“Wanted” Poster Distributor Gets Probation for Stalking Abortion Doctors

Yesterday, a North Carolina court convicted Philip “Flip” Benham of two counts of criminal stalking and the disruption of domestic tranquility for plastering “Wanted” posters of four abortion providers throughout the doctors’ neighborhoods. Benham, an anti-abortion activist who has headed Operation Rescue and currently runs Operation Save America, was sentenced to two years of probation. He and his associates were also ordered to stay away from the doctors’ homes and offices.

The posters Benham and his associates distributed contained the names, color pictures, and office addresses (and in one case, home address) of abortion providers — all topped by a “Wanted” sign in classic Old West style.  “Their specialties are Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Murder,” one poster declares, and says the doctors “harm women and kill babies.” Another reads  “Abortionist Dr. [redacted] Kills Babies.” The posters do not explicitly encourage violence against the doctors. Instead, one reads that, “We are asking you to help us expose both [doctors] to the powerful Gospel of Christ, to His love and His mercy, so they can use their wonderful gifts and talents to bring life rather than death. Our desire is that these two men continue bringing babies into the world and stop taking them out.” 

“These ‘Wanted’ Posters Are a Call For My Murder”
Abortion providers and pro-choice advocates see the posters as a clear threat to the lives of abortion doctors. They argue that their intent is not to urge doctors to ply their “wonderful gifts and talents” on c-sections, but to encourage someone to take it upon him or herself to permanently remove the doctors and their talents from the world. In a recent interview with CBS, one of the doctors who was targeted by the posters says, “It doesn’t say wanted dead or alive, but the implication is clearly there…These ‘wanted’ posters are a call for my murder.” Because of fears for his safety, the doctor is kept in shadow throughout the interview.

In addition to the suggestion of “dead or alive” and the widespread distribution of doctors’ identifying information and pictures, the posters have an unsavory history that makes their presence feel even more threatening. As noted by NPR and CBS, the last time posters like these were circulated, they were accompanied by a wave of attacks on abortion providers. A few weeks ago, The Rachel Maddow Show did a piece that Maddow called “the scariest thing on our show,” revealing the most recent appearance of these “Wanted” posters in North Carolina. Maddow describes in detail the grim cycle of “Wanted” posters appearing and abortion doctors being killed.

Free Speech?
Flip Benham insists that the First Amendment gives him the right to distribute the posters, and that objects to the suggestion that they are threats. His defenders point to the language on the posters that call for prayer, not bullets, and insist that lone-wolf vigilantes shooting abortion providers aren’t connected to Operation Save America’s “advocacy.” These assertions ring very hollow to me after just a few minutes on his website — one of the first articles I came upon begins “Justice demands that when one sheds innocent blood, by man must his own blood be shed…Executing the guilty is a very loving thing to do!” — but intent is a difficult thing to prove.

Still, when pro-choice advocates say the posters are threats and are not protected free speech, they have some legal precedent on their side. While it would be a stretch to consider the posters direct incitement to imminent violence, in 2002 the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that “wanted-style” posters and internet hit lists like Operation Rescue’s infamous “Nuremberg Files” scorecard constituted unprotected “true threats.” (For more on what is  considered a ‘true threat,’ see the 2003 Supreme Court ruling Viriginia vs. Black.)

Because the Supreme Court never examined the case of the “Wanted” posters,  though, the decision classifying them as prosecutable speech doesn’t apply nationally. Even if the case did come before the Roberts court, its outcome is far from certain.

In this case, of course, Benham was tried under state and local laws. In fact, his conviction was the first under a new state law prohibiting targeting individuals at home — if I understand correctly, that’s the “disturing domestic tranquility” part of the conviction. These charges are easier to prove than federal charges, but they also carry much lighter penalities. According to NPR, pro-choice advocates are pushing for federal charges to be filed — presumably for violating the FACE Act, which the 9th Circuit Court ruled “Wanted” posters of abortion providers do.

Living in Fear
though it allows Benham to portray himself as a martyr for his convictions, his short, easy sentence does little to deter those who may want to incite violence against abortion doctors. The murky haze around what it means to incite violence and conspire to kill is in the favor of those distributing the posters. Unless someone actually pulls a trigger, or unwisely says “Everyone, go kill an abortion doctor right now, and I mean it!” on national television, law enforcement seems unable to do more than issue stern warnings.

Benham’s slap on the wrist comes close on the heels of another light punishment for an anti-abortion activist directly, umambiguously threatening a doctor. Dr. Warren Hern is the only remaining doctor in the United States who is generally known to perform late-term abortions, so it’s natural that his is a prime target for anti-abortion extremism. Three weeks after the murder of Dr. Hern’s friend and colleague Dr. George Tiller, Donald Hertz called Dr. Hern’s office and said that two Vietnam veterans were on their way to hurt his family. Hertz was quickly found and arrested, but last week Hertz was sentenced to just 180 days of house arrest and five years of probation for threatening Dr. Warren Hern and his family.

“He terrorized me and my family, and all he got was a slap on the wrist,” Dr. Hern told Time Magazine. When the interviewer asked if he was scared, Hern replied, “I have been committed to this work since I started in 1973. I will continue doing it,” but continues, “it is the clear policy of the American anti-abortion movement to kill every doctor who does abortions. It is not a secret.”

In the segment of her show I linked to above, Rachel Maddow says “[T]here is a lot of anxiety among abortion providers in America right now, because many of them believe there is a network of anti-abortion extremists at work. And as long as that network, they believe, is supporting the murder of abortion doctors, is not dismantled, as long as only the shooter himself is apprehended and identified, they feel that they are just waiting for another murder.” Early the next week, her show aired a documentary in which abortion providers argued that groups like Operation Rescue and Operation Save America are responsible for inciting supposedly “lone wolf” shooters to kill abortion doctors.

For the doctors who were targeted by this most recent spate of “Wanted” posters, the threat is real. Even though they haven’t been bullied into hiding, they are constantly faced with hatred and the threat of violence. They go to work each morning knowing that other abortion providers were targeted by similiar posters, protests, and publicity, refused to be intimidated — and are now dead. They know anti-abortion extremists have their names, their pictures, their addresses, their license plate numbers, and a burning conviction that they are mass murderers. Since these doctors believe an influential man with a ferociously devout following has just painted a target on their backs, knowing he’ll be on probation for a few months is cold comfort.

Photo of Flip Benham "accus[ing] cameraman Mark Lyon of being godless and supporting abortion" (Mr. Lyon's caption) was taken by Mark Lyon. It is found on his flickr here, and reused with thanks under Creative Commons License.


Nicole Bergeron
Nicole Bergeron5 years ago

There is a fine line between Freedom of Speech and harassment. And this is harassment, stalking and threats of ones life ALL of which are against the law. Once again another anti-abortion group has crossed that line and they probably think they are right because they have God on their side.

How many of this religious anti-abortion activist realize that abortion is in the Bible that they hold so dear and is accepted if done by a priest in a temple and in the name of God? there are also other accounts in their precious little black book where it wasn't done by a priest in a temple?

Barbara Erdman
Barbara Erdman6 years ago

thanx for article

Monique Freericks

I always say people who think that there is a God. Is oke, but let other people who think not also. Look at the history of the world. How many wars for God and how many people are died for God. To many! Stop that now and let a girl who want´s to have an abortion let here. And let the doctors take care of here.

Susan Weihofen
Susan Weihofen6 years ago

Where to start ranting. Miscarriage of justice with the lax sentencing in both cases. There is the whole issue of the "pro-life" crowd who fights so hard to protect the life in utero has no problem taking the life of a living human.

Tori W.
Past Member 6 years ago

see...this is the reason that i get concerned by extremists...just how are these people any different from the terrorists who are using threats of violence to alter our behavior??? they both hide behind religion..both religions advocate peace, love and consideration..i see none of that here...they both use murder and intimidations tactics-threats-to get their way...neither the Christian nor Muslim religions promote this...however, even i could ignore all of this..but one issue remains ... anti abortionist claim that the childs life is valuable..yet they have no problem killing another human....how can this be justified??..maybe it's just like terrorists using children as shelters to hide behind..again ...pregnancy is an issue between the mother, father, and child...it does not really involve the radical left or right...please....just go do something else with your lives...

Debbie Cross
Debbie Cross6 years ago

Although I have these presonal feelings, I would not take away other women's rights to choose for themselves. I just think that we, as a society, need to have a more open and honest preparation process for women considering abortion. She needs to know the statistics of what women experience and go through for years afterwards. Just like an other procedure, pressure should not be pushed either direction. All options should be discussed, pros and cons should be considered, psychological assistance before and afterwards should be provided and love and kindness given to each woman facing this decision. I get very upset when women from either side get harrassed, mocked, humiliated or attacked. I think that it is wrong to judge others regarding their way of life. There is more and more woman bashing going on and the worst of it is by other women. Hatred and violence is never the answer! These are my personal beliefs and feelings. I give to everyone else on this panel the right to theirs. We can learn from one another, see the other opinions more clearly and many times our hearts can be softened when we listen. I value other opinions. I also value my own opinions and beliefs formed over the many years of my life.

Debbie Cross
Debbie Cross6 years ago

I have stayed in close contact with many of the women (and men) that I have helped at the rape crisis center. I have watched as the years go by the ones who chose abortion over those who chose adoption. I have also worked with an abortion recovery group that consists of women who have abortions over several generations. Our group consists of women with every opinion on every side of the debate. One fact that I see over and over again in both agencies is that, in most cases, women believe when they go into the abortion that they will feel relief, freedom and can go forward with their lives with no regrets after the abortion. In truth, in most cases, women struggle with a wide range of feelings for years and years afterward (relief, release, guilt, sadness, depression, etc). In so many cases, women were not prepared for those later feelings. Some suffer from severe depression after giving birth to the first child after the abortion. As they hold, cherish and love that child, their minds go back to that other pregnancy and they struggle back through those feelings again. In our group, the woman who Roe vs. Wade was based on came and talked to the women. She shared that at the time of the abortion she believed that she should have the right to choose for herself whether to have the baby or not. Now, so many years later, she has changed her feelings and wishes she had not aborted that baby. Abortion is a permanent solution that can never be changed after it is done.

Debbie Cross
Debbie Cross6 years ago

The posters and stalking are wrong. Feelings on both side of the abortion debate are strong and can lead to violence. Violence on either side of the debate is wrong. Wanted posters can lead to murder. I, personally, am on the pro-life side of the issue in my personal beliefs. I was raped at 13 years of age and was pushed to have an abortion. I remember the planned parenthood doctor yelling at me that it was wrong to have the baby. He shook me and told my parents that he only needed their signature on the form, not mine. I ran away from the office and never came back. I delivered a sweet little girl and she was adopted by a wonderful family. When I was fifteen years old, I helped deliver a 2 pound baby boy that came early. As I held that tiny baby waiting for emergency workers to arrive, I looked into his eyes and knew that no matter how small a baby is...it is a baby. To me (in only my opinion), abortion is the legalized killing of a helpless baby. I understand it is called an fetus inside the womb but it is still a baby. I have volunteered at a rape crisis center for over 10 years. I am always shocked at the intense pressure put on women to have an abortion. I listen to what the person feels and needs. I don't push my beliefs or feelings on others...I am not walking in their shoes. I feel that in our country we are fighting against each other about so many topics that progress is never made to actually fix the problems.

Dawn Albanese
Dawn Albanese6 years ago

@Sarah D. - "...abstinence is BS."

Seriously? Why? Because having sex is so important? Hardly.

There is NOTHING wrong with a belief in abstaining from sex.

Donna Vandunk
Donna Vandunk6 years ago

Scary people, scary story- what can we do??