Abortion in the Crosshairs at Allentown

Note: this is the second in a series about the climate at abortion clinics in the aftermath of the murder of Dr. George Tiller

“How do you prefer to die, by knife or by bullet?” This was a question posed to a clinic escort by a protestor at the Center on the day of Tiller’s funeral. Around the same time, a Jewish volunteer was taunted about the recent killing of a security guard at the Holocaust Museum. One regular protestor in his early 20s, who has picketed the clinic since childhood, was heard ranting about ammonium nitrate (a material used in bomb-making).

The Allentown (Penn.) Woman’s Center is one of the most beleaguered of all abortion providing facilities in the country. The tensions at the Center, which provides abortions and other reproductive health services, have increased since Dr. George Tiller’s murder last spring, as they have at other abortion facilities.

Dealing with antiabortion extremism is hardly a new experience for the staff. John Dunkle, the protestor who asked how an escort preferred to die, is notorious for the inflammatory material that he posted in his newsletter, Abortion is Murder, urging violence against abortion providers. He regularly pickets the Center, as well as the homes of the facility’s medical director and executive director, Jen Boulanger.

While tensions at the facility are increasing, the Center has been experiencing decreased support from the city of Allentown. As reported in the first article in this series, the city has been subjected to very aggressive litigation by antiabortion lawyers, paying $130,000 to protestors over a longstanding dispute about the city’s failure to issue permits for demonstrations. The settlement had the predictable effect of souring relations with elected officials.

“They blamed us for the problem and wanted us to pay the $130,000,” says Boulanger. Now, the local police department appears stymied because of the city’s fear of litigation. Any complaints the Center makes to the police about protestor behavior are required to go to the city solicitor, who decides whether to press charges, but he is yet to file any.

Concerned about the rising level of protestor aggressiveness, Boulanger took the fairly unusual step, for an abortion provider, of going public. She appeared on the Rachel Maddow show and also wrote a provocatively titled op-ed for The Huffington Post, “Come together to prevent my murder.

Colleagues and friends had feared Boulanger’s public exposure would create additional security concerns for her, but she felt she had no choice. “In my 15 years as the executive director of the Allentown’s Women Center,” she wrote in her web post, “I have never felt so vulnerable.”

She received messages of support from all over the country, but most importantly from within her own community. Several people wrote letters to the local paper, decrying the behavior of the protestors, particularly the display of large graphic pictures and their possible impact on children. And a local Lutheran pastor, Manfred Bahmann, dismayed about the slaying of fellow Lutheran George Tiller in church, organized an informal interfaith alliance of about 30 clergy. Its purpose, says Boulanger, is “to increase peace and reduce hate.”

One thing is clear. Boulanger won’t quit. “The women who come here, you can’t imagine the situations they are in…they are trying so hard to do the best for their families…That’s why I keep doing this.”

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