Abortion opponents distance themselves from clinic burnings and bombings and murders of abortions providers. Yet it's their violent rhetoric that sets these acts into motion.
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Last July, I was in Alabama interviewing members of Operation Save America, one of the most extreme anti-abortion activist groups in the nation. One evening, I attended their nightly church service. Before I could enter I, like everyone else going through the doors, was asked to stop at a table and sign a small business card. On it, I pledged that as a member of OSA I did not condone violence, and that I would not commit a violent act even in defense of the unborn.
I thought about that pledge card the next day as I visited an empty lot in Pensacola, Florida. Two and half years later, caution tape and broken glass still littered the ground where once stood the abortion clinic that was set aflame in the early hours of New Year’s Day morning. My companion, activist Michelle Kinsey Bruns, and I stood in silent awe in a city where two separate murders of abortion doctors took place less than 18 months apart, and where protests still continued, undaunted, until Bobby Joe Rogers was finally successful in destroying American Family Planning with a firebomb on January 1, 2012. I thought about that card again two days later, when we walked around the now-shuttered façade of New Woman All Women in Birmingham, Alabama, where a security guard died and a nurse was permanently wounded after a bombing by Eric Rudolph in 1998. On one of the pink bricks surrounding the building, Michelle took a black Sharpie and wrote:
“Remember Robert Sanderson.
Remember Emily Lyons.
Remember that they will kill and they will maim,
and they will say they did it for their God.”
She was writing a legacy for those who lost so much to clinic violence. Meanwhile, I had signed a peace pledge with activists who came in part to see a speaker who once signed a letter saying it was justifiable to murder an abortion provider in order to stop future abortions.
I’ve been specifically reporting on abortion clinics—both the people inside and outside of them—for nearly three years now. I was in the Midwest in 2012 when I walked through my first metal detector to access a clinic’s waiting room. I was in the South when I really examined my first security center, distracted during an interview as my eyes darted to the screen that showed every angle inside and outside the clinic walls—all of which could be monitored by one person sitting behind the reception desk.
Just ten days ago, I was at a Planned Parenthood clinic in the Western region for a story, and with it came a clinic tour. By this time, security features at abortion clinics were nothing new to me, and I’d also seen that the likelihood of a threat has to be individually balanced against the effect that precautions have on those who need services. After all, what good is a fortress if those who need care are too intimidated to come inside?
When the news began trickling in that an active shooter was embedding inside the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, I found myself running through every conversation I’ve had in the last two years about the possibility of this type of event. I remembered the conversation I had this summer with June Ayers, the owner of the Reproductive Health Center in Montgomery. Her clinic has been in business longer than any other in the state and she spent decades watching the landscape of Alabama abortion access deteriorate before her eyes. While security footage played on the screens behind her, she told me about the early days of providing care at her clinic, that when they first opened, she had no lock on the door. A person who thought she might be pregnant could just drop in for a pregnancy test, no appointment necessary.
“Now we do it behind cameras and with security guards,” she said.
Journalists and pundits talk endlessly about how conservative politicians forced abortion clinics to rebuild themselves as mini-hospitals by passing medically unnecessary legislation requiring them to meet the same regulations as ambulatory surgical centers [ASCs]. But we spend far less time discussing the anti-abortion activists who have forced clinic owners to also secure their buildings like fortresses, minimizing the bloodshed that could occur in the face of a physical attack. While most medical centers design waiting rooms filled with windows to make a room light and airy, abortion clinics worry about glass thick enough to deflect bricks and bullets, as well as protect those inside from the shouts and graphic signs of activists on the sidewalk claiming they are only there to “counsel.” In a growing number of clinics, a pre-check in area ensures only the patient and a companion are allowed inside.
Clinics can file lawsuits to argue that ASC standards truly are medically unnecessary, but it is sadly impossible to imagine an environment where these massive security precautions won’t be needed. Especially not now.
While Colorado Springs shooter Robert Lewis Dear may have been apprehended talking about “no more baby parts,” a clear reference to the Center for Medical Progress’s dangerous and disingenuous “sting” anti-Planned Parenthood videos, violence against abortion providers has been escalating for years prior to the summer video launch. It has escalated in Wisconsin, where Ralph Lang planned to murder a Planned Parenthood abortion provider in 2011, and where Francis Gerald Grady tried to burn a clinic in Appleton in April of 2012. It escalated in May, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia when a series of doctor office arsons went unsolved, offices that some speculate were chosen because of the doctors’ opposition to the state’s 20 week abortion ban. It escalated in April of 2013 when a man took an ax and destroyed a Planned Parenthood in Bloomington, Indiana, and in March of 2014 when the son of an anti-abortion activist destroyed a clinic in Kalispell, Montana. And of course it continues to escalate in the fires and other vandalism that has upticked in just the last few months since the anti-abortion movement started a public campaign to insist that Planned Parenthood was “selling baby parts.”
After every incident, the pro-life movement is quick to respond en masse, saying it does not condone any act of violence. Most of the movement is likely even being sincere. The older members who came of age during the Rescue days believe they can turn over a new leaf and disavow their past. The younger activists cut their teeth in a landscape where FACE act violations and the doctrine of justifiable homicide is considered just an uncomfortable relic of their history. But after three decades of clinics burning, of receptionists shot, of security guards as victims of bombs or bullets, can you just say, “We don’t condone violence” and be absolved of all responsibility?
When anti-abortion activists demand that Planned Parenthood or any other abortion provider be defunded—regardless of whether taxpayer money goes to abortions—they claim all money is fungible. A dollar that goes to birth control frees up a dollar that can be used for abortions, and makes all taxpayers complicit in abortion whether or not they agree with the procedure.
If taxpayer dollars are ethereally fungible, well, then violent rhetoric is fungible, too. Anti-abortion leaders cannot declare abortion a holocaust and then disavow themselves from anyone who commits a violent act against a target their movement created. They cannot define a doctor, staff member, or volunteer a “murderer” then walk away when a person takes a bomb or a gun into his own hands. They cannot mark a clinic an “abortuary” or an “abortion mill” and say that infants are dissected and “sold for parts” and then pretend to be aghast that someone would show up with a propane tank in his car or puts an ax through a door or rock through a window. And they cannot claim to be condemning murder at a clinic when their statements still equate those killed by a gunman’s bullets to be of equal standing as those “children scheduled to die” at the clinic that day.
Whether it turns out that Robert Dear was indeed anti-abortion, or that the “selling baby parts” fiction orchestrated and pushed into the mainstream media managed to provoke something in an already disturbed emotional state, there is little doubt that the rhetoric of the anti-abortion movement is at least indirectly responsible by providing violent people on the fringes of society with a target. When a homeless man allegedly feels confident enough not only to throw rocks through clinic windows, but then show back up and converse with the clinic’s protesters after his arraignment, or will burn down a clinic after being befriended by local activists who protest the space, it’s clear that the talking points of abortion opponents has become as dangerous as the actions of those they incite.
In July, I signed a pledge card vowing not to commit violence against abortion providers, and I do believe that the anti-abortion activists who signed those cards will keep to their pledge as well. But unless anti-abortion activists stop using the violent rhetoric that is fueling their campaigns these promises are empty ones. You cannot weaponize your words and then claim you have no responsibility for the bloodshed that happens when a person acts on them.
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