Anthrax? Yawn

Local abortion providers have been dealing with the threat for years

The strange new world Americans have lived in since Sept. 11 is neither strange nor new to Karen Pinterpe. Anthrax procedures? Been there. Faceless homicidal thugs hiding behind religion? Done that.

Pinterpe is director of patient services for Planned Parenthood of Orange County, which operates eight clinics in Orange and San Bernardino counties. And like any other family-planning worker, preparing for terrorist attacks has been as much a part of her job description as making sure someone turns out the lights at the end of the day.

"I'd say that my life as an American citizen changed on Sept. 11," she said. "But not my life at work. That hasn't changed. We've always had to think about security."

In her 18 years at Planned Parenthood, Pinterpe has witnessed an industry beset by bomb scares and deadly explosions. Clinic workers and doctors have been gunned down at their workstations, outside their clinics and in their homes. Websites, purported to be "Christian," publish names of OB/Gyns who perform abortions. At least one, the Nuremberg Files, tells readers to "Click here to see the list of baby butchers and a few of the people who have been killed." Click on it, and you're transported to a list of doctors' names, including David Gunn and Barnett Slepian, who each have black lines through them. Gunn and Slepian were murdered.

Over the past three years alone, the terrorist threat du jour has become envelopes purporting to contain anthrax. Sound familiar? Abortion clinics have dealt so often with anthrax scares that an FBI agent investigating one such threat in Milwaukee said anthrax threats had become "the bomb threat of the new millennium." That was in January 2000.

Since the Sept. 11 attack, clinics around the country have been besieged by anthrax threats, scares and hoaxes. At press time, more than 170 envelopes containing powdery substances had been received at more than 45 Planned Parenthood affiliates in 17 states, usually accompanied by such witticisms as "Anthrax. Have a nice death" and "You've been exposed to anthrax. You're going to die in less than 24 hours. We need to get rid of you. We're sorry."

Many times, the notes are signed by something calling itself the Army of God. Around the same time that Senate majority leader Tom Daschle's office received anthrax through the mail, anthrax hoax letters signed by the Army of God were received at six Washington, D.C., Planned Parenthood sites.

No Orange County abortion clinic has received such a letter; most of the threats have been directed at clinics in the East and Midwest. But that doesn't mean local clinics aren't on their usual high alert.

"It's just how we have to operate," Pinterpe said. "It's part of the job."

For years, clinic workers have been trained to open mail in closed rooms and to look for suspicious letters—envelopes that have been glued shut or display odd penmanship. What is disturbing, clinic operators say, is that it's getting harder to weed out the suspicious letters. In fact, many of the hoax letters arriving at clinics recently included official-looking preprinted return addresses from the U.S. marshal's office or the U.S. Secret Service.

"A lot of times, [the letters] will be embossed with things like 'Time Sensitive' and 'Urgent Security Notice. Open Immediately,'" said Jon Jaffe at Planned Parenthood's national headquarters. "They know how to manipulate people. It's especially perverse these days that these people, who are themselves terrorists, are capitalizing on the actions of other terrorists."

It's yet another perverse twist that the quick reaction time we've seen to the anthrax attacks after Sept. 11 owe much to the experiences of abortion clinics before Sept. 11.

"Over the past decade, we've developed and designed bio-terrorism procedures and protocols with local and federal authorities," Jaffe said. "We've really pushed for this. I think if you look at the kind of immediate local response that is now in place, it's in large part because we pushed for that."

Despite all this, Jaffe says, Planned Parenthood has seen no drop in the number of patients coming into clinics. Indeed, Kim Custer, the group's Orange County marketing director, says local clinics are bracing for an uptick in business.

"Our patient load always increases during times of recession or a large jump in unemployment," she said. "That's when our services are needed more than ever. Especially since a lot of the women we see don't have access to health-care insurance."

Which means another day at the office for Pinterpe—and all that entails.

"The people I work with are all very committed to what we do," she said. "If you aren't committed, then the conditions we work under would just kind of weed you out. We don't really need to talk about [terrorism]. We understand. We're more likely to talk about the pro-choice issue at work. You just have to be careful. I always have to consider who I'm talking to when I talk about what I do for a living—even around my family. Some of them aren't pro-choice."

 
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