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Op-ed outlines AG's role in protecting abortion providers, airs concerns about Sessions nomination

In an opinion piece for The Hill, Carole Joffe, professor at the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California-San Francisco, discusses the role the U.S. attorney general plays in ensuring the safety of abortion providers and questions whether Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for Attorney General, will provide adequate protections, given his antiabortion-rights stance.

Joffe explains that following the 1998 shooting of Barnett Slepian -- an abortion provider who worked in Buffalo, New York -- the director of the clinic where Slepian provided care met with then-Attorney General Janet Reno.

Joffe writes that after learning that what the director needed to keep the clinic open "was protection for those doctors who were willing to fill in at the clinic until a permanent replacement for Slepian could be found," Reno sent "teams of marshals who offered round the clock protection, both for those who worked at the Buffalo clinic and for abortion providers elsewhere in the region who were considered at risk for more anti-abortion terrorism." In addition, according to Joffe, Reno "established the National Task Force on Violence Against Health Care Providers, an interagency unit staffed by attorneys and investigators from the Department of Justice, as well as representatives from the [Federal Bureau of Investigation], the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the U.S. Postal Inspection service, and the U.S. Marshals Service."

Joffe adds that for the remainder of her service as attorney general, "Reno continued to be vigilant about the safety of abortion providers, including sending marshals to protect providers in different parts of the country where there was a credible threat of extreme violence."

According to Joffe, the task force established by Reno remains in place and is integral not only in providing protection for abortion providers on the ground, but also "in bringing charges against those who violate the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), legislation passed in 1993 which makes it a federal crime to impede access to abortion facilities." She writes that while the task force has not been able to stem all antiabortion-rights violence, it has "undeniably" saved lives.

However, Joffe explains that use of the task force "is ultimately a judgment call, and whoever is Attorney General has a lot of discretion in this matter." As a result, advocates and providers are "deeply worried about the steps" that Sessions "will -- or, more precisely, will not -- take ... to protect providers."

Citing data from NARAL Pro-Choice America, Joffe writes that Sessions "has voted several times against protections for abortion clinic staff, including measures that would hold anti-abortion activists financially accountable for acts of violence or harassment, and, most recently, against the establishment of a fund for clinic security." Joffe quotes Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, who said, "'We have serious concerns about the safety of abortion providers under a Sessions-led Justice Department.'" In comparison with this concern, Joffe points out that Sessions' nomination has garnered approval from Troy Newman, "head of the extremist group Operation Rescue."

Joffe writes that no matter the attorney general's personal stance on abortion rights, U.S. residents "should expect that the leader of the Department of Justice is committed to preventing violence against healthcare professionals and is ready to use all available tools to do so." In turn, she calls on lawmakers in the Senate Judiciary Committee to "ascertain if this is true of Sessions" during his confirmation hearing (Joffe, The Hill, 12/20).