A South Carolina man named Rodney Allen has been arrested and charged with calling in a fake bomb threat to a Jacksonville, Florida, health clinic in order to prevent a woman he was formerly in a relationship with from obtaining an abortion.
According to a sworn affidavit submitted in federal court last month by FBI Special Agent Robert W. Blythe, these events took place after Allen allegedly sexually assaulted the woman—identified in the affidavit only as A.S.—which resulted in her becoming pregnant. A.S. also alleged that Allen was physically abusive, and had threatened to kill multiple members of her family. The case, USA v Allen, is still in process in a Florida district court. (Blythe did not respond to VICE’s request for comment.)
A.S. had made nearly a dozen attempts to make an appointment to end the pregnancy, scheduling visits at clinics in North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia. But each time, a person believed to be Allen called the clinics on her behalf and canceled them. Clinic personnel told Blythe they believe that, in addition to Allen apparently having access to records of A.S.’s phone calls and text messages, Allen had obtained A.S.’s patient code, allowing him to call the health centers and change her appointments without her consent as an “authorized party.”
A.S. was finally able to secure an appointment for an abortion on August 29, at a clinic in Jacksonville. On that day, Allen escalated his tactics: He allegedly called the clinic nine times, and even called the health center’s owner on her cell phone. He placed an additional seven calls to other Jacksonville abortion clinics. During one call, Allen told a staffer who answered the phone that A.S. had brought a weapon into the clinic. A little more than an hour later, he called again to alert the staff that someone was “coming to the clinic to blow it up”; he just wanted to let them know “ahead of time.” He also allegedly canceled the hotel reservation A.S. had made in order to obtain the abortion. (VICE has also reached out to Allen’s attorney.)
Clinic staff filled out internal forms detailing the threats, temporarily suspended operations and contacted local authorities, who searched the property. The next day, Blythe also swept the premises, along with two other federal officials. In the coming weeks, federal authorities conducted multiple interviews with A.S. and Allen, resulting in his arrest on September 25. Court documents do not indicate whether or not A.S. was able to obtain an abortion.
He faces one criminal charge for making a threat by phone, and another for “interference with access to reproductive health care services.” The latter is not only a federal crime under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, but it's also a form of abuse known as reproductive coercion, which includes practices such as heavily monitoring a partner’s menstrual cycle, destroying or tampering with their birth control, and pressuring them to get pregnant. As many as one in four women ages 18 to 45 experience reproductive coercion in their lifetimes.
The case against Allen shows how clinic threats and reproductive coercion can operate in tandem to terrorize both patients and staff.
Reproductive coercion usually doesn’t occur in isolation. It often involves other forms of abuse as well, such as intimate partner violence or sexual violence, which A.S. alleges she experienced in the case against Allen.
“Sexual coercion is a type of reproductive coercion,” said Jamila Perritt, the vice chair of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and an OB/GYN in Washington D.C. “These are behaviors to maintain power and control.”
A December 2018 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that some 2.9 million American women experienced rape-related pregnancy at some point in their lives. Women who get pregnant as the result of being raped by an intimate partner are more likely to have experienced reproductive coercion as compared to women who were raped by an intimate partner but did not get pregnant.
“Our findings suggest that intimate partner reproductive coercion may be the reason why some of the women who are raped by an intimate partner become pregnant,” Kathleen Basile, a senior scientist at the CDC’s division of violence prevention, and a lead author of the study, told VICE.
Not much is known, however, about when and how reproductive coercion can lead to harassment of abortion clinics and the people who work there. Though instances of clinic harassment are well-documented, it’s difficult to track the motivation behind them. Still, there’s some anecdotal evidence to suggest it’s not entirely uncommon for the two to be connected.
Katharine Ragsdale, the interim president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation (NAF), a group that publishes an annual report on clinic harassment, said in her decades of leading abortion rights organizations, she’s heard of many instances of reproductive coercion factoring into clinic harassment.
“We’ve seen instances of people calling a clinic multiple times to cancel their partners’ appointments,” Ragsdale said. If someone wants to stop their partner from getting an abortion, she continued, “they might do that by locking her up, or threatening her. But if they’re unable to control them, they might try to shut down their access to the clinic: bombing it, setting fire to it.”
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Allen’s alleged threats to the reproductive health center are part of a surge in clinic violence that has occurred since President Donald Trump took office. According to NAF’s 2018 report on anti-abortion violence and disruption, instances of death threats and threats of harm rose to 1,388 in 2018, more than triple the number from 2015.
Ragsdale said it makes sense that a person who holds extreme anti-abortion beliefs might consider acting on them if someone in their life is considering an abortion—especially if they’ve already tried to exert power over their reproductive decisions.
“An anti-choice person might get especially triggered when someone they love or feel like they ought to control wants an abortion,” Ragsdale said. “So their anti-choice extremist [ideologies] get played out when something hits close to home.”
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Experts say there’s still a lot left to learn about reproductive coercion and how it can present in people’s lives. Basile said her CDC research team is now studying how reproductive coercion intersects with race and ethnicity; the team is also exploring different approaches for identifying and preventing sexual violence and intimate partner violence in order to decrease rape-related pregnancies.
In the meantime, providers are using the methods at their disposal to screen patients for reproductive coercion. Perritt of ACOG said one of the most effective ways she’s helped patients is by asking flat-out: Do you need to hide your birth control from anyone?
When one patient said yes recently, she and Perritt were able to determine together that her best option was an IUD. Perritt said she was able to trim the string so the patient’s partner—who had been pressuring her to have another child with him in addition to physically abusing her—couldn’t detect it.
“This conversation only came to light because I screened her for reproductive coercion,” Perritt said. “Screening for reproductive coercion is part of implementing trauma care frameworks into the care-delivery space. And that involves centering the person that’s in front of us, and meeting the needs of that person in that moment.”
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