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Reproductive Health Care Providers Deserve Our Protection

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Dr. George R. Tiller of Wichita, Kan., a reproductive health care provider murdered in May, was more than a doctor. He was a husband, a father, a parishioner, a neighbor and, at times, a defendant in legal action brought against him because of his work. What he's likely to be best remembered for, however, is his role as a defender of human rights. Reproductive rights are based on a number of fundamental human rights, including the rights to health, life, equality, information, education and privacy, as well as freedom from discrimination. Reproductive rights are human rights, and those who provide reproductive health care are human rights defenders who need and deserve our protection.

While Dr. Tiller's work and his unflappable defense of a woman's right to choose abortion was extremely high profile, many physicians and abortion center staff face serious harassment and intimidation by abortion opponents for performing this safe, legal medical procedure.

Reproductive health centers around the nation have been subjected to harassment for decades. This activity places a heavy burden on reproductive health care centers. According to a recently released study by the Center for Reproductive Rights, health care centers they surveyed around the nation spend thousands of dollars annually on security and alarm systems, staff security training, and, in some cases, security guards. This takes time and resources away from patient care.

These human rights defenders also are subject to infringements on their personal, professional and financial security. Reproductive health care providers have been victims of murder, attempted murder, assault and battery, and stalking, often without adequate government protection. A Western New York resident who performed abortions, Dr. Barnett Slepian, was murdered in 1998 in his own home by a sniper who shot him while his wife and sons were in close proximity.

Let's not forget the impact this has on the most important person in this debate--the patient. Some reschedule appointments in hopes of avoiding protesters, which sometimes leads to delaying an abortion procedure.

A resulting effect of this harassment is the reduction in availability of medical personnel and comprehensive reproductive health care services, again infringing upon a woman's human rights to secure an abortion. State and local governments, the U.S. government and law enforcement have to do more to protect providers and women seeking access to reproductive health services and this safe, legal medical procedure.

In June, I sponsored the Protections for Reproductive Health Care Act and New York Gov. David Paterson has just signed it into law. This Act establishes stronger penalties for those who cause injury to reproductive health care providers, staff and volunteers in the course of violating New York's clinic access law. New York State is the first in the nation to create enhanced penalties for such acts.

This is a step in the right direction in protecting these human rights defenders, but there's much more that can and should be done nationwide. Law enforcement nationwide must be trained and have supervisory support to enforce ordinances and laws protecting reproductive health care providers. This is another area where New York State has taken the lead. The NYS Department of Criminal Justice Services recently devoted additional resources to training and improving cooperation between law enforcement agencies and reproductive health care center staff in responding to threats of violence. Further, state and local governments should pass such protections as buffer zones, and noise and signage restrictions.

While there may be disagreement on the issue of comprehensive reproductive health care, harassment and violence against these human rights defenders who provide such care will never be a solution to our differences, and it should not be tolerated.

By New York State Assemblyman Sam Hoyt (D-Buffalo, Grand Island).