Between 2019 and 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, abortion providers across the country reported an increase in “vandalism, assault and battery, death threats/threats of harm, stalking, and hoax devices/suspicious packages,” according to a new report by the National Abortion Federation.
Most alarmingly, providers reported a 125% increase in assaults and altercations instigated by anti-abortion protesters, including “shoving, pushing, tripping, and spitting on clinic escorts, staff, and others outside of clinics.” NAF’s report calls these incidents “particularly disturbing,” considering the ongoing public health concerns around COVID-19.
The report also highlights that between 2019 and 2020, death threats and threats of harm to clinic staff more than doubled, from 92 to 200. Clinics reported 27 cases of receiving suspicious packages last year, up from just two in 2019, as well as double the cases of stalking clinic staff. There were also four reported cases of arson in 2020 compared with none the year before, and internet harassment against providers increased by about 10%.
“We expected an escalation in anti-abortion activities in 2020 and 2021 due to the political climate, the election, and the increase in hate incidents throughout the country,” Melissa Fowler, chief program officer of NAF said in a statement to Jezebel. According to Fowler, “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,” she said.
While NAF hasn’t released its report on anti-abortion violence in 2021 yet, Fowler tells Jezebel its members “continue to report an escalation in aggressive anti-abortion activity” this year, as well as anti-abortion activists being “emboldened by the Texas abortion ban and recent Supreme Court activity concerning abortion cases” to target clinics.
These revelations follow a long history of violence targeting abortion providers: Between 1993 and 2016, there were 11 murders and 26 attempted murders of providers by anti-abortion extremists. NAF’s annual reports since 2016 have revealed a significant increase in threats and physical attacks, specifically throughout the Trump administration, during which the former president repeatedly used his platform to liken abortion and particularly abortion later in pregnancy to murder. Today, the recent influx of state-level attacks on abortion could also play a role in stigmatizing the health service and those who provide it, and implicitly encourage violence. The last decade, which encompasses a steady rise in anti-abortion violence per NAF’s reporting, amounts for nearly half of all 1,300 restrictions enacted since Roe v. Wade.
Some anti-abortion politicians have attempted to distance themselves from more overt anti-abortion violence against providers and patients, as we saw in the immediate aftermath of the 2015 mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado by a man who later said he “killed three and saved 3,000 babies.” But however “pro-life” politicians may claim to be, when they equate a health service and ending an unwanted pregnancy to literally killing a baby, they’re all but inviting violence against people who give and have abortions—and they know it.
On the state-level, several states including Oklahoma, Georgia, Texas, and Alabama have introduced bills that would make abortion a felony punishable by the death penalty. Leading politicians like Ted Cruz have worked closely and boasted about their relationships with members of Operation Rescue, the militant anti-abortion group that’s been connected to the murder of an abortion provider in Kansas in 2009. Surprising no one, numerous protesters present at the Jan. 6 insurrection were prominent anti-abortion activists who deployed the violent tactics they use outside clinics at the Capitol. And of course, research shows when someone isn’t able to get the abortion they seek, they’re more likely to remain in an abusive relationship, putting their safety at risk.
As NAF’s report highlights, in addition to physical violence, anti-abortion activists are also upping their digital attacks, too. Operation Rescue in particular is notorious for the digital database it maintains with photos, videos and personal information including addresses and contact information of abortion providers and clinic staff. In 2016, the National Network of Abortion Funds’ annual fundraiser for abortion access was subjected to a massive hack from anti-abortion activists, who accessed members and donors’ information to send out pro-Nazi messages en masse.
As more and more states move to ban or severely restrict abortion, and people increasingly seek to end their pregnancies by ordering abortion pills online, cyber attacks on abortion clinics could even place providers and patients at risk of jail time. According to the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, this is already happening, with criminal charges for miscarriages, stillbirths, self-managed abortions, and other pregnancy outcomes tripling in recent years, from 413 prosecutions between 1973 and 2005 to more than 1,250 between 2006 and 2020. People of color are notably more likely to experience miscarriage and stillbirth, and also more likely to face criminalization.
All of these attacks on clinics, both in-person and online, continue to happen despite the FACE (Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances) Act, which prohibits threats and obstruction of access to clinics, but notably doesn’t protect patients and providers from cyber threats and cyber obstruction of abortion access.
NAF’s report on anti-abortion violence is a disturbing reminder that on top of the inherent violence of forcing someone to be pregnant and give birth against their will, coordinated violence, intimidation, and dehumanization are instrumental to the anti-abortion movement’s operations. They might call themselves “pro-life,” but their actions speak infinitely louder than their words.