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Profile traces abortion-rights movement over course of OB-GYN's 46-year career

October 26, 2016 — In a piece for New York Magazine's "The Cut," Caitlin Moscatello traces the history of abortion rights in the United States over the course of the career of Ronald Yeomans, a 75-year-old OB-GYN who provides abortion care in Kansas.

Yeomans "wakes up early on Saturday mornings ..., straps a bulletproof vest to his chest, and makes the short drive to the Planned Parenthood clinic in Overland Park, Kansas, where a crowd of 20 to 30 protesters is already waiting," Moscatello writes. At the clinic, "a security guard meets [Yeomans] and escorts him into the building, past another guard holding a metal detector," Moscatello notes. She continues, "The protesters will stay put for a few more hours, eventually thinning as the afternoon approaches -- but not before terrorizing dozens of women and their companions as they enter the clinic."

Moscatello writes, "One hundred years after the creation of Planned Parenthood, which celebrates its anniversary this month, this is the state of women's health in Kansas." She adds that there are only four abortion clinics in Kansas, "meaning that fewer than 5 percent of the counties have a place for women to go." Moreover, "[s]ome women seeking the procedure are forced to travel long distances, and all are subjected to a state-mandated 24-hour [delay]," Moscatello notes.

Antiabortion-rights violence, harassment

Moscatello writes, "It wasn't always this way," noting, "Earlier in Yeomans's career, there was reason to be optimistic that access to safe, affordable, reproductive health care -- and the doctors who practice it -- would increasingly be protected." According to Moscatello, "In 1969, not long after Yeomans graduated from medical school at the University of Kansas, Kansas became one of ten states that made abortion legal" in certain circumstances.

Further, Moscatello points to the proliferation of abortion providers after the Supreme Court's 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade. Citing data from the Guttmacher Institute, Moscatello writes that "the number of abortion providers in the U.S. jumped from 1,558 to 2,526 in the three years following Roe."

"But then -- a switch flipped," Moscatello writes, adding, "After topping out at almost 3,000 providers in 1982, that number steadily declined, dipping to 2,380 in 1992 and 1,819 in 2000, finally falling to 1,720 in 2011." According to Moscatello, "The Religious Right, which pushed conservative and specifically anti-abortion policies, gained influence in the '70s and snowballed in the '80s."

In addition, "[a]round the same time, [antiabortion-rights] threats and vandalism intensified," Moscatello writes. She explains, "The rhetoric of the Religious Right eventually led to the creation of extremist groups like Operation Rescue," whose founder "was known for repeating the motto, 'If you think abortion is murder, then act like it's murder.'" Moscatello says, "The phrase was a battle cry for members, who attacked clinics and targeted abortion providers."

Moscatello notes that antiabortion-rights activists would picket at Yeomans' house and "sen[d] letters to his neighbors telling them that a murderer lived in the neighborhood." According to Moscatello, one neighbor, a retired minister, "notified police of the harassment, and eventually laws were passed prohibiting picketers at private residences."

Moscatello writes, "The clinics where Yeomans worked were also targeted." Yeomans recalls a "nighttime drive-by shooting, when [abortion-rights opponents] shot out some windows" and an instance when the clinic locks had been superglued. According to data from the National Abortion Federation (NAF), "anti-abortion extremists carried out 110 arson attacks and bombings on abortion clinics" in the 1990s. Moscatello calls the figure "a sizable jump from the 68 attacks that took place in the '80s," adding, "especially considering that there were more providers at that time."

According to Moscatello, "The violence took an even scarier turn ... when, in 1993, David Gunn, M.D., an abortion provider in Pensacola, Florida, was shot three times in the back and killed by an anti-abortion extremist." She notes that "six other physicians and staffers would also be murdered by anti-abortion extremists" during the 1990s.

Moscatello continues, "But it wasn't until after 2009, when Yeomans's friend and Kansas University Medical School classmate George Tiller, M.D., was shot in the head while attending a church service in Wichita, Kansas, that Yeomans himself began wearing a bulletproof vest." Yeomans reflects, "'I think everybody who performs abortions felt violated by [Tiller's murder].'" He adds, "'It didn't change my resolve to do what I do, though.'" According to Moscatello, "Yeomans and his security detail now make the roughly three-hour drive to Wichita at least twice a month to help provide abortions for women in the area; otherwise, it's the patients who would be forced to travel long distances."

Legal attacks on abortion care

Moscatello also highlights Yeomans' frustration with antiabortion-rights legislation. She writes, "Since 2011, [Kansas Gov. Sam] Brownback has signed bills that could make what's supposed to be an accessible, legal procedure feel sketchy, if not criminal." She notes that Kansas bans abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy except in instances of life endangerment, imposes a 24-hour mandatory delay on abortion care, restricts public funding for abortion, limits private insurance coverage, requires minors to obtain parental consent from both parents, mandates that providers complete an ultrasound and show the image to the woman and allows pharmacists to refuse to dispense medication abortion because of personal beliefs.

In addition, Brownback last year, "signed a bill [SB 95] outlawing the safest method of second-trimester abortion." According to Moscatello, "He's been particularly focused on defunding Planned Parenthood."

Difficulties training the next generation of providers

Moscatello also draws attention to what NAF in 2008 called "the 'graying' of U.S. abortion providers." She cites a study that "found that 63 percent of OB/GYNs who perform second-trimester abortions are at least 50 years old." She adds, "It's not for a lack of demand, either," citing a 2011 study that "found that 97 percent of OB/GYNs had encountered a patient seeking an abortion, but only 14 percent actually perform the procedure."

According to Moscatello, "Yeomans has offered to train younger physicians interested in providing abortions," but he has encountered obstacles. Yeomans explained that he was training two individuals about five years ago, but one stopped because he was told by his primary practice that he could not work there if he continued to provide abortion care, while the other ended training following antiabortion-rights harassment. Still, for Yeomans, "there's a more personal reason to be optimistic: His 16-year-old granddaughter, who started her school's first feminist club, wants to be a doctor" (Moscatello, "The Cut," New York Magazine, 10/19).