Dueling maps of abortion protesters, providers push battle into personal territory

Petula Dvorak
Columnist March 20

Is it fair to post an online database of names, photos, home addresses and telephone numbers of abortion protesters?

A Maryland-based group, Voice of Choice, did just that: It created an online map of more than 150 protesters across the nation who target doctors and health centers that provide legal abortions, complete with all the personal information it could find on each one.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

The map is nearly identical to one that opponents of abortion rights have at AbortionDocs.org, which pinpoints doctors and clinics.

Is either map okay?

Todd Stave is the founder of Voice of Choice and the landlord of a women’s health clinic in Germantown, Md., that provides late-term abortions. He’s been in this debate his whole life: The clinic, which was firebombed once years ago, belonged to his father.

After his dad died, he and his sister kept the clinic open, leasing it to doctors who perform abortions. The current doctor, LeRoy Carhart, is a huge target for abortion protesters because he is one of the few doctors in the country who openly performs late-term abortions.

Stave said he’s totally fine with the protesters who are outside the clinic constantly, exercising their First Amendment rights in a respectful way.

What prompted him to create the map are abortion bullies, he said. They call his home at all hours, day and night. They drop fliers in his neighbors’ mailboxes showing him in a Nazi uniform, surrounded by gory bodies.

When the bullies showed up at his children’s back-to-school night a couple of years ago — waving signs with his face and phone number, carrying those ever-present placards picturing mangled fetuses — he had had enough.

Stave started capturing the phone numbers that showed up on his caller ID and got a bunch of friends to start calling the people at their homes. The effort ballooned — he had thousands of supporters making calls to the bullies.

The outpouring led to the creation of Voice of Choice. It is directed by Wendy Robinson, whose sister is a doctor who used to work with George Tiller, a physician murdered by antiabortion activists in 2009 in Kansas.

The group recently took its activism a step further: creating the map of abortion protesters that looks just like the one on AbortionDocs.org.

And this is when Voice of Choice took it too far, said Steven Tiedemann, a Westminster, Md., lawyer who filed — and then voluntarily withdrew — a $30 million class-action lawsuit on behalf of abortion protesters.

Tiedemann is sympathetic to Stave being upset by some of the hard-core protesters who went to his kids’ school and harassed him at home. But not all of the 132 people who joined the class-action suit, asking for $100,000 each in damages, fit that description, he said.

He believes that Voice of Choice is trying to quash the protesters’ First Amendment rights with its map. “And you can’t engage in conduct to protest against free speech,” he said.

Tiedemann withdrew the class-action lawsuit last week for strategic reasons, he said. Not everyone agreed on the direction of the suit, and he also thought it would be better for each of the protesters to pursue legal action in their own states.

Stave said he is doing nothing different than what those abortion protesters did.

The antiabortion folks have an online map with photos of doctors, Google maps pinpointing their locations, and copies of their licenses and other documents that also provide home addresses and telephone numbers for the doctors and sometimes for their family members.

On the map on Voice of Choice, you can search for protesters by state, region or name. Just click on “Bullies” to find them.

Stave said Voice of Choice is careful in selecting which protesters to “out.” It looks for those who harass, intimidate and yell at patients, clinic workers and doctors. Most are pretty easy to verify, he said, because they often boast about radical protest actions on social media.

“It’s hypocritical,” Stave said. “We aren’t doing anything different from what they’re doing. They just don’t like our message.”

The truth is, none of this should be handled this way. The First Amendment is one of the foundations of our country. But as the now-late Fred Phelps Sr. demonstrated with his odious protests against people and others, it can be exercised in hideous ways.

If people want abortion laws to change, they need to target those who can change them — lawmakers and judges. Or they need to put their time and energy into making America less hostile to families, a place more welcoming to the unborn children they are trying to save.

Just leave women, doctors, nurses and their families alone.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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