The National Abortion Federation released a report last week documenting what should come as no surprise to anyone: that anti-abortion harassment, threats, intimidation and violence have spiked dramatically since July 2015 when the Center for Medical Progress began releasing deceptively edited videos aimed at discrediting Planned Parenthood’s fetal tissue donation practices.
Despite the Center for Medical Progress’ videos having been widely discredited, and the indictment of its leader, the group continues to release videos — which federal and state politicians are using to justify invasive government investigations into abortion clinics and further abortion restrictions. This one-two punch of anti-abortion activity almost guarantees that the increased violence against abortion providers NAF documented in 2015 will continue into 2016 and beyond.
The report shows a dramatic change from 2014 to 2105. For instance, in 2014 there was one reported death threat against an abortion provider; in 2015, there were 94 threats of direct harm against providers. One such threat involved a message left on a clinic’s voicemail system saying that the caller was going to “pull a Columbine and wipe everyone out.” Another unknown caller told a North Carolina hospital that “we will kill all [hospital] abortion doctors.”
In a threat related directly to the Center for Medical Progress videos, an online poster wrote, “I’ll pay ten large to whomever kills [a doctor who appears in the videos]. Anyone go for it.” Online threats like this proliferated in late 2015.
In fact, the volume of online threats was so immense that NAF had to hire an outside firm to document them, something the organization has never had to do in the past. In just six weeks, from mid-November to the end of 2015, this outside firm found more than 25,000 incidents of hate speech against abortion providers, far exceeding the double-digit totals from previous years.
Anti-abortion extremists have not been afraid to carry out these threats. As the report notes, one extremist posted online, “One person setting fire to an abortion clinic will not do anything but thousands setting fire to an abortion clinic will speak volumes…. If thousands rallied together to set each murder house on fire, we would see the end of abortion.”
In 2015, there were four arsons carried out against abortion clinics after the videos were released, along with 67 acts of vandalism, some extreme enough to shut down clinics during repairs.
The most extreme acts of violence following the videos occurred on November 27, 2015, when Robert Dear opened fire at the Planned Parenthood affiliate in Colorado Springs, killing three and injuring nine. He reportedly said “no more baby parts” to police upon arrest.
Dear’s actions were not unprecedented. Since 1990, there have been 11 murders related to abortion clinics or providers, and 26 reported attempted murders. Before Dear’s attack, the most recent was the assassination of Dr. George Tiller at his church in Wichita, Kansas, in May 2009.
The spike documented by NAF cannot be attributed only to the actions of the Center for Medical Progress. Rather, this increase in violence must be viewed against the backdrop of heightened anti-abortion sentiment across the country. For example, since 2010 there have been a record number of anti-abortion laws enacted throughout the country. These laws are strongly correlated with increased harassment of providers, something that studies by academics and groups like the Feminist Majority Foundation have shown.
Moreover, over the past year, high-profile politicians have used notably inflammatory rhetoric directed at abortion providers. Recall Carly Fiorina’s statements at a September Republican debate: She (falsely) described a video of a Planned Parenthood clinic, noting, “Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.'” And just last week, Donald Trump caused an uproar by calling for the “punishment” of women who have abortions. (He later clarified that instead abortion providers should be punished.)
These comments align with the common anti-abortion trope of calling abortion providers “murderers,” a claim that is legally false and is meant to incite people into action.
On top of all this, needless Congressional investigations into the actions of abortion providers have multiplied. As part of these investigations, the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives has issued subpoenas targeting abortion clinics, doctors and researchers. Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee have also begun an inquiry into whether the Department of Justice is overly vigilant in preventing and prosecuting anti-abortion violence.
These actions send a clear message: Intimidating abortion providers and those who work with them is OK. Compliance with the subpoenas also threatens providers’ and researchers’ safety, as they may be forced to disclose sensitive personal and professional information that extremists could use against them.
This upsurge in legislation, rhetoric surrounding abortion providers, and the growing number of investigations into providers’ lawful medical practices has helped create an environment that fosters violence against abortion providers.
If we want to reduce the number of incidents of anti-abortion harassment and violence in 2016, we must take proactive steps to do so. Law enforcement needs to take threats against abortion providers seriously, legislatures need to pass laws that punish these actions and protect providers, and courts need to understand the unique context in which abortion providers work.
Ignoring these common-sense solutions and instead exacerbating the current environment that has facilitated tangible violence against providers of abortion care will mean that this concerning increase in anti-abortion violence will become a pattern.