The Supreme Court is on the brink of overturning Roe v. Wade, and anti-abortion activists are already taking a terrifying victory lap. While Congress was inexplicably passing legislation to fund security for Supreme Court Justices and their families, there’s been a documented rise in anti-abortion protesters’ tactics harkening back to 1991's Summer of Mercy—one of the most violent periods of anti-abortion extremism in history—per research shared by Reproaction to Jezebel.
During the Summer of Mercy, the violent extremist group Operation Rescue launched a harassment campaign in which thousands of anti-abortion activists from across the country traveled to Wichita, Kansas, to blockade and stage sit-ins at the clinic of abortion provider George Tiller. Tiller was one of the last providers of abortion later in pregnancy in the country and was eventually murdered by an anti-abortion extremist in 2009. But on top of the blockades and physical attacks on abortion access, protesters were also instilling terror in communities by stalking and “flyering” the neighborhoods of abortion providers, distributing fliers with their photos and addresses, and identifying them as murderers.
We’re now seeing a rise in protest tactics like this playing out in the wake of the Supreme Court’s leaked draft opinion, and the rash of abortion bans passing across the country. According to Erin Matson, executive director of the grassroots reproductive justice group Reproaction, this is “a long-standing pattern.”
“The anti-abortion movement has been violent for decades, and so it’s no surprise they’re continuing their literal reign of terror,” Matson told Jezebel.
Last week, anti-abortion group Created Equal distributed fliers doxing local abortion provider Dr. Cesare Santangelo across his neighborhood. One flier, which lists his address, describes Santangelo as a “late-term abortionist, [who] resides in our neighborhood.” The back of the flier recounts an incident in April when activists connected to the so-called “Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising” (PAAU) group illegally obtained the fetal tissue of five aborted fetuses in a transparent effort to demonize abortion providers and prompt wasted resources on an investigation.
One of Santangelo’s neighbors said the flier “looked like a thinly veiled threat against him and his family.” Notably, the last time a fetal tissue scandal rocked the nation in 2015, within months, a gunman claiming to be a “warrior for the babies” killed three at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic. “Whenever abortion opponents make inflammatory claims about abortion and providers, they know exactly what they’re doing,” Matson said. “They’re encouraging and fanning the flames of violence.”
Flyering, stalking, and doxing abortion providers and their families have been on the rise in other parts of the country, as well. Targeting and endangering abortion providers is a long-standing tradition in the anti-abortion movement: Operation Rescue is notorious for the digital database it maintains with photos, videos, and personal information like addresses and contact information of abortion providers and their staff.
At the same time Created Equal was flyering Dr. Santangelo’s neighborhood in DC last week, AJ Hurley, the activist who leads the reprehensibly named group Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust, was arrested on felony charges of stalking a California abortion provider and leaving fliers across the provider’s neighborhood that included her home address. Hurley and his accomplices also used a woman who claimed to need counseling services from the San Francisco-based clinic to physically invade the clinic, according to prosecutors. When a nurse went to speak to the woman at the door, Hurley and other trespassers “came out from hiding and ran through the door, barged into the clinic and began filming patients and staff.” Clinic staff told prosecutors that protesters were even “attempting to barge into operating rooms.”
As Jezebel’s Caitlin Cruz previously reported, contrary to conservatives’ revisionist histories about anti-abortion activists being “peaceful” despite opposing Roe, there have been at least 11 murders and 26 attempted murders of abortion providers since 1977. Further, there have been 42 documented bombings and 194 incidents of arson at clinics, including burning down a Planned Parenthood clinic in Tennessee in December 2021. National Abortion Federation, which publishes annual reports on rates of violence against abortion clinics, previously noted to Jezebel that “some of the people at the January 6 insurrection are the same people who have been targeting abortion providers and protesting at clinics in their communities.”
“The people who threaten clinic workers and harass individuals seeking abortion care are often the same people who participate in other violent and extremist activities that are rooted in racism, white supremacy, and misogyny, and are deeply harmful,” NAF’s Melissa Fowler said.
Christina, a clinic escort with Louisville Clinic Escorts who’s asked for her last name to be excluded, has seen it all while volunteering at EMW Women’s Surgical Center, one of Kentucky’s two remaining abortion clinics. She was there in July of 2017, helping patients safely walk from their cars to the clinic when anti-abortion activists from across the country blockaded EMW for an entire week in a failed attempt to shut it down with the same tactics protesters deployed during the Summer of Mercy. At the time, the Kentucky legislature was considering a bill to “abolish” abortion in the state.
Thankfully, Christina says her clinic hasn’t had to deal with violence and harassment at that level since, but that doesn’t mean the invasive and dangerous tactics from anti-abortion protesters have gone anywhere. “I don’t want to say it’s deescalated, because the climate is not de-escalating in any way, shape, or form,” Christina said. Most days, her clinic remains inundated by protesters who may not practice the same overtly violent tactics of the Summer of Mercy, but still trespass on clinic property and harass clinic staff and patients in more insidious ways, begging patients to “don’t kill your baby.” Ironically enough, as the civility police argue that anti-abortion Supreme Court Justices deserve special protections from the very protesters they’re about to reduce to state-controlled ovens, just a few years ago the court struck down clinics’ right to maintain buffer zones to protect themselves and their patients from anti-abortion protesters in McCullen v. Coakley.
Whether it’s the day-to-day violence of “sidewalk counseling” outside clinics, or the all-too-frequent arsons and physical attacks on clinic staff, anti-abortion violence has been widely normalized. As Lauren Rankin documents in her book Bodies On the Line, police officers are often dismissive of the threat posed by anti-abortion protesters, are overtly supportive of protesters, or respond to clinic staff and volunteers’ calls for help by victim-blaming. “They’re told, ‘this is what you signed up for,’ as a provider or volunteer,” Rankin told Jezebel last month.
Despite the prevalence of anti-abortion violence, National Advocates for Pregnant Women reports that pregnant people are the ones facing a rise in criminal charges for the outcomes of their pregnancies or alleged self-managing their abortions—an outcome that the fall of Roe would exacerbate. Earlier this month, Louisiana’s legislature introduced legislation that would jail both abortion providers and their patients. Several states including Oklahoma, Georgia, Texas, and Alabama have introduced bills that would make abortion a felony punishable by the death penalty in recent years.
As anti-abortion activists on the ground appear to be taking a page from 1991’s Summer of Mercy, the Women’s March has kicked off its “Summer of Rage” protests against the leaked opinion—a name that some reproductive rights advocates find insensitive given the violent history of the anti-abortion movement’s Summer of Mercy demonstrations. “It’s more performative crap that reduces all of this to some sort of feminist Coachella,” Christina told Jezebel. “Donate to an abortion fund, donate to clinics on the front line. With everything that’s happening at clinics, anything else is a waste of time.”