The Case for an Anti-Abortion Violence Registry

Jacob M. Appel

Much as we do not permit convicted pedophiles to teach kindergarten, those who have been imprisoned for plotting violence against abortion clinics should never again be permitted anywhere near such facilities.

Over the past fifteen years,
federal legislation has required state governments to track convicted
sex offenders and — for better or for worse — many states have
followed up with restrictions on the places where these offenders may
live and work. In light of the epidemic of anti-abortion violence that
has targeted reproductive health care providers over the past three
decades (including 41 bombings and 173 arson attacks since 1977),
Congress should create a similar registry for individuals convicted of
politically-motivated felonies that target abortion clinics or abortion
providers. The narrow purpose of such legislation would be to prevent a
small cadre of highly-dangerous individuals, all of whom have
previously demonstrated a disregard for both public safely and civil
discourse, from approaching either reproductive health clinics or their
employees. Much as we do not permit convicted pedophiles to teach
kindergarten or convicted hijackers to board airplanes, common sense
dictates that individuals who have been imprisoned for plotting
violence against abortion clinics should never again be permitted
anywhere near such facilities.

The vast majority of abortion opponents in the United States have
always embraced non-violence. However, this is not necessarily the case
with a small subset of hardcore anti-abortion activists who spend their
days — and often earn their livings — organizing protests outside
reproductive health clinics. The American public was reminded of the
rather chilling attitudes and backgrounds of some of these extremists
in the aftermath of the recent assassination of Kansas physician George
Tiller, allegedly by "pro-life" activist Scott Roeder. As was widely
reported in the media, Operation Rescue’s senior policy analyst, Cheryl
Sullenger, kept Roeder apprised of Dr. Tiller’s whereabouts — an
accusation she first denied and later admitted — and her phone number
was found on the dashboard of his car. Sullenger was quoted in the
press as stating, "He would call and say, ‘When does court start?
When’s the next hearing?’ I was polite enough to give him the
information. I had no reason not to. Who knew? Who knew, you know what
I mean?" Yet far less attention was paid to the details of Cheryl
Sullenger’s previous conviction for conspiring to blow up a California
abortion clinic and her prior three-year prison sentence for supplying
the explosive powder for that bomb. At the time of her guilty plea,
Sullenger, who federal prosecutors described as being in the "upper
echelons of culpability," had the audacity to tell the judge that she
was "trying to save lives." Such a woman has no business coming within
shouting distance of an abortion clinic ever again.

Sullenger is not alone. Increasingly, individuals convicted of
violence against abortion clinics during the 1980s and 1990s are
reaching the ends of their prison sentences — and many, far from
pursuing other causes upon release, appear to be reinserting themselves
into the hardcore anti-abortion movement. Unfortunately, keeping tabs
on these often unrepentant and dangerous individuals is highly
challenging, and the case of Sullenger demonstrates that organizations
like Operation Rescue cannot be trusted to turn them away. One
promising solution would be sentences that included, as a condition for
parole or release, lifetime bans upon loitering around or approaching
abortion clinics. However, a national registry might prove far more
manageable than the ad hoc imposition of such restrictions. Needless to
say, these bans should be narrowly focused in order to allay First
Amendment concerns. Those convicted of anti-abortion violence would
still be permitted to engage in most forms of meaningful and peaceful
civil dissent: writing to their legislators, protesting on the National
Mall, even serving as high-ranking officials in such organizations as
Operation Rescue. They would simply not be allowed near clinics. (A
judicial bypass provision could be incorporated if a registered
individual ever sought an abortion for herself or to accompany her
teenage daughter.) In addition, much as local parents are currently
informed when a convicted sex offender moves into the neighborhood,
local abortion providers ought to be notified when such an
anti-abortion convict settles in their community.

I have always believed that protests outside abortion clinics, rather
than embodying our nation’s powerful tradition of free speech and
vigorous debate, actually undermine that legacy. While shouting at
female patients during their most vulnerable moments may be a
Constitutionally protected right, doing so does not contribute to a
robust marketplace of ideas. Nor does the legality of such
demonstrations make them any less distasteful. Civil society would
benefit greatly if anti-abortion activists took their protests to state
capitals or to the steps of the United States Supreme Court instead. (I
would find it equally distasteful if pro-choice activists chose to
commemorate Roe v. Wade outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Easter
Sunday, but–at least to my knowledge — such displays rarely occur.)
While anti-abortion activists have a right to protest outside clinics,
at least from beyond a safe buffer zone, that right is not absolute.
Nor should it be. Attempting to kill or maim the occupants of a health
facility, or to burn these caregivers out of business, should be more
than enough grounds to permanently forfeit any right to protest nearby.
Of course, the number of individuals required to register would likely
be small. That is no reason not to act. Targeting an abortion clinic is
not merely a crime against a particular facility, after all, or even
against supporters of abortion rights, but is an act of terrorism that
threatens our very democracy. Not even violent sex offenders can do
that.

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I am hopeful that, after reflection, both political supporters and
opponents of abortion rights would embrace such a registry. Doing so
would lend convincing credence to the anti-abortion movement’s claims
to nonviolence and would prevent dangerous ex-felons from infiltrating
its ranks. Keeping these violent zealots away from abortion clinics
will not resolve our ongoing public debate over abortion. However, such
a registry might improve the tenor of the public discourse. If nothing
else, it will help reassure vulnerable women entering abortion clinics,
and the physicians caring for them, that none of the protesters outside
the building has ever attempted to kill or injure someone like them
before.

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