Even before Barack Obama was sworn in as Head of State – indeed, as soon a he began winning state primaries – the
U.S. anti-abortion movement realized that the anti-choice boosterism of
the Bush White House was over. In short order their rhetoric became increasingly shrill.
For example, immediately after Obama’s election, Douglas Johnson,
Legislative Director of the National Right to Life Committee, called
him a "hardcore pro-abortion president." The American Life League
dubbed him "one of the most radical pro-abortion politicians ever," and
Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life warned that Obama will "force
Americans to pay for the killing of innocents." Americans United for
Life, the Family Research Council and Operation Save America quickly
joined the chorus.
By January 22, the 36th anniversary of Roe, the administration’s
appointment of numerous outspoken pro-choicers to high level positions
provoked fury within the Right. The prominence of Hillary Clinton, Rahm
Emmanuel, Ellen Moran and Dawn Johnson, a former NARAL staffer, led
Flip Benham of Operation Save America to make a thunderous declaration
from a Charlotte, NC podium: "No more will we peacefully co-exist with
child killing. We are at war."
And in many places across the country they are, with clinics seeing an
uptick of violence, harassment and menace. Since the start of 2009,
there has been a fire of unknown origin at a Nebraska clinic and
significant property damage at a St. Paul Planned Parenthood caused by a man who
drove his SUV into the facility’s entryway. What’s more, clinics
across the country are reporting increasingly vulgar taunts: you’re
leaving baby road kill, among them.
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According to the 2008 National Clinic Violence Survey compiled by the
Feminist Majority Foundation [FMF] and released in February 2009, 20
percent of clinics reported severe violence such as blockades,
invasions and stalking last year–yes, even before Obama took office–up from 18.4 percent in 2005.
"The anti-abortion extremists lost at the ballot box in November. They lost four anti-choice ballot initiatives and 21 more
members of Congress are now pro-choice," says Kathy Spillar, Executive
Vice President of FMF. "In response, the antis have issued a call for a
return to the streets and there has been intensified activity. The fear
is always there that some will see this as a call to violence. This
means we’re always on guard. We’re already seeing that clinics that
have long been tortured are
experiencing escalated activity."
Hotspots abound: Allentown, PA; Birmingham, AL; Bridgeport, CT; Bryan,
TX; Charlotte, NC; Cherry Hill, NJ; Fargo, ND; Jacksonville, Fl;
Madison, WI; McAllen, TX; Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, PA; and Wichita
KS, to name a smattering.
"We know that political losses provoke anti-abortion extremists to retaliate, so clinics need to increase awareness," adds
Vicki Saporta, President and CEO of the National Abortion Federation.
Like others in this field, Saporta can’t forget the eight medical
workers and escorts who were murdered on Bill Clinton’s watch, the
heyday of Operation Rescue, the Army of God and The Lambs of Christ, or
the irony of relative calm at abortion clinics during the
administrations of the Presidents Bush.
NAF also understands that law enforcement is key in keeping the peace.
In places where police respond quickly, stopping infractions against
patients and staff–whether through locally passed ordinances or by
invoking the federal FACE Act, applicable in all 50 states, and
prohibiting the use of force, obstruction, or threats to keep patients
from obtaining, or staff from providing, reproductive health care–the
antis tend to be law abiding, Saporta says. In places where the police
turn their heads, the antis push the envelope.
Pittsburgh is a case in point. "Right after the election we saw a small upsurge in anti-abortion activity," Claire
Keyes, former Director of the Allegheny Reproductive Health Center,
begins. "But since the inauguration, things have gotten measurably worse. There’s been an increase in
picketing by students from Franciscan University in Ohio. On Saturdays
there are 60-plus protesters and there’s been an increase in screaming
and aggression. We don’t have a parking lot so people park on the
street. The antis have surrounded cars, trapping the women inside, and
in several cases the antis jumped into vehicles and touched or grabbed
at them. The police were called but so far they don’t seem to be
Keyes is particularly incensed because a Pittsburgh city law bars
protesters from closing in on patients and mandates a 15-foot buffer
zone at clinic doors. But it takes police action to ensure enforcement.
"Past experience tells me that once the police get tougher, the
protesters generally hang back and get more compliant. They’re like
little kids who push until they are disciplined," Keyes adds.
Elizabeth Barnes, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Women’s
Center, admits that she anticipated an upswing in harassment following
Obama’s win. "When the pendulum swung in the direction of protecting
women’s rights, we expected something," she says. Her expectations
were met when, on the Saturday following Obama’s victory, staff arrived
to find that two men-caught on tape but never identified-had sprayed
foam insulation into the facility, delaying its opening for 90 minutes.
This was not a one-shot event; that same month the clinic was blockaded
and staff have since documented an increase in disruptive hollering, trespassing and overall
annoyance. "The way the antis are reacting has changed," Barnes says.
"They’re taking more liberties, pressing the boundaries of legal, civil
Talks with police have led to promises of better law enforcement, but Barnes has yet to see results. "We’re not to a point where the FACE law is being followed," she shrugs.
In addition, 40 Days for Life have taken their road show to countless cities since their founding in 2004 and are pledging
increased activism throughout the U.S., Canada, Australia and Northern
Ireland beginning in Spring 2009. The group purports to offer "prayerful witness to the evil in our midst" and operates outside targeted clinics
24/7 for their six-week protests. "They don’t physically bar women from
going in," says Tammi Kromenaker, Director of the Red River Women’s
Clinic in Fargo, a facility that has been twice bombarded by 40 Days
activists. "But they are intimidating. We continually talk to staff and
patients about safety and never let our guard down."
Yet despite the never-ending need for vigilance — and the never-ending
fear of an out-of-control anti-abortion presence outside clinic
doors–Kromenaker and other providers are pleased that Obama is in
office. "I’m happy that he repealed the Global Gag Rule and am
cautiously optimistic about him," Kromenaker says. "Clinics feel like
we can finally breathe a sigh of relief on the national level."
That said, providers are strategizing about ways to be proactive and
protect and expand women’s access to reproductive healthcare. Some are
pushing for the federal Task Force on Violence Against Women’s
Healthcare Organizations — active during the 1990s-to become more involved in stopping illegal activities.
"Eric Holder was in Janet Reno’s office when FACE passed," says the
Feminist Majority’s Kathy Spillar. "He was there when the Federal
Marshalls were send to clinics after the murders in Pensacola. Thanks
to the Task Force, clinics have had an ongoing relationship with the
FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the Department of
Justice and there were good responses in Birmingham, AL and Jackson,
MS. In those cities the US Attorneys got injunctions against the antis
due to intense harassment and threats." FMF, NAF and other advocates
are heartened by this precedent, and are pushing for a reinvigorated
Task Force to ensure that all levels of law enforcement use the tools
at their disposal to maintain clinic calm-and punish those who violate
As important as it is for the feds to take a firm stance in support of
Roe, other activists are taking a different tack, creating videos
documenting anti-choice harassment for eventual posting on YouTube and
The project, called BASTA! ENOUGH! Stop Sidewalk Bullying at Women’s Clinics, is the brainchild of the Abortion Care Network. "When people read
about bullying at clinics, their eyes glaze over. It’s old news," says Pittsburgh’s Claire Keyes. "People don’t realize how dangerous the situation is. These protesters are so aggressive. Things can easily escalate because people don’t want someone screaming in their faces or jumping into their cars. Putting pictorials and audios on
YouTube and Facebook will show the public what’s really going on."
Providers are also paying close attention to state legislation. Since
they believe that federal laws restricting choice are unlikely under
Obama, they expect state lawmakers who oppose choice to seize the moment. Already, bills to curtail reproductive options have been introduced in Arizona, Kansas, North Dakota and Tennessee.
For more information, check out www.abortioncarenetwork.org.