“I’m appalled and shocked by this assassination, but I’m not surprised. This is not the single act of a deranged gunman. This is the absolutely predictable result of 35 years of anti-abortion harassment.”
A year after a domestic terrorist killed three people in a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, the case is a damn mess — a mess that’s highlighting why the incoming administration, the most anti-abortion in history, could be dangerous not just for patients, but for providers.
The shooter, Robert Lewis Dear Jr., has three separate times now been found not legally competent to stand trial on 179 criminal counts, including murder and attempted murder. Dear’s defense team has asserted an insanity defense against his wishes; Dear himself has stated openly and proudly that he hopes to stand trial because his attack was justified, calling himself a “warrior for the babies.” Defense experts have testified that his belief that the federal government is targeting Christians, and him specifically, is delusional and proof that he cannot fully assist his lawyers.
Justifiable homicide was the defense Scott Roeder used unsuccessfully after shooting Dr. George Tiller to death in 2009. Tiller was the 11th known abortion provider to be killed in the United States for their work. Dr. Warren Hern — one of a handful of providers who still performs late-term abortions after Tiller’s assassination — told ABC News in 2009:
Just 100 miles away from the Colorado Springs clinic, in Boulder, Colorado, Hern fears for his life again — this time because he has denied a request by the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, an anti-choice witch-hunt, for access to confidential patient information. In a scathing five-page letter to panel Chair Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Hern writes:
“You and your Republican party are vigorously allied with a violent terrorist movement that threatens the lives of women, their families, and health care workers. … Your ‘investigation’ is legislative harassment that endangers our lives. The blood of any of us who are assassinated is on your hands.”
Hern has reason to be concerned. As a longtime clinic escort, co-founder of an escort group in Englewood, New Jersey, and founding board member of the Clinic Vest Project, which has provided free vests and other resources to more than 100 clinics in over 30 states just in the past three years, I’m concerned too. The incoming administration openly plans to make life less safe for women overall, and there’s little question that it will embolden, excuse, and even tacitly encourage anti-abortion terrorism.
When an abortion provider is threatened, it is routinely the FBI and U.S. Marshals Service that respond. Both are federal agencies overseen by appointees chosen by the president and his administration. It’s not hard to imagine what effect having hostile men in those positions and as attorney general could have on the safety of those who perform abortions, as well as their staff, their patients, and even neighboring businesses and residents.
The Trump-Pence administration’s appointees thus far show cause for concern, especially since the general public and law enforcement are already disastrously under-educated about anti-abortion extremists’ tactics and history of success.
Last year, Dr. Leah Torres, a Salt Lake City-based OB-GYN specializing in reproductive health, told me that rampant anti-abortion violence — including 11 murders, 26 attempted murders, 42 bombings, and 185 arsons since 1977 — hasn’t been taken seriously enough. “I’m scared for my colleagues, I’m scared for my patients,” Torres said. “This violence continues to be excused because Planned Parenthood provides health care.” If anything, that’s likely to get worse.
The threat to women’s and health care workers’ lives goes all the way to the highest law enforcement position. Anti-choice publication Life News is celebrating the appointment of Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to attorney general, due to his 0% rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America.
“We are incredibly concerned about Jeff Sessions becoming the attorney general,” NARAL National Communications Director Kaylie Hanson Long told me. “The last person women and families need in this job is someone who has repeatedly given a pass to individuals who commit acts of violence against abortion clinics, doesn’t take sexual assault seriously, and was determined to be too racist by a GOP-led Senate to become a federal judge. But that’s who Jeff Sessions is.”
Sessions’ legislative track record is a cornucopia of abortion restrictions; he has introduced or supported essentially every attack on access. Here’s the not-even-comprehensive list from On the Issues:
- Voted YES on defining unborn child as eligible for SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program)
- Voted YES on prohibiting minors crossing state lines for abortion
- Voted YES on barring HHS (Health & Human Services) grants to organizations that perform abortions
- Voted NO on expanding research to more embryonic stem cell lines (because the embryos are “babies”)
- Voted NO on $100M to reduce teen pregnancy by education & contraceptives (I find demonizing teen parents to be abhorrent, but this points out some hypocrisy)
- Voted YES on banning partial birth abortions except for maternal life (reminder: “partial birth abortion” is not a thing)
- Voted YES on maintaining ban on Military Base Abortions
Sessions isn’t just bad on abortion; he’s atrocious on all manner of human rights. “His record of misogyny and racism makes him unfit to be the country’s top lawyer,” Hanson Long said. “The American people deserve far better, but with Donald Trump at the helm, we know we won’t get it.”
The GOP also has a demonstrated commitment to closing abortion clinics, which not only strips women of access to a legal, protected medical procedure but also makes life easier for domestic terrorists — fewer targets mean easier targeting. There’s no reason to believe this will change under Trump, says Hanson Long: “Instead, we fully expect their priority will be to do everything in their power to restrict a woman’s ability to get health care, including abortion care. Their track records suggest nothing less.”
Clinics have had to brace for increased violence since the doctored tapes targeting Planned Parenthood last summer that painted it as a fetus-fueled capitalist empire. Even clinics that hadn’t previously experienced harassment or hadn’t had picketers for a period of time were forced to create or expand programs to counteract a surge of harassment on their sidewalks and around their parking lots.
Volunteer clinic escort groups are the most visible protection for patients; escorts wear neon vests labeling them as an extension of the clinic and use non-violent non-engagement to create a buffer between picketers and patients. Benita Ulisano is the founder of the Clinic Vest Project and has been involved in escort training and organizing since before the federal policy prohibiting the blockade of doors — the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) Act — was signed in 1994.
“There has been a dramatic increase in vest requests since the Planned Parenthood anti-choice videos were released,” Ulisano told me. “Clinics that did not need vest support or clinic escorts for the longest time now needed our help — and in larger quantities. We have also seen our current client base of escort teams need more vests as well. We have sent vests to over 100 clinic in the past three years, with a dramatic increase in 2015–2016.”
Ulisano is particularly concerned about federal appointments because, essentially, federal law trumps state law. In her city of Chicago, the Pro Life Action League — the group that created “sidewalk counseling” (i.e. harassing patients as they try to enter a clinic) — is suing for the right to get all the way into patients’ faces. If they win, patients will still be protected by the federal FACE act — but not if it’s overturned by the new administration. Ulisano worries about “the blockades happening again like they did in the late 80’s, 90’s when hundreds of anti-choice protesters would show up at a location and literally block entrances and people from going in. It was so, so scary.”
While the threat level started spiking before the election thanks to the videos, Ulisano says clinics are — again — bracing for an increase in harassment.
“The clinic escort group I co-organize for the Illinois Choice Action Team hopes to have an emergency response plan worked out with our clinics,” she said. “It’s an effort we will be working on beginning in 2017. I am aware of other groups doing the same as well.”
As with any policy hindering access to safe, legal abortion, independent providers face the bulk of the obstacles. Independent clinics provide between 60 and 80% of abortions annually, with far less name recognition-boosting fundraising dollars than an organization like Planned Parenthood. It’s vital that our independent clinics have the resources they need ahead of January 20th.
Nikki Madsen, executive director of the Abortion Care Network — the national association for independent community-based, abortion care providers and their allies — stresses that the threat of violence, though it may get worse under the new administration, is nothing clinics aren’t prepared for.
“Abortion care providers care deeply about their staff and patients, so no matter who is in office, Abortion Care Network providers are always thinking about safety and security,” said Madsen. “While we’ve certainly seen some opponents of abortion access emboldened by the recent election, anti-choice harassment and threats are, unfortunately, nothing new.”
What Madsen has seen is an increase in awareness about clinic violence and people signing up to help.
“Our member clinics have seen an increase in the number of people interested in volunteering as clinic escorts since the election,” she said. “It does seem that anticipation of an administration hostile to reproductive rights has mobilized members of our community who are invested in their local clinics and willing to show up to defend patients’ right to access care.”
The interest in helping is welcome. Madsen says that “it’s crucial that allies and community members get to know and support their local clinics.” This is an area where people can do very hands on work providing support; we have a lot of power at the local level.
“There are many ways that those committed to reproductive freedom can help,” Madsen said. “Donate directly to their local clinic, volunteer as an escort, support local and state buffer-zone ordinances, and oppose state funding for deceptive, so-called ‘Crisis Pregnancy Centers.’ Because independent abortion care providers are deeply rooted in their communities and every community is faced with different challenges, we recommend connecting with your local clinic directly.”
We can’t know exactly what’s going to happen and how fast. But having the most aggressively anti-abortion administration in our country’s history at the helm means that anti-choice extremists and their supporters have been validated. The combination of validation and perceived oppression (the primarily white, middle-class, Christian picketers are oppressed, don’tcha know!) can be combustive.
Now is the time to get involved in supporting your local clinics. When you’re preparing for an all-out assault on bodily autonomy and self determination, there’s no such thing as too much help.
You can send a message of support to Dr. Hern through NARAL with THIS LINK, find your local independent clinic HERE, and contact the Clinic Vest Project to be connected to a volunteer escort group in your area HERE.