Across the street from the last abortion clinic in West Virginia is a nearly acre-size vacant lot that’s been for sale for about two years. For its most recent 40-day prayer action at Women’s Health Center of West Virginia, an anti-abortion group rented out the lot, using it to erect a “cemetery” with paper crosses.
Now, the protesters own the lot. “It’s right across the street from our clinic. Where patients have to walk on the sidewalk to get into our front door, they’ve erected at least 10-, maybe 12-foot giant cross,” Katie Quiñonez, director of the clinic, told Jezebel. “It’s mental warfare, because what they’re trying to do is shame and guilt people who are seeking health care.”
Discussion about violence against abortion providers is largely confined to reports of shootings and arson, physical acts of violence we can quantify. But the legality of abortion is hanging in the balance, waiting for an ultra-conservative Supreme Court supermajority to tell us how little bodily autonomy is legal. And bounty schemes against abortion providers are becoming the norm.
Since Dr. David Gunn was murdered outside his clinic in Pensacola, Florida, in 1993, abortion providers have endured 26 more years of physical violence, bomb threats, arson, and shootings. We’ve also seen decades of online harassment, patient and worker in-person intimidation, trespassing, and doxxing. It’s time we broaden what constitutes violence against abortion care providers and patients.
Less than three full months into 2022, 519 abortion restrictions have been introduced in 41 states, according to an analysis by the Guttmacher Institute published Wednesday. Forty-six abortion restrictions passed at least one state-level legislative chamber in 13 states. It’s the worst waiting game to see who will be the first to enact an abortion restriction this year; states like Idaho and West Virginia are so close, just waiting governor signatures. (Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon signed a law Tuesday that would ban abortion if Roe was overturned, usually referred to as a “trigger ban.”)
Every anti-abortion bill that’s introduced—let alone passed—exposes patients and providers alike to violence. “When I think about violence against abortion providers and patients, it starts at the state level,” Dr. Stephanie Mischell, an abortion provider in Texas and a Fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, told Jezebel.
Each of these proposed laws has a chilling effect on patients who must do research to find out if abortion is still legal in their state. Sloppy American journalism typically fails to differentiate from the scary act of an abortion ban advancing in the legislative process and the actual act of banning of abortion. These pieces of legislation also create an environment in which abortion care workers—from the receptionists to the doctors and nurses—are perceived as doing illicit activities by rightwing weirdos and normies alike. Further ostracizing abortion only vilifies abortion workers, begetting more instances of violence.
On top of the cross raising at the last abortion clinic in West Virginia, the protesters engage in stereotypical clinic harassment: yelling, praying, amplified sound, occasionally throwing objects, and impeding movement on the sidewalks. “Even though they’re not physically entering our facility because we have security measures in place to prevent them from doing that, even though they’re not ‘firebombing abortion clinics anymore,’ they’re still engaging in very intense and intentional emotional abuse and harassment of our patients,” Quiñonez said.
In a floor speech last week, Sen. Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI) gave her support to abortion care workers of all stripes. “These doctors, nurses, and staff fear for their lives just to provide access to reproductive care. Being an abortion provider is a dangerous profession in this country,” Hirono said. “What other medical profession deals with this level of harassment and violence just to provide medical care? For what other medical profession do we have to create a ‘bubble zone?’”
Even the creation of a buffer zone feels like a solution from someone not directly engaged on the ground. The city of Jackson, Miss., repealed its 15-foot buffer zone around the last abortion clinic in the state, The Pink House, in 2020, about a year after enacting it. Anti-abortion protesters said the zone violated their free speech rights.
At the West Virginia clinic, a city ordinance allows an eight-foot buffer zone. “I have seen countless instances of protesters violating it, and I’ve only ever seen two actually be arrested and fined for it,” Quiñonez said. “It’s really just if the right officer is working that day, then you might actually see something happen.”
Asking why trespassing and sidewalk harassment aren’t considered as terrible as murder is the wrong question—not because one has a more obvious loss of life, but because the question suggests that people care about what happens to abortion providers. While there’s majority support for abortion in America, support of the day-to-day operations that make abortion access possible feels murky and hard to quantify.
Because society has accepted the right-wing definition of abortion as something to be hidden away from public view, best only done in rare cases, abortion clinics, providers, and patients become inured to regular picketing, protesting, and leafletting.
“This is supposed to be a health care facility. Exactly how many abortion providers are we going to say, ‘It’s OK that they were assassinated?’ The answer should be zero,” said Quiñonez. “[Anti-abortion protests] should always be considered extreme and dangerous.”