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.“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.”
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 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.
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?
“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.”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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.”“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.
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.”
“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.”