(WOMENSENEWS)–Last year was a valley.
In the past three decades, anti-abortion activists have committed thousands of incidents of harassment and intimidation, trespassing, vandalism and stalking against abortion clinics, patients and staff, according to the National Abortion Federation. In addition to these minor crimes, the National Abortion Federation has also documented 166 arsons, 41 bombings, 82 attempted bombings and arsons, and seven murders and 17 attempted murders in the United States and Canada. This plus 572 bomb threats, 354 death threats, and hundreds of pieces of hate mail, e-mail add up to a climate of fear and harassment and violence that has besieged clinics and clinic workers.
But not last year. While there have been peaks and valleys on a graph of serious crimes against clinics over the years, it is nevertheless striking that, according to the National Abortion Federation’s statistics for 2002, there were no murders or attempted murders last year in the United States and Canada. No bombings or attempted bombings. And only one arson.
Analysts credit Attorney General John Ashcroft for making clear that violent crime will not be tolerated and the change in the public tolerance of anti-abortion violence after the attacks of Sept. 11. In its aftermath, more than 500 anthrax threats were mailed to clinics and abortion rights organizations and Ashcroft issued a statement that these crimes were serious and would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Within days of Ashcroft’s statement, Clayton Waagner, who has admitted to sending the anthrax threats, was captured.
Law enforcement authorities felt that “it was only a matter of time before anti-choice extremists might be able to get a hold of anthrax–and that they had already said very vocally that they would not hesitate to use it,” says Vicki Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation. “That Ashcroft characterized it [the anthrax threats] as domestic terrorism and the seriousness with which the FBI treated the matter, I believe, headed off copycat crimes.”
This is the most visible example of a long-term shift in the attitude and response of law enforcement, says Dallas Blanchard, a retired professor of sociology who has studied anti-abortion-related crimes and criminals.
For a long time, he says, local enforcement authorities, “including police and judges, were in cahoots with the antis. Sometimes the police were actively assisting–like looking up license plate numbers [of clinic patients and staff.] We had prosecutors vowing not to prosecute. Judges that would not levy fines. Some even saying these things were justifiable.”
Regarding the dearth of extreme violence against abortion providers in 2002, analysts offer varying, but overlapping explanations. One of them is last year’s arrest of James C. Kopp, the admitted killer of abortion provider Dr. Barnett Slepian in the Buffalo, N.Y. area in 1998.
“Kopp’s apprehension really shook people,” Blanchard says. “And the use of high technology by the law enforcement, intercepting Kopp’s e-mail correspondence . . . has given people pause.”
“The network is laying low,” adds Katherine Spillar, national coordinator of the Feminist Majority Foundation, “because they are not sure how far the investigation will go and they are not sure how much the suspects will give up.”
Still, the radical Army of God plans to rally in Buffalo on Wednesday, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, police say. The Buffalo News reports that local, state and federal law enforcement will be ready to protect not only the city’s abortion clinic, but also local hospitals and gay bars. The rally also apparently prompted a backlash in the anti-abortion community. One group pulled out of the rally, claiming it had become “a referendum for the Army of God.” And Operation Rescue criticized the rally as a distraction from the fight against abortion.
New Laws and Court Injunctions Head Off Violence
While analysts of anti-abortion violence agree that upticks over the past 25 years are generally attributable to organized efforts, they see a variety of factors at work when seeking to explain downward trends.
One of the most important factors, the experts say, has been the 1994 Federal Access to Clinic Entrances Act, known as FACE, which placed significant law enforcement responsibility in federal hands and reduced the kind of winking complicity between local law enforcement and anti-abortion extremists.
“FACE moved it away from state and local courts,” says Blanchard, “and recast the whole debate.”
FACE increased the penalties for blockading clinics and related activities that were not clearly protected by the First Amendment, notably violence and threats of violence. The bill was passed in the wake of the 1993 murder of Dr. David Gunn by an anti-abortion protestor, Michael Griffin, and made it a crime to use force and violence to prevent people from exercising their right to receive and to provide abortions.
National Abortion Federation statistics show that the main target of FACE–blockades, and related crimes aimed at preventing patients and staff from coming and going–have dramatically declined since the law was passed.
“FACE has had an impact on blockades that used to shut down clinics for weeks at a time. Where FACE has been enforced, it has a deterrent effect,” Saporta says. From 1987 to 1993, the National Abortion Federation documented 609 clinic blockades and 33,474 arrests. In 1994, the year FACE was passed, there were 25 blockades and 217 arrests. From 1995 to 1997, there were 37 blockades and 138 arrests. Then in 1998, these statistics took a sudden, steeper decline.
The reason may have been the 1998 verdict in NOW v. Scheidler, a federal racketeering lawsuit, in which the leaders of the Pro-Life Action Network and its 100 member organizations were convicted of engaging in a pattern of criminal activity aimed at preventing clinics from operating. The National Organization for Women sought a nationwide injunction against the defendants, who it believed would continue their activities. In 1999, a judge issued the injunction, which remains in force. The case was recently heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Faye Clayton, the lead attorney in the 17-year-old case, says that even before the judge issued the order against the defendant organizations, there was a “de facto injunction” in place, in light of the unanimous jury verdict.
“The day of reckoning had come,” she says, “and they knew it, because any further acts by the covered groups would be added to the complaint, and would be dealt with severely, and I would say, appropriately.”
While precise effect of the national injunction is hard to measure, since it seeks to deter acts that might have been committed if it weren’t there, Spillar says that data compiled by her organization has repeatedly shown that “injunctions have reduced violence and harassment at clinics.”
A glance at the statistics of bombings and arsons in the worst years also demonstrates that there is no substitute for effective law enforcement action. For example, in 1984 and 1985–the years that saw the first big surge of clinic violence–there were a total of 24 arson and 18 bombings, according to the U.S. Justice Department’s National Task Force on Violence against Health Care Providers. The arrest and conviction of several people responsible for multiple clinic arsons seems to have led to a decline, and perhaps headed off an escalation in arsons and bombings in subsequent years. A cell group led by Michael Bray was responsible for 11 bombings and arsons against clinics and abortion rights organizations in 1984 and 1985. (Bray served four years in federal prison, and has since emerged as a leader in the radical Army of God.)
Tolerance of Aggressive Harassment Falls after Sept. 11
Spillar and other analysts say that anti-abortion activists were “emboldened” by the election of George W. Bush, and the appointment of anti-choice John Ashcroft as attorney general. This led, they say, to a marked increase in picketing and harassment of abortion providers and patients in 2001, characterized by added aggressiveness and such new tactics as photographing and videotaping of clinic patients and staff and posting thousands of these images on the Internet.
Although activity around the clinics has intensified, Ann Glazier, director of clinic security for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, sees a change in public acceptance of such activities since 9/11.
“After 9/11 there is far less tacit public support for anti-abortion violence.” Glazier says this shift in public attitudes extends to other, aggressive forms of clinic harassment. “When anti-abortion activists shoved literature through car windows in front of clinics,” she explains, “it was often difficult to get the police to agree that it was a traffic hazard. There were car wrecks out there! The police would say things like ‘well that seems to be a protected religious activity.’ But since Sept. 11, the antis have had difficulty getting approval for that kind of thing.”
But even as public tolerance is for the activities of anti-abortion militants is receding, Spillar observes that “there has been no backing off” by the violent wing of the anti-abortion movement. Criminally violent anti-abortion activists, she says, are simply lying low and will likely continue their assaults at a more opportune time.
“There is an escalation of the rhetoric,” Spillar says. “And frequently, when the rhetoric escalates, the incidence of violent acts escalates.” Indeed, proponents of anti-abortion violence have been publicly praising accused murder Kopp as a hero and will be rallying in Buffalo before and during his trial.
Seeing the battle as far from over–the encouraging 2002 statistics notwithstanding–pro-choice organizations are pressing state and federal law enforcement agencies to pursue the network that they believe helped Waagner and Kopp.
“Other criminals,” says Saporta, “will continue to rise up to replace the high-profile criminals who get caught, because they know they can count on food, shelter and other support. I think that until we put those people in jail, we will not be able to stop the violence.”
Meanwhile Dallas Blanchard is taking the long view. He sees the decades of anti-abortion violence as a sure sign of the death of the movement. He compares the recent history of anti-abortion militancy to the last decades of segregation and to efforts to crush organized labor with violence. “These,” he says, “were in retrospect their last gasps.”
Frederick Clarkson is the author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, and of the forthcoming Profiles in Terrorism: Twenty Years of Antiabortion Violence.
For more information:
Also see Women’s Enews, November 25, 2002:
“Kopp Lays Groundwork to Justify Murdering Slepian”:
National Abortion Federation:
National Task Force on Violence Against Health Care Providers:
Read the actual Roe V. Wade decision:
Women’s Enews, January 15, 2003:
“Excerpts from Supreme Court Decision in Roe v. Wade”:
Tomorrow: Seeing Beyond Roe, Bush Aims at Contraception