Last month, the Feminist Majority Foundation released the results of its 14th National Clinic Violence Survey. The annual survey gathers data on violence and harassment endured by U.S. abortion providers, law enforcement responses to anti-abortion violence and harassment, and correlations between anti-abortion violence and clinic proximity to "crisis pregnancy centers". Survey findings suggest that anti-abortion violence and harassment is increasing in the wake of a high-profile smear campaign against Planned Parenthood.
Specifically, the authors argue for a correlation between anti-abortion violence and the release of videos by the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress. In 2015, the Center for Medical Progress released videos showing conversations between Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast staff and anti-choice activists posing as employees of a sham company. The videos were part of a smear campaign that accused Planned Parenthood of illegally selling aborted fetal tissue, when in reality, Planned Parenthood was merely donating fetal tissue to medical research without reaping a profit. Anti-abortion activists used the smear campaign as an excuse to demand defunding for the reproductive health care provider. In 2016, a two month grand jury investigation found no wrongdoing on the part of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, indicting the makers of the videos instead, according to CNN.
The report then connects the Center for Medical Progress videos to a 2015 mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood office in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The suspect, Robert Lewis Dear, allegedly said "no more baby parts" after his arrest. The following spring, a judge deemed Dear mentally incompetent to stand trial and indefinitely confined him to a state mental hospital, according to USA Today.
The report argues that the Colorado Springs shooting and an uptick in violence against abortion providers may indicate that anti-abortion extremists have been galvanized by the video smear campaign.
"This incident and countless anecdotes of increasing levels of violence against providers across the country in the fall of 2015 led us to fear that anti-abortion extremists had been emboldened by the release of these videos. The results of the 2016 National Clinic Violence Survey, the first quantitative measure of nationwide violence recorded since the release of the CMP videos, corroborate these fears."The anti-abortion violence statistics presented in the report make for sobering reading. Out of a national sample of 319 reproductive health clinics, approximately one-third reported experiencing at least one incident of severe violence or threat of violence in 2016 (compared to 19.7% of surveyed clinics in 2014). Moreover, 16% of clinics in the sample reported experiencing three or more types of severe violence, threats, and/or harassment. Almost two-thirds of clinics indicated that they experience anti-abortion activity (i.e., protests) on a daily or weekly basis. Nearly half of clinics in the sample reported that doctors and staff had been targets of intimidation and threats.
Even though many surveyed clinics reported no violence, the report warns readers that this is not a reason to breathe easy.
"In a war of attrition, anti -abortion extremists strategically target a vulnerable minority of clinics, aiming to force them to close their doors before moving on to the next set of targets. Thus a majority of clinics experience no violence, while a smaller number report numerous acts of violence, threats, or harassment. For example, one clinic reported experiencing a total of sixteen different types of severe violence and harassment in the first half of 2016."The importance of supportive law enforcement cannot be overstated with regard to clinic safety. Clinics in the survey that reported "fair" or "poor" experiences with local law enforcement were more likely to experience high rates of harassment and violence than clinics with "good" or "excellent" experiences with law enforcement.
Readers may be familiar with crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), which purportedly provide services for women and girls facing unplanned pregnancies. More often than not, CPCs are anti-choice organizations that actively discourage women and girls from seeking abortions (sometimes through deceptive means). The National Clinic Violence Survey found that reproductive health clinics located in close proximity to CPCs experienced more violence and harassment (21.7%) than clinics that did not have a CPC nearby (6.8%). The report claims that some anti-abortion extremists use CPCs as launch sites for their activities.
"Many CPCs located near clinics provide a staging ground for individuals engaging in anti-abortion violence, threats, and harassment. For example, anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder conducted surveillance of Dr. George Tiller while ‘volunteering’ for the CPC next door to Tiller’s clinic in Wichita, Kansas before shooting and killing him in 2009."The 14th National Clinic Violence Survey makes it clear that anti-abortion rhetoric is far from harmless. Anti-abortion violence and harassment cannot be understood apart from the wider anti-abortion movement, including its vicious smear campaigns and CPC influence. Even if these anti-abortion propaganda efforts do not advocate violence, they likely embolden anti-abortion extremists who use their propaganda to justify crimes.
For women and girls seeking reproductive health services, this is a nightmare. Access to reproductive health care, including abortion, is already fraught with challenges for many women and girls in the U.S. Clinic protests, harassment campaigns, and anti-abortion violence create an intimidating environment for patients seeking reproductive health care, and are likely intended to frighten them away from clinics. If we care about reproductive rights, we must take the findings of the National Clinic Violence Survey seriously and support reproductive health care providers.