Caught in a Web site
Alone protester ushered in the 26th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade last Friday at Denton's only abortion clinic. "I'm a sidewalk counselor," said Sue Cyr, who carried a poster of a bloody fetus in front of the gray medical office on Elm Street. Cyr's sign read, "Stop Clinic Violence," a takeoff on the pro-choice slogan, and a vague hint, perhaps, of something else.
Cyr, whose husband, Thomas Cyr, owes a multimillion-dollar judgment for terrorizing a Dallas doctor in the mid-'90s, fingered a rosary and a handful of bloody-fetus pamphlets as she explained that she takes up her protest post "on the two days she's killing babies."
"She" is Dr. Mary Smith, who operates the Denton Health Services for Women and works two or three days a week at the Fairmount Center in Dallas. Smith has been helping women end unwanted pregnancies since the Roe decision and has put up with all kinds of protesters over the years.
Lately, the most visible protests have been picketers--and those bloody fetus pictures--at Smith's clinic, at her church, and along Denton's main highways.
"They really enjoy a confrontation," says Susie Hennen, who has worked at the Denton clinic for 14 years. "So, what we try to do is ignore it as best we can."
But Hennen says the latest manifestation of anti-abortion sentiment has been difficult to ignore.
Although Smith has a relatively small practice, she is highlighted like few others on an increasingly notorious Web site called The Nuremberg Files.
Labeled a "hit list" and a "cheerleader for violence," the site lists hundreds of doctors under the heading "baby butchers." Family members are listed as "miscellaneous spouses and other blood flunkies." The names of some doctors are shaded in gray; they are the ones who have been wounded in clinic violence. Those killed have their names crossed out. The name of Dr. Barnett Sepian, who was killed last October by a sniper in upstate New York, appears now with a line through it.
Smith, who declined an interview, is singled out on the Web site on a short list of "third-trimester butchers." She is dubbed the "blood red rose of Texas." The site includes her photo, her home address, the names and ages of her immediate family, her driver's license, her church, her pastor's name, plus various phone numbers and addresses.
"I think it's appalling," Smith told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram recently. "Am I afraid for my life? Realistically, no. How can you live your life that way? I am more afraid for my life driving to Dallas to work."
(For the record, she said, she doesn't perform third-trimester abortions--procedures that are reserved for rare medical emergencies.)
Hennen says Smith's response about the threat was probably more gallows humor than true sentiment. "It's just gruesome and scary, and it makes you more cautious" Hennen says. "You are uncomfortable because it's there."
The Web site and a wanted poster offering a $500 reward for the deaths of several doctors prompted four physicians and the Portland, Oregon, chapter of Planned Parenthood to sue a dozen militant abortion opponents. Saying the Web site and wanted poster are illegal threats, they are seeking $200 million in damages and an injunction to halt similar conduct.
U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones has already ruled that the poster and Web site contained no explicit threats, but the jury in the now three-week-long trial is being asked to decide whether a reasonable person would have felt threatened by the site.
In recent years, six doctors who perform abortions and abortion-clinic workers have been killed, and clinics around the country have been bombed. The abortion providers say the fear of violence forced them to file suit under the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which makes inciting violence against them or their patients illegal.
Neal Horsley, a computer consultant in Georgia, created the Web site two years ago. Its name refers to the trial of Nazis after World War II in Nuremberg, Germany, and its founder's vision of bringing abortion providers before a similar court.
Doctors who brought the case have testified that the site has instilled them with fear. One testified she began wearing wigs to hide her identity. Another said he began wearing a bulletproof vest and spent thousands of dollars on home-security devices.
Defense attorneys, meanwhile, have argued that the charges against their clients are weak and that The Nuremberg Files is protected by the First Amendment right to free speech.
The Supreme Court standard for limiting free speech is set high, forbidding only threats likely to create "imminent lawless action."
In Denton, Hennen says the arrival three years ago of the well-funded and nationally active anti-abortion group Life Dynamics coincides with stepped-up protests against Smith.
"They use a tactic they call 'firestorm'--postcards, mailings, different types of things designed to make it unattractive to be a doctor who provides abortion services," she says.
Hennen suspects that someone associated with Life Dynamics provided the personal information to the Web site, because much of it has already been used to draw attention to Smith at her home and church.
Life Dynamics' President Mark Crutcher declined comment, saying, "We don't talk to the media. The American media has made its position on abortion abundantly clear. They usually play us for fools."
A year ago, Crutcher's group opened the Susan B. Anthony Women's Center next door to Smith's clinic. Its sign--which one sees first on one-way Elm Street--dwarfs the clinic's. On the side facing Smith's office, it reads: INJURED BY ABORTION? YOU HAVE LEGAL RIGHTS.
Oddly, Life Dynamics' activities have actually boosted the clinic's profile and increased the number of women seeking its services, Hennen says, noting that the Denton clinic is the only abortion provider between Dallas and Oklahoma City. "More women know we're here."
To Hennen, the free-speech argument made by the protesters is a troubling one. "We don't want free speech hindered. But we don't want this to cause some real harm. It's walking a fine line when you start dealing with it."
Sue Cyr, the lone protester, doesn't think the issue is subtle at all. "The Web site only supplies information on abortionists. It's free speech, like a public record," she says. "I don't think they should be allowed to kill and then go on living comfortable lives. It's sort of like child molesters. If someone put a Web site identifying child molesters, they're a hero. I think it's important to keep a list of who's doing the killing.
"The problem they had at Nuremberg was they didn't have the records.
"Here," she says, pulling out one of her bloody-fetus pamphlets. "Look at this picture...
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.