Can Abortion Clinics Trust the Police to Keep Them Safe Now?

“If I could live my life and never call a cop ever again, I would be the happiest person.”

Senior Officer Scott Hice headed across the parking lot, toward a group of cops already gathered on the sidewalk outside the Planned Parenthood building in Spokane, Washington. The day was bright and sunny, and Hice had some thoughts he wanted to share. 

“Usually, the better-looking girls are on the other side,” Hice said in comments captured by the body camera strapped to his uniform and later uploaded online.

Hice was referring to the attractiveness of the anti-abortion protesters who routinely gathered outside of Planned Parenthood, one of the few abortion clinics in eastern Washington state.

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“Church girls?” a voice asked, off-camera.

“Yeah, church girls are a little cleaner, at least,” Hice said. He paused, then said, “That’s on that bodycam already. I’m already in trouble.”

It was August 2019, and Hice was there to keep an eye on The Church At Planned Parenthood, an anti-abortion group that, at the time, was in the middle of a yearslong siege on the Spokane Planned Parenthood abortion clinic. Started by a Christian nationalist leader, The Church At Planned Parenthood, or TCAPP, calls itself a “worship service at the gates of Hell.” 

At their peak, TCAPP’s protests outside Planned Parenthood drew hundreds of attendees and were so loud that they broke the city’s noise ordinance, according to a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho in summer 2020. But despite two years of complaints by Planned Parenthood, the Spokane Police Department never issued a single citation or made an arrest, the lawsuit alleged.

“That’s on that bodycam already. I’m already in trouble.”

“They were seeing this as a free speech issue, not as an interference with healthcare issue,” Paul Dillon, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, told VICE News. “That’s why we had to go to the court, because the police weren’t doing their jobs.”

On Friday, the Supreme Court abolished the national right to choose abortion by overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Roughly half the country is now either moving rapidly to ban abortions or expected to do so, leaving abortion providers in the other half to handle the fallout. But that doesn’t mean that the remaining providers will be protected from the harassment and violence that have long terrorized abortion providers. Instead, as anti-abortion activists realize how close they are to shuttering the last few sanctuaries for people seeking abortions, they may be in more danger than ever.

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So the cops’ handling of this situation in Washington raised a troubling, and increasingly urgent, question: With abortion clinics and providers under threat, can they trust that the police will keep them safe? 

“We know from past experience that when a clinic closes, the people who protested there and harassed the providers there don’t necessarily pack up and go home,” said Melissa Fowler, spokesperson for the National Abortion Federation. “In fact, we’ve seen them pack up and go to new states.”

Since 1977, there have been at least 11 murders, 26 attempted murders, 42 bombings, and 194 arsons directed against abortion providers, according to the National Abortion Federation. In the past year, at least three abortion clinics, in Ohio, Tennessee, and Wyoming, are thought to have been set ablaze intentionally.

The cops’ handling of this situation in Washington raised a troubling, and increasingly urgent, question: With abortion clinics and providers under threat, can they trust that the police will keep them safe?

The founder of that Wyoming clinic, Julie Burkhart, told VICE News that she’s particularly afraid for clinics in liberal areas. “They're going to be targets because that's where everybody's going to have to go and gather,” she said.

In May, the Department of Homeland Security started to prepare for the possibility that extremist violence, on both sides of the abortion wars, could spike after Roe falls. Authorities in several states have, in recent weeks, investigated vandalism and fires at several crisis pregnancy centers, anti-abortion facilities that aim to convince people not to get abortions.

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However, even while Roe was still the law of the land, harassment and violence against abortion providers was already on the rise.

On Friday, hours before Roe fell, the National Abortion Federation released its annual report on harassment and violence against abortion providers. The organization found that, in 2021, reports of stalking of abortion providers increased by 600 percent, vandalism by 54 percent—including incidents where people fired bullets through clinic windows—and bomb threats by 80 percent, compared to 2020. There were also 123 reports of assault and battery against abortion providers, patients, and patients’ companions, compared to 54 in 2020, according to the report, which tracks violence and harassment against abortion providers in the United States, Canada, Mexico City, and Colombia.

In interviews over the last several months with representatives from clinics scattered across the country, before the Supreme Court overturned Roe, a complex portrait of clinics’ relationship with law enforcement emerged. Some clinics relied on, and even paid for, regular protection from officers, while others are adamantly anti-police, especially given that many of their patients are people of color (who make up a disproportionate number of abortion patients in the United States). Some clinics have called in police, hoping that they will help mitigate some of the worst harassment from clinic protesters, only to find that officers seem to do nothing or even openly sympathize with anti-abortion activists. In one case, a local police officer even joined up with them.

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“If I could live my life and never call a cop ever again, I would be the happiest person,” said Calla Hales, executive director of A Preferred Women’s Health Center, an abortion clinic network with centers in North Carolina and Georgia. “But there isn’t another way right now to account for and hold accountable these folks that are continuing to push boundaries and trespass and harass patients—there’s no way around it, other than having to call the cops. So it’s pretty frustrating, especially knowing that nothing’s gonna happen.”

In the 1980s and 90s, the anti-abortion activist Randall Terry had a saying he liked to share: “If you think abortion is murder, then act like it’s murder.” Terry was the head of the controversial anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, and when his organization was at their zenith, that’s exactly what they did.

Like the modern-day TCAPP in Spokane, Operation Rescue was known for launching sieges against clinics. In 1991, its members descended on Witchita, Kansas, home to the abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, to blockade clinics. Here police did intervene; in just 42 days, more than 2,600 anti-abortion activists were arrested. Police said that, at one point, they even maced protesters to stop them. In total, between 1987 and 1994, Operation Rescue’s hardline tactics led to more than 70,000 arrests.

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And if abortion opponents thought that the procedure is murder, then some were willing to become murderers themselves to stop it. In 1993, David Gunn became the first abortion provider to be killed in the United States when an abortion opponent shot him in Pensacola, Florida. A year later, Dr. John Bayard Britton was shot to death in the same city.

In 1998, Dr. Barnett Slepian was assassinated by a sniper as he stood in the kitchen of his suburban New York home. In 2009, an abortion opponent shot and killed Tiller in church. And in 2015, a gunman’s rampage in a Colorado Planned Parenthood left three people dead.

These are the stories that rattle around in abortion providers’ heads.

After a draft of a Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe leaked in May, multiple clinics told VICE News that they were reassessing their security measures in anticipation of the final decision. Dillon, of the Spokane abortion clinic, said in an email that protesters at clinics run by Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho have become more “emboldened” since the leak. The affiliate has already seen its share of violence: One of its clinics was torched in 2015; in 2020, someone threatened to bomb the Spokane clinic; in 2021, another Planned Parenthood clinic in the Spokane area had its windows smashed.

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“We balance a fine line between not panicking and not frightening patients and staff and ourselves—myself included—and being realistic about what we can protect ourselves from,” said Renee Chelian, who runs three abortion clinics in the Detroit area. “I’m willing to be flexible and change whatever we need to. But I don’t want people to feel like they work in a prison, because they don’t.”

Michigan still has an abortion ban on the books that dates back to before Roe, although a judge recently blocked it from taking effect. (Seven states still retain pre-Roe bans that haven’t been enjoined by courts. In at least one of those states, state legislators are insisting that the ban is in effect and providers have stopped offering abortions.) Chelian, now in the midst of an effort supporting a ballot initiative to enshrine abortion rights in the Michigan state constitution, is poised to watch her clinics become havens for people fleeing abortion bans.

Because Chelian’s clinics are scattered, they fall into the jurisdiction of different police departments. While Chelian called one department “amazing,” another has been less so.

In summer 2020, protesters blocked the doors to Chelian’s clinic in Sterling Heights, Michigan, according to a recording posted to YouTube. During that blockade, they spent several minutes chatting with local police officers, who did not take steps to immediately remove them. (It’s unclear what the context is, but at one point during the conversation, one protester said, “They also did other good, helpful experiments at Auschwitz. They did experiments there, but they also murdered people.” A police officer then asked if people should have protested outside the Auschwitz gates.)

“We balance a fine line between not panicking and not frightening patients and staff and ourselves—myself included—and being realistic about what we can protect ourselves from.”

“Amazing that the police are willing to engage at this level, because the more that they talk, the better opportunity that we have to see women and children rescued,” one protester told the camera. “And that’s what obstructing the door of an abortion clinic is about and can be so successful.”

Eventually, the cops handcuffed the protesters and the visuals cut out. But the audio continued, and someone who seems to be an officer could be heard telling a protester, “I agree with where you guys stand.”

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At one point, this individual seemed to give advice on how to avoid getting arrested. “They were hellbent on you being arrested, right?” he said. “In hindsight, if you guys would have walked up to the sidewalk to do your protesting, no one would be arrested right now and the message would be even louder to them. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

At another, he seemed to reference the Black Lives Matter protests that had sparked in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. “My biggest issue with it is, you’re allowing these people to protest and burn cities to the ground and nobody cares,” the cop said. “And now they’re so upset when someone comes and protests at the clinic.”

The Sterling Heights Police Department didn’t respond to a VICE News request for comment.

People who work in or around other clinics told VICE News that they try to minimize calling law enforcement, or had stopped calling altogether. Although some police officers have been understanding, cops’ approach to abortion rights tended to range from indifferent and confused to hostile, and they were rarely proactive in shutting down a protest gone too far. Plus, it puts patients on edge.

“They just don’t do anything. They’ll just say, ‘OK, we’ll try and go and talk to them,’ and they act like it’s this game that everybody’s playing,” said Cassidy Thompson, who has served as a clinic escort at WE Health Clinic in Duluth, Minnesota. (Clinic escorts help walk people into the clinic, acting as a kind of human barrier between protesters and patients.) She continued, “And then patients started to get really scared. Patients inside were saying, ‘Why are the police here?’ There’s so much shame around abortion that patients are just really nervous.”

“They just don’t do anything. They’ll just say, ‘OK, we’ll try and go and talk to them,’ and they act like it’s this game that everybody’s playing.”

After Louisville, Kentucky, police killed Breonna Taylor and a Minneapolis police officer murdered Floyd, just a few hours away from Duluth, the clinic escorts at the WE Health Clinic had had enough. They decided: We will only call the police if it’s an emergency.

“We document and try to follow up with reproductive-justice attorneys. We’re still trying to figure out what to do when laws are violated, but [we’re] not calling law enforcement unless there’s some kind of injury or a sign of a weapon or things like that,” said Thompson, who estimated in April that the escorts hadn’t called the cops in a year. 

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Dave Drozdowski, a lieutenant with the Duluth Police Department, told VICE News that he didn’t know about any specific complaints regarding the force’s dealings with WE Health Clinic.

“If we were to get a call there about somebody harassing somebody, we would certainly show up,” Drozdowski said. “If people are just out in a public spot exercising their First Amendment rights, like walking back and forth and saying stuff to people like in normal conversations, there's really not a whole lot we can do about that.”

He added, “That's not a good situation at all, if they feel like they've lost hope in what we might be able to help them with.”

DeShawn Taylor, CEO of the Phoenix-based abortion clinic Desert Star Family Planning, said she’s really only called the police to deal with domestic issues that arose among patients, not anti-abortion harassment. But, she said, “In the day-to-day interactions where people are having issues that we’re trying to de-escalate, I just don’t ever think the police would be helpful in that regard, so we generally don’t call them.”

“It has a lot to do with the fact that I’m a Black woman, and I have a different relationship with the police growing up than most abortion providers,” said Taylor, an OB-GYN who has stopped providing abortions in the wake of Roe’s overturning. “So it’s not ever the first mind to call the police. Ever.”

With abortion set to become illegal across wide swaths of the country, police could pose another threat: They will be tasked with making sure that abortions don’t happen—and, potentially, criminalizing not only those who perform them but also people who get them. Calling in the cops could then become even riskier, particularly for patients of color.

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Although white people make up the largest share of abortion patients, Black and Latino people are overrepresented among abortion patients, according to 2014 research by the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion restrictions. Even before the Supreme Court dissolved Roe, people of color faced an elevated risk of criminal consequences for how they handle their pregnancies. Black women are “significantly more likely to be arrested, reported to state authorities by hospital staff, and subjected to felony charges,” according to a 2013 report by National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which studied 413 civil and criminal cases where, between 1973 and 2005, pregnant women lost their physical liberty through arrests, detentions, or similar circumstances that were linked to their pregnancies. 

They will be tasked with making sure that abortions don’t happen—and, potentially, criminalizing not only those who perform them, but people who get them. Calling in the cops could then become even riskier, particularly for patients of color.

Last year, Spokane police investigated a woman who miscarried because they believed that she could be guilty of criminal mistreatment of a child if she didn’t call 911 in time to save the fetus, the Spokesman-Review reported

Spokane police “conducted an initial investigation of the scene and surrounding circumstances in case the medical evidence suggested the fetus recovered had been born alive and abandoned or otherwise harmed, not for the purpose of criminalizing a medical incident,” Julie Humphreys, a spokesperson for the Spokane Police Department, told VICE News over email. 

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Humphreys declined to comment on the Planned Parenthood lawsuit over the TCAPP protests, since the Spokane Police Department was not a party in it. But, she said, Spokane police have “long monitored and provided public safety during gatherings at Planned Parenthood when various groups convene to exercise their constitutionally protected rights to gather/protest/demonstrate in public. Officers provide safety, ensure people are gathering peaceably, and provide enforcement when needed.”

In 2020, when the Spokesman-Review reported on Hice’s comments about protesters at Planned Parenthood, the department’s chief told the outlet that although he’s “not justifying the behavior,” it wasn’t “specifically a violation” of department policy.

In April, just months after Texas banned abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy, a woman was arrested in Texas for murder for what officials called “a self-induced abortion.” 

She was released soon afterward, after a local district attorney said she could not be prosecuted—but he commended local police for doing “their duty in investigating the incident brought to their attention by the reporting hospital.”

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Without Roe, every state surrounding Minnesota is now certain or likely to ban abortion, according to a Guttmacher Institute analysis. By April, Thompson had already started strategizing about what that will mean, security-wise, for the WE Health Clinic—especially given that, she said, escorts have long been frustrated because they feel like there’s no real way to deal with, say, a protester who may walk into the clinic courtyard.

“We’re seeing that there’s no community resources for things like that, that’s not necessarily violent but it needs a solution and we don’t have one other than calling law enforcement,” she said. “Which we’ve done a million times, and nothing happens.”

A few people who work with abortion clinics told VICE News that they had built or were building good relationships with their local police departments. One clinic escort in Ohio, where abortion is now legal up until about six weeks of pregnancy, said that an officer comes and keeps an eye on the protesters every Saturday, talking them down when necessary.

But the escort, who asked to be identified by her clinic nickname “Madre,” has long felt unsafe at the clinic. As anti-lockdown sentiment started swirling through the country in 2020, Madre was starting to get worried about the number of men who would show up, seemingly alone, to protest at the abortion clinic. She started carrying a gun to the clinic.

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“Most of the folks that we see over and over and over—we know they’re not violent, they’re not psychopaths or anything. They’re just dicks, and we can deal with it,” Madre said. “But then you get some weird guy that shows up that none of us have ever seen before, and we don’t know how he’s going to react to anything.”

As of March, Ohio no longer requires that people get a permit to carry a concealed firearm. “So god knows who’s carrying now,” Madre said.

That’s the thing about abortion clinic protesters, activists and providers say: You can never know who’s going to be a danger, until they are.

Although TCAPP’s presence in Spokane has waned over the last few years, the group is far from fading away. Its leader, Ken Peters, has moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where another Planned Parenthood abortion clinic was recently set aflame. (Peters has denied any TCAPP involvement.) In May, a man who said he attended Knoxville TCAPP activities across the street from that clinic was charged with assaulting a police officer during the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. (Peters has disavowed him.) 

Well-known abortion foes littered those riots. Far-right extremism and anti-abortion activism have long been braided together; now, it’s increasingly difficult to disentangle them

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Ona Marshall, co-owner of the EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville, told VICE News last year that protesters’ aggressiveness had been on the rise since 2016, when former President Donald Trump took office. Asked to name a time that the Louisville Metro Police Department protected the clinic, Marshall had a one-word answer: “Never.”

“We’re sort of a target for extremists across the country because they realize that LMPD does not enforce any public safety in our area,” Marshall said. “They travel to Louisville to kind of whip up the locals and cause a lot of issues on the sidewalk for people.”

The front walkway of the EMW Women’s Surgical Center opens onto the sidewalk of West Market Street, smack dab in downtown Louisville. Because it’s public property, anti-abortion activists have long lined up directly in front of the clinic, forming a kind of gauntlet that would-be patients must walk through.

Asked to name a time when the Louisville Metro Police Department protected the clinic, Marshall had a one-word answer: “Never.”

In videos obtained by VICE News, the protesters can be seen hoisting bloody images of supposed fetuses, following patients as they walk in, and using a microphone to speak to them. (They say things like “don’t kill your baby” and “be a man.”) In March 2021, a protester was caught on camera trying to drag a patient away from the clinic’s entrance. The protests are so ubiquitous that even the Google Maps images of the clinic feature protesters perched outside the clinic, complete with graphic signs.

Last year, an off-duty Louisville police officer wore his uniform and gun to join a protest outside EMW Women’s Surgical Center. Afterward, the clinic said in a statement that local police had told them that it would not intervene with protesters because the force “is not issuing citations for misdemeanor offenses.”

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“At the same time,” the clinic, which is Black-owned, pointed out the “LMPD made numerous misdemeanor arrests of social justice protesters over the course of the last year,” during demonstrations in the very city where police shot and killed Breonna Taylor.

The Louisville-Metro Police Department suspended the police officer who joined the protesters. He sued, and, in January, won a $75,000 settlement.

The Louisville City Council recently voted to create a “safety zone” around the clinic, to provide a bubble of protection from rowdy protesters. But in September, when the zone took effect, some protesters ignored it—and the cops didn’t show up to enforce it, though Marshall told the local Courier Journal that she called them several times

“Given the department’s current staffing issues and other priorities, it is neither feasible nor prudent to post officers outside EMW for the purpose of witnessing an infraction,” the Louisville Metro Police Department said in a statement at the time. (About a week later, police had issued at least one warning over the buffer zone.)

Marshall didn’t immediately respond to a VICE News request for comment Tuesday, but Kentucky is now enforcing a near-total abortion ban. The ACLU and Planned Parenthood have sued to challenge both that law and the state’s six-week abortion ban. 

“The department is prepared to enforce the ordinance at EMW Women’s Clinic as well as any other healthcare facilities throughout our jurisdiction,” the Louisville Metro Police Department told VICE News in a statement. Under that ordinance, the department said, individuals must be given a written warning for their first violation, and officers must personally witness the second or take a report. The department said it’s recently improved its process of tracking written warnings.

“I think a lot of providers at this point are literally in survival mode,” Hales said, “and we are just doing the best we can to keep going and knowing that shit’s about to get real.”

In the days since Roe’s overturning, anger has swelled against the Biden administration and other Democrats, who have campaigned for decades on abortion-rights policies yet failed, repeatedly, to codify Roe’s protections into law before it was too late. In a speech after Roe’s overturning, President Joe Biden stressed that his administration would try to protect abortion-inducing pills—which would be illegal under state abortion bans anyway—and defend pregnant people’s right to “remain free to travel safely to another state to seek the care they need.”

He didn’t mention one tool that the feds can already use when clinic protests can get out of hand: the FACE Act. As anti-abortion demonstrations raged in 1994, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, more commonly known as the FACE Act. If a protester blockaded, vandalized, or used their body to stop a patient from getting an abortion, among other offenses, they could suddenly face severe federal penalties. 

But the FACE Act can’t stop all harassment, especially when it doesn’t get enforced. Fowler, the National Abortion Federation spokesperson, said that her organization would like to see federal authorities follow through on more potential FACE cases. 

“It’s a very small number that actually get prosecuted,” she said. “FACE encompasses any type of obstruction outside a clinic, so on most days people are violating FACE, maybe just for a few minutes—but they are. But they don’t all get investigated or prosecuted.”

The Justice Department didn’t respond to questions from VICE News about future enforcement of the FACE Act. 

Over the spring, Calla Hales’ clinic in Charlotte, North Carolina, regularly saw upwards of a hundred protesters each weekend. She had two bomb threats in 2021; she told VICE News in April, “We haven’t had any resolution on that.” But she can’t really dwell on that, or about how local cops will behave now that Roe is gone, or about anything other than just trying to keep her clinics open and her patients safe.

“I think a lot of providers at this point are literally in survival mode,” Hales said, “and we are just doing the best we can to keep going and knowing that shit’s about to get real.”

Tagged:

abortion, police, texas, Washington, wyoming, Abortion Clinics, anti abortion extremists

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