Following Shooting, Will We Take Clinic Violence Seriously?
The recent shooting at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, which resulted in the murder of three innocent people, was a tragedy. But it was not a shock.
There is a long and bloody history of clinic violence in America, with over 300 acts of violence against clinics, staff, doctors, volunteers, and patients since 1973. Murders, arson, bombings, acid attacks. And these are only the incidents that involve police and newspaper headlines – on a daily basis, staff and patients of clinics across the country face constant threats, harassment, and intimidation from anti-abortion extremists. It is no shock that a radical minority’s use of hateful and violent rhetoric can lead its followers to employ hatred and violence.
As a clinic escort, I have witnessed this firsthand. I would never confront a protestor, never speak to them, and never interfere if a patient willingly stops to engage in conversation. Yet by the simple act of being there, I am a target of hatred. I have been screamed at, called horrible names, physically intimidated, photographed and recorded. And I have seen patients endure far worse. Protestors scream at patients and predict dire consequences for their presumed choice — cancer, infertility, suicide. A woman approaches the clinic and a typical protestor rushes up, stands far too close, thrusts pamphlets and plastic babies in her face, and refuses to take “no” for answer. He dogs the patient’s footsteps to the door, or as far as he is legally permitted to follow her, and then he stands outside and screams his message through the windows. Once she is inside the clinic, he goes out to the parking lot to take a photo of her license plate, perhaps for posting on an extreme anti-abortion website.
Thankfully, tragic events like last week’s remain rare. But aggression and fear-mongering in the anti-abortion movement are not – that is at the very core. Every single day, at clinics across this country, anti-abortion protestors assemble. These so-called sidewalk counselors are not peaceful, compassionate voices. They are bullies of the worst kind, hostile and relentless. As a volunteer clinic escort, I have spent countless hours standing outside of a clinic, in rain, snow, and stifling heat, for the simple purpose of helping patients get in the door of a clinic.
Every step of this process breaks down a woman’s sense of safety, privacy, and basic autonomy. The protester doesn’t want this woman to have an abortion, but he cannot stop her from needing or seeking care, and so he makes accessing a clinic as difficult and traumatizing as possible. What I have described is not an exaggeration or a rarity. This is a occurring at clinics in every state, every day. Harassment, violence, and misinformation are the true tactics of the anti-abortion movement. The goal is not to help women, as their activists like to claim. The goal is fear. The goal is deterrence.
So while anti-abortion leaders may condemn the murders that are committed in the name of their cause, they continue to stoke the anger and hatred of their most fanatical adherents; and the silent majority of reasonable, peaceful people with anti-abortion views continues to allow their movement to be dominated and represented by a radical minority.
It is obvious that we need change. The extremism of the anti-abortion movement has already created too many tragedies, and if we are to stem the tide, it is imperative that our public leaders take immediate, decisive action. First, legislators, prosecutors, and courts must take clinic violence seriously. We need laws that protect clinics, staff, and patients, and we need police departments, federal agencies, prosecutors, and courts to send a message that perpetrators of clinic violence will be investigated and prosecuted as domestic terrorists. Second, anti-abortion leaders and politicians must acknowledge the violent misogyny and cruel tactics that fuel their movement. Offering empty statements condemning violence, while continuing business as usual — this is a tacit endorsement of future violence. Finally, we need accountability. Every person in the anti-abortion movement who fails to stand up in opposition to the violence of a radical fringe is accountable. Silence is not an option.
Ultimately, the anti-abortion movement will be better served by renouncing violence and choosing peaceful advocacy – and by allowing women the basic human dignity of making their own decisions without harassment, intimidation, or terror.
Ilana Flemming is the Manager of Advocacy Initiatives at , the leading Jewish organization empowering women and girls.