Anti-abortion violence has been a real, present danger for decades. In the past few years, zealots have committed acts of targeted harassment, assault, and attempted arson at health-care providers; in the 1990s, extremists murdered several providers in their places of work, in church, and in their own homes.
Under Trump, instances have clinic harassment, threats against providers, and vandalism have skyrocketed. And just last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray seemed to hint at a new threat to the pro-choice movement. He testified before the House Judiciary Committee on the Bureau’s decision to revise domestic terrorism terminology, dividing into four broad categories — one of which is “abortion violent terrorism.” But he didn’t just mean anti-abortion terrorists. The updated definition includes “people on either side of that issue who commit violence on behalf of different views on that topic,” according to a new report from the Daily Beast.
Wray’s comments could indicate something abortion-rights advocates have feared for years: that this administration may be willing to target abortion-rights supporters. This kind of rhetorical conflation could have a chilling impact on those fighting to protect abortion access, who say they already face indifference and, sometimes, outright hostility from law enforcement. If the FBI is signaling that pro-choice activists are no different than those who harass and even attack abortion providers, it could send a message to law enforcement to treat them as perpetrators rather than victims.
No one is more on the frontlines of the fight for access than abortion-clinic escorts, who volunteer to help guide patients and staff past throngs of anti-choice protesters. As an escort myself, I’ve seen what these protesters are capable of. They scream, “Don’t murder your baby!” into megaphones. They follow women, sometimes for blocks, calling them murderers and “jezebels.”
We escorts are there to help abortion patients; protesters are there to shame, intimidate, and harass them. When law enforcement fails to make this distinction, they embolden the latter group. This is something I’ve experienced firsthand: In the spring of 2014, I approached a young woman outside of the clinic where I volunteered. She was trying to get to her appointment, but there was a mob of irate protesters by the door. One was screaming into his megaphone that the women inside were going to burn in hell. Another held a huge, gruesome sign with a doctored picture of a bloody fetus, while a third stared at us, a wry smirk plastered across his face. He grabbed his phone and held it up, filming our every move. She whispered in my ear, “Please don’t let them film me. Please.”
As we walked toward the door, I held my hand up to block her face from the phone’s camera lens. “Harassment! That’s harassment,” the man holding the phone screamed. “That ‘deathscort’ just harassed me!”
Thirty minutes later, the police showed up. I told the officer that I hadn’t touched the camera or the protester. I simply blocked him from filming someone who didn’t want to be filmed. It wasn’t harassment. It didn’t matter. The officer wrote up a report about it anyway. I begged him not to take down my home address, aware that some anti-abortion groups gather information on abortion providers and pro-choice advocates and target them at home. His response? “Well, you should have thought about that before you came out here.”
“Both-sides-ing” domestic terrorism is an absurd enterprise, but especially when it comes to anti-abortion terrorism. There have been 125 cases of vandalism and 15 cases of assault and battery against clinics last year alone. Anti-abortion terrorists have murdered 11 people. START’s Global Terrorism Database includes roughly 300 acts of anti-abortion violence. On the pro-choice side? Not one. (Indeed, the FBI wasn’t able to provide an example of pro-choice terrorism when asked by the Daily Beast, instead pointing to a lone threat in an online-comment section.)
It’s an absurd false equivalence, made more ridiculous by the fact that anti-abortion harassment is so widespread and such a recognized threat that some forms are already a federal crime. Under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, passed in 1994, it’s a felony to threaten or physically block someone from accessing a reproductive health-care facility, punishable by up to ten years in prison and fines up to $250,000.
But the law is only effective when it’s enforced, which requires the Justice Department to cooperate with local law enforcement. According to clinic escorts, that rarely happens. “The police in Milwaukee are pretty useless,” said Leslie Filingham, who’s been clinic escorting in the city since 1991. “They just want us all to go away.”
Benita Ulisano, a clinic escort in Chicago and founder of the Clinic Vest Project, says she rarely bothers to call the police anymore when anti-abortion protesters violate the city’s bubble zone, which requires all protesters to stay eight feet away from a patient. According to Ulisano, police often do nothing, which only serves to embolden the protesters, who then feel that the state is on their side.
Law enforcement’s often laissez-faire attitude to anti-abortion harassment and violence has allowed that conduct to thrive, despite having the legal means to curb it. And now, pro-choice volunteers have to contend with the possibility that the FBI could err on the side of “both sides,” essentially equating bomb threats and acts of arson with — what, exactly? Me holding up my hand to block someone from filming an abortion patient?
My encounter with law enforcement was six years ago. What would have happened to me if it had taken place today, with the federal government sending a message that pro-choicers are a potentially serious threat?
Clinic escorts like Ulisano already avoid contacting the police at all. If law enforcement becomes even more of an enemy, that could mean more protesters, less protection, and fewer people to ensure access to safe abortion care.
Perhaps that’s the point.