Almost from the instant the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade in 1973, the terrorist wing of the fraudulently named “pro-life” movement began a campaign of bombing and burning clinics. Organized mobs coiled themselves outside clinics to harass women, block the path, or grab and lecture them. While some protests were perfectly within legal bounds—the kind of actions that must always remain a guaranteed right—others went way beyond simple free speech and assembly. And often, in a turnaround from their usual stance, local law enforcement authorities were more sympathetic to the protesters than to those being protested against.
However, when Dr. David Gunn was assassinated in Pensacola, Florida, in 1993, the political dynamic changed for a time. Out of that act came the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances law. This makes force, the threat of force, and physical obstruction that interferes with, or seeks to intimidate a person from seeking or providing reproductive health services a federal crime punishable by criminal and civil penalties. In the Senate, there were 25 votes against that legislation. One of the opponents, Charles Grassley of Iowa, still has a Senate seat.
Although it took a while, FACE did tamp down the violence and confrontations at clinics. That was because President Bill Clinton’s administration took the law seriously. From the time it passed, the Department of Justice prosecuted an average of 10 defendants a year under FACE, 17 of them in 1997 alone. Under President George W. Bush, however, the average was two a year. As Daphne Eviatar of the Washington Independent reported:
Whether the dropoff in prosecutions is because the FACE Act successfully deterred crimes after its enactment or because the Bush administration wasn’t interested in prosecuting them is not clear. “The amount of activity really did drop a lot after FACE was enacted and it was beginning to be enforced,” said Cathleen Mahoney, Executive Vice President of the National Abortion Federation who was an attorney in the Justice Department until 2006. “Certainly the political will wasn’t there.”
That’s disappointed Janet Crepps, deputy director of the legal program at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “I don’t think that the government has done enough,” she said, noting that while the Clinton administration had created a task force in the Department of Justice to coordinate responses to clinic threats and violence, during the Bush years, “we’ve heard that providers during that time would call DOJ for help and get no response.”
In April 2007, Paul Ross Evans planted a bomb containing two pounds of nails in the parking lot of the Austin Women’s Health Center in Texas. Nail bombs are especially nasty items in the terrorist’s arsenal. They kill and maim indiscriminately. If the bomb had gone off, the victims could have been anyone: patients at the clinic, passersby, doctors, or toddlers. It didn’t matter to Evans. In his view, what he sought to achieve rose above petty conventional morality. Fortunately, in this case, the bomb did not explode. And today, Evans is in his 15th year of a 40-year sentence at the federal penitentiary at McCreary, Kentucky, prisoner #83230-180. He’s glorified as “a prisoner for God” on several websites.
Two years later, with a gunshot to the head, another “pro-lifer,” Scott Roeder, slew Dr. George Tiller while the physician served as an usher in his local church in Wichita, Kansas. He had been an abortion provider for 34 years and had survived two bullet wounds from a previous assassin’s attack in 1993.
Roeder—now serving 25 to life at the Hutchinson, Kansas, state prison—had been pretty much ignored by authorities, both local and federal, despite his criminal record and despite repeatedly vandalizing the clinic where Tiller worked, clearly interfering with people’s rights to obtain reproductive services. Pistol in hand, Roeder took the ultimate approach to that interference.
In the usual upsidedownism of the extremist factions of the anti-choice movement, the Rev. Donald Spitz—whose “Army of God” considered the assassination of anyone who provides abortions a justifiable homicide—said the FACE law was itself to blame for Tiller’s death because it fed the anger and frustration of the foes of reproductive choice:
“I understand that anger,” he says. “You know children are dying, and you want to do something. And just, you know, people just can’t take it anymore. That might just drive them to it. So I think the pro-abortion people brought this on themselves by forcing the politicians to pass these laws.”
Quite understandably, despite the “lone nut” theme being trumpeted by, among others, Operation Rescue and similar anti-choice outfits, some people who had fought to maintain women’s right to reproductive choice saw the Kansas slaying as the possible beginning of a renewed reign of terror. Right after the November election, believing as other groups did that the election of President Barack Obama could mean a wave of right-wing violence, Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, sent out a security alert to abortion providers. Saporta told Rachel Maddow at the time:
In tracking abortion violence we know that oftentimes when these extremists see themselves losing an election or don’t see themselves winning in political, legislative or judicial battles, they often resort to violence. And we were concerned that we might see an uptick in violence; we wanted our providers to be on a little bit of a heightened security alert. And we have found that threats and activity and the intensity of activity outside abortion clinics has increased.
Some of the dwindling number of doctors who provide abortions wear bulletproof vests. Tiller often did, although he was not wearing his the morning he was shot. Not that a vest will necessarily protect a doctor who wears it all the time. As Dr. Warren Hern, a Colorado physician who has been providing abortions in Boulder, Colorado, since 1974, told the Los Angeles Times:
“I think [Tiller’s murder is] the inevitable consequence of more than 35 years of constant antiabortion terrorism, harassment and violence,” he said. “I get messages from these people saying, ‘Don’t bother wearing a bulletproof vest, we’re going for a head shot.'”
Dr. Hern still lives, carefully keeping the window blinds closed at the clinic and at home. But arson, bombings, death threats, and clinic invasions remain common. And, as the NAF notes, are on the increase. Given the spreading gunslinging atmosphere abroad in the nation these days, that seems likely to worsen further.
But while even some anti-abortion activists decry such attacks, the overturning of Roe with the decision Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization by the Supreme Court has created its own kind of violence. Pregnant people risk sepsis and death by carrying dead or unviable fetuses because physicians fearing prosecution under state laws won’t perform an abortion unless the pregnant woman’s life is clearly threatened. In other words, no abortion unless the patient is incontestably on the verge of dying. If a patient is 13 years old in one of the dozen states that now have no exceptions for rape or incest in its anti-abortion statutes, the politicians who have imposed them are guilty of another kind of violence: child abuse. And then there is the violence that has demolished reproductive rights overall, taking away the fundamental right of bodily integrity from half the population and making women second-class citizens.
Fixing this is like so many other issues these days and no easy matter. It requires replacing the state and federal politicians who brought us this violence with people who actually are “pro-life,” as opposed to merely using it as a slogan for imposing their fanaticism on the nation.