On Friday, September 4, a Planned Parenthood in Pullman, Washington, was set on fire a few hours before dawn; security footage shows a "flammable object" being thrown through the clinic window. Twenty-eight days later, a clinic in Thousand Oaks, California, was firebombed in an almost identical manner. In mid-July, there was an attempted arson at an abortion provider in Aurora, Illinois, and on August 1, there was a car fire outside of a Planned Parenthood construction site in New Orleans. But most national media outlets didn't report on the attacks, and even fewer still connected them.
Last week, NARAL Pro-Choice America released a petition calling on the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to direct the FBI to investigate the recent spate of arsons and clinic vandalisms as acts of domestic terrorism. To date, it's amassed over 40,000 signatures. "Make no mistake: we are witnessing acts of domestic terrorism at health care facilities across the country, targeting women who seek medical advice and the doctors who are brave enough to counsel them," NARAL President Ilyse Hogue said in a statement to Media Matters. "But, instead of treating these incidents as the real and present danger to innocent civilians that they are, Congress is inviting anti-abortion extremists to testify at hearings, the Department of Justice has yet to announce a full investigation, and the news media remains silent. Where is the outrage?"
The outrage, it seems, is reserved for outlandish claims about harm done to fetuses. This summer, an anti-abortion group called the "Center for Medical Progress" released several videos purporting to show that Planned Parenthood profits off the sale of fetal body parts. Their claims were quickly and thoroughly picked apart—women who terminate unwanted pregnancies can elect to donate the fetal tissue to medical research, and Planned Parenthood maintains that they're merely compensated for costs associated with transporting and processing. However, public fury surrounding the allegations reached a sustained fever pitch, with every single Republican presidential candidate calling to defund the reproductive rights organization and thousands of protesters picketing clinics nationwide, with Planned Parenthood announcing that it would no longer accept funds related to donated fetal tissue.
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Meanwhile, abortion providers witnessed an escalation in hateful and intimidating rhetoric. "This isn't something new, but it's definitely been notable since the summer with [the release of] these videos," said Sasha Bruce, NARAL senior vice president of campaigns and strategy. "What's notable is the intensity and the level of these attacks. It is not common that you hear about three arsons in a row; it is not common that you hear about this level of vandalism."
It's a well-documented fact that abortion providers must constantly deal with violence and intimidation. Since we live in a country with deep and obvious objections to allowing women to exercise basic reproductive autonomy, those who provide abortion services are accustomed to targeted threats and harassment. From 1977 to 2014, according to the National Abortion Federation (NAF), eight abortion providers have been murdered, and there have been an additional 17 attempted murders; there have been 42 clinic bombings and 182 arsons; and there have been over 1500 instances of clinic vandalism.
People have been calling clinics and making threats to murder all the doctors or to wipe out all the staff.
But according to Vicki Saporta, the president of NAF, the "intensity and volume" of hate speech following the release of the videos is "unprecedented." "There are direct threats in a lot of online posts. People have also been calling clinics and making threats to murder all the doctors or to wipe out all the staff," she told Broadly in a phone interview. "When you have the kind of rhetoric that incites people to violence, the people who are making the threats need to be held accountable. Before somebody gets hurt, law enforcement needs to step up their efforts to identify who the people are who are making threats and appropriately prosecute them."
Every reproductive health group I spoke with blamed this summer's anti–Planned Parenthood videos for this increase in violent rhetoric. As we previously reported, the Center for Medical Progress is comprised of anti-abortion extremists—some of whom have direct ties to terrorists—but their claims have been legitimized and parroted by politicians nonetheless, not to mention covered exhaustively in the media. (Troy Newman, who serves on the Center's board and is listed in their founding documents as secretary, also runs Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion extremist group with a long history of harassing and intimidating providers; he was recently denied entry into Australia due to his ties to violent groups.) In the past few months the allegations made in the Center for Medical Progress videos have been roundly debunked, analysis of their "raw" footage has shown that it was deceptively edited, and every investigation into Planned Parenthood's fetal tissue donation program has turned up absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing.
Still, Planned Parenthood has been subjected to extreme, aggressive scrutiny—last month, House Republicans grilled Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards for over four hours—while the Center for Medical Progress has gone relatively unexamined. "In multiple hearings over the past month, [the Republicans] don't actually call the people who've made the allegations and who supposedly have all of this research to testify," said Bruce. "They let them go unquestioned, and they continue to espouse their agenda—which is one backed by really dangerous extremists."
There are consequences to unfairly demonizing abortion providers.
While Center for Medical Progress president David Daleiden has publicly condemned violence against providers, he has a history of using obviously inflammatory language. Most recently, he appeared on Glenn Beck and described meeting with a late-term abortion doctor while he was undercover. "We were talking and kind of joking and laughing about something... and all of a sudden, her eyes looked really hard and mean and aggressive," Daleiden said. "That was probably the most significant moment that I had kind of early on encountering the evil that we were going to be directly in contact [with]." And Center for Medical Progress board member Troy Newman has publicly called the murder of an abortion doctor "a justifiable defensive action."
"There are consequences to unfairly demonizing abortion providers," said Saporta. "Before somebody gets hurt, we need to ramp this down instead of continuing to have these threats escalate."
Local news reports indicate that the FBI is involved in the arson investigations in Washington and California, and they've looked into the Illinois case as well. According to Gary Jenkins, the chief of police in Pullman, Washington, the Inland Northwest Joint Terrorism Task Force (INJTTF) is working with the FBI to assist his department in investigating September's arson, and FBI technical experts are examining video footage of the attack for additional leads. At this point in the investigation, though, he said they "cannot determine if this is a case of domestic terrorism."
The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) were also notified of the arson in California (and Senator Barbara Boxer wrote to the FBI the day after the California attack in order to thank them for their "immediate and diligent response"). According to Captain John Reilly of the Ventura County Sheriff's office, the arson is currently being investigated internally—although he's not sure how involved the FBI is. David Cohen, author of Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Story of Anti-Abortion Terrorism, said in an email that he would be "shocked" if the Department of Justice weren't investigating the attacks, but the DOJ declined to comment on NARAL's petition or the current status of any ongoing investigations. Meanwhile, a review by liberal watchdog site Media Matters found that "cable news shows and leading newspapers around the country remained largely silent on arson attacks that targeted Planned Parenthood clinics following the release of a series of deceptively-edited, anti-choice videos smearing the health care provider."
I think people are kind of like, 'Well, it just happens,' and they don't want to label it as the terrorism that it is.
One of the FBI's definitions of domestic terrorism is a dangerous, illegal act that appears intended to "intimidate or coerce a civilian population." According to Renee Bracey Sherman, an outspoken pro-choice activist and writer, many people are reluctant to see attacks on reproductive choice as acts of terrorism because of our cultural stigma against abortion. "I think people are kind of like, 'Well, it just happens,' and they don't want to label it as the intimidation and harassment tactics that it is, the silencing that it is, and the terrorism that it is," she told Broadly. "I think we also, as a nation, see terrorism as brown people, Muslim people, people who drop bombs. We refuse to look at our own culture."
After Bracey Sherman wrote an essay about getting an abortion when she was 19, she found herself on the receiving end of sustained, organized misogynistic vitriol. "I get lots of emails all the time, just people telling me that I'm a dirty slut, that I should kill myself," she said. "One of the emails I received, somebody said they hoped that I got sold into the sex slave trade and that I'd get raped over and over and over again and get pregnant and be forced to have babies over and over and over again until I finally died from it." According to her, some people she spoke to after the harassment implied that she should expect such abuse for having spoken out about such a "controversial" topic. "It's actually quite impactful, and it keeps people in silence," she said. "I think that that's what terrorism is designed to do. It is designed to keep people of a certain group or identity or political opinion quiet and to keep them from speaking out and demanding that they be treated with respect."
Unable to legislate away women's constitutional right to choice 42 years after Roe v. Wade, anti-abortion extremists rely on threats and violence to prevent women from undergoing the procedure. "For the extremists within the anti-abortion movement, terrorism is a last-resort tactic, as they perceive themselves as having failed in the political arena," said Cohen. "So they are taking extreme, violent measures to try to accomplish their goal. There have been murders, bombings, chemical attacks, stalking, assaults, arsons, and more. And, importantly, this is not a relic of the past, nor something new just in the past few months. This terrorism has been a regular part of anti-abortion extremism for decades."
This terrorism has been a regular part of anti-abortion extremism for decades.
The irony here is palpable, to say the least: Abortion providers are merely trying to help women access essential health care in full compliance with the law, whereas extreme opponents of abortion are resorting to violence, to intimidation, and to flat-out lying in order to advance their agenda. In the past few months, Congress and at least 13 states have launched investigations into Planned Parenthood, whereas the DOJ has yet to publicly announce a full investigation into the recent attempts to burn abortion clinics to the ground.
"We've been in similar situations before where there has been an escalated atmosphere of threats. There have been times where there have been threats, and there have been murders, and providers refused to be threatened and intimidated out of providing necessary healthcare to women," said Saporta. "It's very difficult to be an abortion provider in today's climate, and these people should be praised for what they do, not demonized. They are true heroes who put their lives on the line to make sure that women have access to abortion care that they need."