The political establishment is volubly worried about peaceful protests outside the homes of antiabortion rights judges. But when arson, firebombing, and even murder are inflicted on abortion providers, it seldom seems even to notice.
There are a lot of absurdities in American politics, but the establishment meltdown this week over pro-choice protests has to be somewhere near the top of the list.
For the past few days, voices have been tripping over themselves to register their disapproval of protesters peacefully demonstrating outside the houses of the judges who have snatched away the right to abortion. It’s come from Republicans — like Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who warned it was “an attempt to replace the rule of law with the rule of mobs” — and it’s come from Democrats, like Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, who denounced nonexistent threats of violence from the movement. The Washington Post editorial board weighed in, suggesting the protests weren’t legal, and that they were akin to “totalitarianism.” Even the White House, courageous as ever, condemned the “violence, threats, or vandalism” that never happened, insisting that judges mustn’t have “concern for their personal safety.”
In these and other statements, the establishment seems to be conjuring up some kind of violent movement of extremists willing to threaten, destroy, and kill to achieve their political ends. They seem, in other words, to be conjuring up the antiabortion movement.
Yes, all of the handwringing of the past few days over protesters doing nothing but chanting and standing in the street is especially ridiculous when you consider that not only is this kind of picketing par for the course for the antiabortion movement — whose members regularly obstruct entryways into abortion clinics while shaming and abusing both the patients and workers — but that they regularly go much, much further.
According to the Justice Department, ten doctors, clinic employees, and doctor and patient escorts have been murdered by antiabortion extremists since 1993, a number that goes up to eleven if you expand the scope to 1977. Eleven might not sound like much, but if we’re talking about the use of violence to intimidate people into doing or not doing something, those deaths have an outsize effect beyond just the actual victims. It also happens to be eleven more deaths than the Supreme Court has suffered at the hands of any pro-choice activists.
One of the worst happened just seven years ago, when a clearly mentally ill assailant (he later said he would be greeted in heaven by grateful aborted fetuses) turned up at a Planned Parenthood center in Colorado Springs with an assault rifle and started shooting. The hours-long standoff that followed left nine injured and three dead.
In that case, it was the supposedly “non-extremist” segment of the antiabortion movement that was heavily culpable. With his ravings about the “selling of body parts,” the attacker was clearly inspired by Project Veritas’ deceptive “sting” videos of Planned Parenthood in 2015, which purported to show that very thing happening behind closed doors — a lie spread even further by that year’s “moderate” Republican candidate, Carly Fiorina.
According to the most recent figures from the National Abortion Federation (NAF), the period from 1977 to 2020 saw 13,532 violent incidents against abortion providers, including everything from kidnapping, burglary, and stalking, to murder, bombings, and arson. In the 1990s, when antiabortion activists explicitly declared that murder was a “legitimate” and “justifiable” tactic, they became particularly fond of attacking clinics with butyric acid, a highly corrosive substance you typically need suits, gloves, goggles, and face shields to safely be around, and which can make you go blind and even kill you.
This is in no way ancient history. Just look at the Justice Department’s recent cases of antiabortion violence over the last decade, replete with instances of these activists making bomb threats against, throwing Molotov cocktails at, and setting fire to abortion clinics.
And it’s getting worse. Antiabortion extremists first started using violence regularly in the 1970s and ’80s when the prospects for legally abolishing abortion rights were looking remote. But perversely, as the movement has racked up mounting legal and legislative victories, it’s only become more violent. In 2017, NAF recorded double the number of acts of violence against abortion providers since the year previous, hitting a record high, before it hit a new high in 2018. The year after that, the organization’s chief executive said the violence abortion providers were experiencing was “beyond anything we’ve ever seen before.”
Then the pandemic happened and ratcheted all this up further. Death and other threats exploded from ninety-two in 2019 to two-hundred in 2020, assault and battery outside clinics shot up 125 percent, and hate mail and harassing phone calls hit an all-time high of more than thirty-four hundred instances. (There were just 192 in the entire period from 1977 to 1989, for comparison).
Anyone who’s only outraged at the idea of protests and pickets should probably be aware that anti-abortion activists are doing plenty of those, too: the more than 115,000 recorded in 2020 were down from the record-high 123,228 the year before, but it was still well, well above the numbers recorded in the rest of the 2010s, let alone earlier years, where whole decades didn’t reach that number.
In the face of this long-standing and ever-cresting wave of antiabortion violence, it’s absolutely absurd for the press and politicians to now get the vapors because some protesters are demonstrating outside the houses of antiabortion judges or leaving chalk messages outside antiabortion lawmakers’ homes. The recent attack on a Wisconsin antiabortion group’s office is of course unacceptable, but is unconnected to these other actions and, given the dearth of such incidents, a tactic rejected by the pro-choice movement.
There is no comparison between pro-choice protesters and the antiabortion zealots who for decades have viewed all manner of appalling violence as an acceptable response to the defeat of their increasingly fringe position. Americans have the constitutional right to protest against the powerful, but not to firebomb health care clinics and murder doctors. Perhaps the political class could save a little outrage for those actions, instead of playing into the propaganda of extremists.