A domestic terrorism briefing the FBI gave to law enforcement agencies in 2017 warned them about the threat of “pro-abortion extremists.” That would be fine, except—as the FBI’s own briefing materials subsequently admit—violent pro-abortion extremists barely exist, and in no universe do they constitute an organized domestic terror movement. The existence of this briefing was uncovered by Property of the People, a government transparency group that uses Freedom of Information Act requests to shed light on the workings of the government.
To make the extent of the non-problem clear: Only one person could be fairly described as a “pro-choice terrorist” (he indeed described himself that way), and that is Theodore Shulman, who went to prison in 2012 for harrassing and threatening to kill two leading figures in the anti-abortion movement. (Shulman served 41 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release.) The only known death of an anti-abortion protester is Jim Pouillon, who was shot and killed in September 2009 while holding a gory sign and protesting outside a Michigan clinic. Harlan James Drake, who was sentenced to life in prison for the murder, was severely mentally ill, according to his lawyers. He also killed a gravel pit owner the same day, reportedly believing both men had wronged his mother. According to evidence presented at trial, Drake shot Pouillon not because he was a radical pro-choice activist, but because he was offended that Pouillon was holding a disturbing sign in view of school children.
Anti-abortion groups, meanwhile, have harassed doctors and clinics who provide abortions for decades, leading to arson, constant death threats, a wave of bombings throughout the 1990s, and the murders of some 12 people between 1993 and 2012, all either clinic staffers or physicians. The nature of these constant threats, combined with consistent state and federal-level legislative efforts to curtail abortion or ban it outright, has changed the nature of abortion access in America.
And yet the FBI’s briefing to law enforcement agencies appears to be based on the idea that there are threats, particularly dangerous lone wolf-type extremists, on both sides.
Gunita Singh, the staff attorney at Property of the People, told us, “It should strike any reasonable person as astounding, irrational, and even offensive to see the words ‘pro-choice extremist’ strung together. Yet, in this FBI document we see this configuration appear in an Abortion Extremism Reference Guide, juxtaposed alongside ‘pro-life extremists,’ as if they’re somehow two sides of the same coin.”
Ryan Shapiro, Property of the People’s co-founder and executive director, explains that the one-page briefing was part of a package of similar “one-sheets” on various supposed domestic terror groups, all of which were given to local and federal law enforcement agencies during a 2017 counter-terrorism training. POTP obtained the abortion one-sheet along with similar briefings about white supremacists, sovereign citizens, militias, anarchists, animal rights groups, and Puerto Rican nationalists. (Some of these are, again, more of an actual threat than others.) You can view a full version of the document here, as well as an email a Washington State Sheriff named Harvey Gjesdal sent to his staff, referring to the groups mentioned in the training as “the latest and greatest” that the agency “should be aware of.”
“I think a couple things are notable here,” Shapiro tells Jezebel, referring to the abortion one-sheet. “The FBI is treating the essentially fictitious category of terrorist pro-choice extremism as something that exists, and is apparently such a grave threat that even local law enforcement needs to be alerted to its supposed menace.”
Shapiro also points out that the idea of violent pro-choice activists is a far-right talking point, promoted by groups like Human Life International and ultra-conservative outlets like The Federalist. Its appearance in a law enforcement document is worrisome, he says, and raises questions about how it got there.
“Despite being unsupported by evidence, the notion that there’s somehow an unreported epidemic of violence committed by pro-choice activists has long been a far-right talking point,” he says. “It’s deeply troubling that the FBI appears to have now adopted this absurd and dangerous position.”
As for the document itself, the details it provides on what pro-abortion terrorists do is a bit thin, perhaps based on the fact that there are basically none of them.
Both pro-life and pro-choice extremists, the document claims, “engage in criminal activity and seek to further their ideology, wholly or in part through force or violence. The primary threat of violence from abortion extremists emanates from lone offenders.”
The FBI briefing adds, “Only one pro-choice extremist has been prosecuted, and that person acted independently and without any direct affiliation to a pro-choice group,” referring to Shulman. But it still draws some conclusions about what motivates pro-choice extremists as a whole: “Belief in a moral duty to protect those who provide abortion services.”
It’s unclear where the FBI came up with that psychological profile, unless it’s simply based on Shulman. One of the sources cited on the sheet is an 2014 internal FBI primer called Abortion Extremism, which isn’t available to the public. Shapiro says Property of the People is working to obtain this and other related documents through a FOIA, but anticipates having to sue the FBI to get them to comply: “We strongly anticipate it will require litigation to compel the FBI to comply with FOIA and provide us these records.”
The briefing also provides a list of dates when anti-abortion activists might be especially active. It doesn’t do the same for pro-choice extremists because, again, the sample size they have to work with is vanishingly small.
As Shapiro notes, the careful, both-sides phrasing of the briefing—the very existence of the term “abortion extremism”—also presents its own larger mystery. For many years, the FBI referred to “anti-abortion extremism.” It’s unclear just when they started presenting the issue as one with two sides, but we have reason to believe it was sometime after 2010 (and likely predated the Trump administration.)
Shapiro explains that the FBI has a set of administrative classification codes to refer to the different offenses it investigates (45 is “Crime on the High Seas,” for instance, while 172 is “Sports Bribery.”) The code 266 is used for domestic terrorism (“Act of Terrorism – Domestic Terrorism”). Letters are then used to break the whole 266 category down into subcategories. In a September 18, 2005 document, 266J was classified as “Anti Abortion Extremists.” By October 18, 2010, the same category was referred to as “Abortion Extremism.”
It’s unclear just when or why that shift occurred; Drake killed Pouillon in 2009, which was, again, not classified as domestic terrorism or politically motivated, and Shulman wasn’t arrested until 2012. A report produced for Congress in 2017 is also vague about the date, noting only in a footnote that “In recent years, the FBI has switched from ‘anti-abortion’ to abortion extremism, thus including individuals who may commit crimes to protect abortion rights.”
The FBI’s national press office responded to our request for comment by saying, in full: “We don’t have any comment on briefings we provide to our law enforcement partners. We also don’t have anything to add to the document you received via FOIA and attached in your inquiry.”
That makes it difficult to know much of anything about precisely how or when this shift in the way the FBI talks about abortion happened. But this law enforcement briefing clearly isn’t the only place where they operate as if pro-abortion extremists constitute an actual movement. The FBI also clearly and succinctly summarizes the various kinds of domestic terror it investigates, on, of all things, a website it created for teens. (Dubbed “Don’t Be a Puppet,” the teen site is meant to dissuade the youth from joining ISIS or domestic terror groups.)
There, speaking to the teens, the FBI claims there are abortion extremists on both sides:
What They Believe: Some abortion extremists believe that violence and bloodshed are justified to support their different beliefs on abortion. These violent extremists have turned to murder, bombings, assault, vandalism, kidnapping, and arson. They have also made death threats and sent hate mail and suspicious packages.
Who or What They Target: Violent anti-abortion extremists have targeted women’s reproductive clinics and the health care professionals and staff who work in these facilities, including doctors, nurses, receptionists, and even security guards. In one case in 2009, for example, a Kansas doctor who performed abortion services was shot and killed in his local church by an anti-abortion extremist. Those who use violence to defend abortion rights have murdered, threatened, and attacked those who oppose abortion.
(The emphasis here is ours. Again, the one murder of an anti-abortion demonstrator was, according to all available evidence, not politically motivated.)
Gunita Singh, POTP’s staff attorney, points out that it’s far from the first time the FBI has highlighted an apparently nonexistent threat.
“The FBI has been propagating these false equivalencies for decades,” she says. “For example, Property of the People sued the FBI for records on a terrorist threat category called ‘Black Identity Extremism,’ which very problematically includes the Black Lives Matter movement.” (In an op-ed for the New York Times, two law professors pointed out that this looks very similar to the way the FBI treated the civil rights movement and other, particularly leftist, political movements in the 1960s.)
With the case of supposed “Black Identity Extremists,” Singh says, the FBI shows evidence of ignoring or downplaying an actual problem—the documented resurgence of white supremacist movements—to focus on a non-existent one. “Despite the FBI’s misplaced priorities, it is the scourge of white supremacy and the violent tactics employed by white nationalists that motivate groups like Black Lives Matter to advocate for themselves in the first place,” she says. “We cannot allow law enforcement to construct these false equivalencies that lead to distorted perceptions of the actual threats we face.”
Singh says the broader issue is about how people who advocate for abortion rights — a medical service that is, at least for now, still legal in this country — might come to be viewed by law enforcement. In essence, the concern is that by creating this fictional category of terrorists, will law enforcement agencies begin to look for them, be primed for them, seek them out, and even identify them where none exist? What does this bode for the future of legal pro-choice activism, particularly in an era where abortion rights are being radically restricted?
“Pro-choice activists should not have to worry about being targeted as terrorist extremists,” Singh told us, “simply for advocating for bodily autonomy and a woman’s right to choose.”