ending an era during which women's battle to control their own reproductive health was, often, a matter of life or death. Decades later, abortion remains legal, but the fight for reproductive rights is far from over.

Since Roe, states have enacted more than 1,000 abortion restrictions, over a quarter of which were passed in the last five years alone. And since the 1980s, the anti-abortion movement has grown more and more extreme, orchestrating acts of violence, harassment and terrorism. First, the attacks were on women's health clinics. Then they were on providers. Then came shootings and murders in and around clinics, but also at physicians' homes and churches.

As the November shooting at a Colorado Springs, Colorado, Planned Parenthood made clear, anti-abortion attacks have also been directed at anyone who sets foot near a women's health clinic for any reason. The threats might be directed at people who access or provide reproductive health care services, but they affect countless others as well — like, for instance, those people's colleagues, friends and families. 

The relatives of abortion providers know this well. Their children, especially, are familiar with how it feels to live in the shadow of persistent threats to a loved one's safety, or maybe even their own. Mic spoke with the children of three abortion providers about what it's like when anti-abortion rhetoric is a fact of everyday life, and how they've been affected by the harassment their parents faced — or, in some cases, continue to face. Here's what they had to say.

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Mary Matthews, 50

Matthews' father, Dr. Norman Matthews, spent much of his career as medical director of Planned Parenthood in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he began providing abortions shortly after Roe v. Wade. He continued his work until a few years before his death, in 2012.

"I didn't ever really feel harassed in high school until my senior year, when the protests really started to pick up and Operation Rescue and those groups started to get much more active in Cincinnati. My father definitely was a target. There were several years that we had protestors outside our house. On average, it would be one or two people walking up and down the street with placards saying, 'A baby killer lives in this house,' to 20 or 30 people actively protesting outside the house. Police would sit across street, so they were observing but wouldn't get involved. The reason was that my father refused to press charges.

One day, the protestors outside our house were really riled up. It was one of those awful, very, very hot summer days, and they were marching up and down, chanting with their signs. ... My father pulls in — the protesters are banging on his car — and he walks into the kitchen and says, 'Do we have any lemonade?' He makes up a big pitcher of lemonade, with ice and cups on a big tray, and goes outside into this group of protestors, who are yelling and screaming and waving placards. He says to them, 'I know y'all feel real strongly and that's just fine, but I'm concerned that you might be getting overheated and dehydrated, so I brought you some lemonade, just so nobody gets into any trouble with their health.' 

"We had pipe bombs that we found in the yard, and we'd have to call the bomb squad."

I wasn't really angry, but looking back on it, I realize how terrifying so much of it really was. We had a big plate glass window in the living room that looked out over the street where the protestors were, and my stepmother used to worry all the time that somebody could just shoot my father as he stood in our living room. Honestly, it really got to the point where we felt like my father was being a bit of a martyr. Not that we were mad at him, but... I mean, we had pipe bombs that we found in the yard, and we'd have to call the bomb squad. 

At the time, I thought that was sort of normal. Now I realize it was straight-up terrorism. Every time my dad would go off to work, it was like, this may be the last time I ever see him alive. His dedication to his work was so pure that it was hard not to support him. I think it became something for all of us, that we all knew that this was something that we just had to deal with and get through."

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Sam*, 27

Sam's mother, an OBGYN, began providing abortions in Buffalo, New York, in 1998, just a few months before Dr. Barnett Slepian, another local provider, was shot and killed at home. About five months later, when Sam was 10, his family was placed under the protection of federal marshals, after his mother's clinic colleague was murdered. His parents now own a women's health clinic.

"I don't remember being scared. My parents didn't communicate that it was as frightening or as dangerous a situation as I now realize that it was. I remember the night we were escorted from our house by the police, the night my mother's colleague was murdered... neither of my parents seemed afraid. My mom briefly explained what we were doing at someone else's house, but not that her life was at risk. I didn't understand how serious it was until many years later. I wasn't afraid until I was about 18. 

My mom has a bullet-proof vest and wears it to work. I tell people about it, but it doesn't elicit laughter like I expect it will. They're shocked, but I almost think it's funny because it's so absurd. When I was about 22 or 23, I worked at a doctor's office, and I was hanging out at my parents' house, wearing scrubs and chatting in the living room. My mom said, 'You should change now, because I don't want anyone outside mistaking you for me,' suggesting someone outside could shoot me through the window. These are things we laugh about, that have become so normal. 

"My mom has a bullet-proof vest and wears it to work."

I've thought about being a provider. My mom has a clinic, she needs someone to take it over, and I'm in med school. I consider it occasionally, but it is absolutely the last thing in the world my mom wants for me. She has been lucky. She gets threats every once in a while, but no one's been injured or killed. People get their houses torched. Their family members die. My mom doesn't want that for her children. 

It is really risky. But my mom loves what she does for a living. She loves it. That kind of excitement about work is something that is very appealing to me. But I think my parents would be disappointed if I chose to follow my mother into her line of work. From the moment she started doing it, her work was characterized by violence. It's hard for me to remember what it was like before that." 

Eyal Press, 45

Press's father, Dr. Shalom Press, is a retired physician who also worked as an abortion provider in Buffalo, New York, at the time Dr. Slepian was murdered. As a young adult, Eyal Press became involved in pro-choice activism, and went on to write 'Absolute Convictions', a book about his experience as the son of an abortion provider. 

"Around the time I was in high school, the office my father had started to get massive protests. There were also protests in front of our home. I didn't understand anything about the politics of abortion [at the time]. All I knew was that this felt creepy and intrusive and frightening ... It added a kind of low-grade level of concern. And then I would also say, it added a weariness and shame. I wasn't ashamed of my father at all, but I was ashamed of the controversy. Like any kid, you want to fit in and feel normal, and here are these protestors trying to draw attention and controversy and alert the neighbors. It became something I just never talked about. 

It was really when I was in college, when I got out of the vortex of [the harassment], the protests had gotten bigger and bigger and became a national issue, and I got more outspoken. Right around the mid-'90s, it became a question of how far do you go to protect this right and how far do you want someone you know to go to protect it? It came to seem like a matter of basic, basic security. There were all these shootings that started happening, and sniper attacks. It was the shooting of Slepian that drove it home [for me]. I knew of other shootings and thought about the risks my father took, but when it happens in your hometown, it's totally different, and hits you on an emotional level. It hit me very hard that he had children, and those children lost their father. 

I think, absolutely, people should think about the families of every single person who works at a Planned Parenthood, and think about the reality that they are facing. Worrying about the safety of the people who work there is now a part of their lives. That's not that unique in this country. Risk is part of life. But within the world of medical care and the provision of health services, this is utterly unique. 

There is this kind of [changing] of the guard within the field of reproductive health care. You have an older generation of providers who are at, nearing or beyond retirement, and my father is part of that. They're being replaced by younger physicians and providers, one hopes. In some sense, when I think about people who are teenagers now, who have parents or siblings working in clinics and Planned Parenthood, I feel a sad bond with them — that they're the next generation of people who will have experiences like I've had." 

*First names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.