Violent Rhetoric Has Consequences—Just Ask Abortion Providers

Vicki Saporta

Unfortunately, discussion about violent rhetoric and its consequenses is not new to the abortion provider community. Since 1993, there have been eight murders and 17 attempted murders of physicians and clinic staff.

This article was originally published by the Women’s Media Center and is republished here with permission.

With the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that affirms women’s right to choose abortion, approaching tomorrow, National Abortion Federation President Vicki Saporta calls civil dialogue a national responsibility.

I was saddened and disturbed on January 8th when I heard the news about the shooting in Tucson that left six people dead and 14 others injured, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. As the coverage began to focus on possible political motivations for the attack and the influence of violent rhetoric, I couldn’t help but think about the parallels between this tragic event in Arizona and the senseless murders of eight abortion providers and clinic staff, including my friend Dr. George Tiller.

Both Congresswoman Giffords and Dr. Tiller were gunned down in public. Congresswoman Giffords was interacting with her constituents at a “Congress on Your Corner” event and Dr. Tiller was ushering at the church where he and his wife had been active members for more than 20 years. Both of them were shot in the head at point-blank range, and both incidents caused our nation to examine the prevalence and effect of violent political and ideological rhetoric.

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Unfortunately, this discussion is not new to the abortion provider community. Since 1993, there have been eight murders and 17 attempted murders of physicians and clinic staff.

Abortion opponents have a long history of using violent rhetoric to attempt to justify their crimes and incite others to violence. They regularly refer to abortion providers as “murderers” in interviews and articles and utilize imagery associated with murder such as “wanted” posters and “hit lists” in their campaigns to end legal abortion. Unfortunately, instead of marginalizing these extremists, other opponents of abortion have picked up on this dangerous rhetoric to advance their political agenda.

The devastation this rhetoric can cause has been keenly experienced by the abortion provider community.  In late 1992, Michael Griffin, who had no history in the anti-abortion movement, became involved with a local anti-abortion leader who took him under his wing and mentored him by showing him graphic anti-abortion videos and involving him in efforts to target a local clinic where Dr. David Gunn worked.  Earlier that year abortion opponents had distributed western-style “wanted” posters featuring a picture of Dr. Gunn, his home phone number, and other identifying information. In 1993, Dr. Gunn became the first abortion provider to be murdered; shot to death by Griffin in Pensacola, Florida.

Following the murder of Dr. Gunn, anti-abortion extremists publicly advanced the idea that the murder of abortion providers was “justifiable.” Paul Hill appeared in media outlets, including the nationally televised Donahue show, calling for the execution of abortion providers. In fact, he was so well-known for making such inflammatory statements that reporters often asked him, “If you believe so strongly in killing doctors, why don’t you do it yourself?” One year later, Hill acted on the violent words he had been preaching when he shot and killed Dr. John Bayard Britton and volunteer escort Lt. Col. James Barrett, and injured June Barrett, in the driveway of a Pensacola, Florida, abortion clinic. Hill’s ideas were carried forward by others including James Kopp, who unsuccessfully attempted to use a “justifiable homicide” defense during his trial for the 1998 murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian in Buffalo, New York.

Scott Roeder, convicted last year for the murder of Dr. Tiller, also testified in court that his actions were justified and made repeated unsuccessful attempts to use a so-called “necessity defense.” Prior to murdering Dr. Tiller, Roeder had been in contact with others who advocated using violence against abortion providers, and was influenced by the media and what he watched on TV. He testified in court that he converted to Christianity as an adult after watching conservative programs like “The 700 Club.” Roeder stated that he believed Dr. Tiller was a murderer, a belief advanced by Bill O’Reilly, who repeatedly referred to Dr. Tiller on national TV as “Tiller the Killer.”

Violent rhetoric can clearly influence individuals to retaliate against not only abortion providers, but also, like Tucson shooting suspect Jared Loughner, against government authority and government officials. Some, like Scott Roeder and Eric Rudolph, target both.  Roeder was a member of the Montana Freeman Militia and Rudolph, who was convicted of murder resulting from a bomb he detonated in Olympic Park in Atlanta, also bombed two abortion clinics where one person died and another was seriously injured.

Perhaps Loughner has the most in common with murderer John Salvi. Like Loughner, Salvi was a mentally unstable loner in his early 20s with no association to any politically motivated group when he opened fire with a semi-automatic weapon in two Boston-area abortion clinics in 1994, killing clinic staff members Shannon Lowney and Leanne Nichols and injuring five others. After shooting Congresswoman Giffords, Loughner fired randomly into the crowd and killed six people including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl. Salvi committed suicide in prison, and just hours before the shooting in Tucson, Loughner posted “Goodbye friends” on his MySpace page.

While some people purposefully use violent rhetoric to incite others to action in order to advance their own agendas, others do so without considering the consequences of their actions. In a civilized society, there is no room for political rhetoric or imagery that encourages and incites others to commit acts of violence. Those in politics and the media have a responsibility to use their influence to foster civil dialogue and debate.

Analysis Politics

The 2016 Republican Platform Is Riddled With Conservative Abortion Myths

Ally Boguhn

Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the Republican platform, which relies on a series of falsehoods about reproductive health care.

Republicans voted to ratify their 2016 platform this week, codifying what many deem one of the most extreme platforms ever accepted by the party.

“Platforms are traditionally written by and for the party faithful and largely ignored by everyone else,” wrote the New York Times‘ editorial board Monday. “But this year, the Republicans are putting out an agenda that demands notice.”

“It is as though, rather than trying to reconcile Mr. Trump’s heretical views with conservative orthodoxy, the writers of the platform simply opted to go with the most extreme version of every position,” it continued. “Tailored to Mr. Trump’s impulsive bluster, this document lays bare just how much the G.O.P. is driven by a regressive, extremist inner core.”

Tucked away in the 66-page document accepted by Republicans as their official guide to “the Party’s principles and policies” are countless resolutions that seem to back up the Times‘ assertion that the platform is “the most extreme” ever put forth by the party, including: rolling back marriage equalitydeclaring pornography a “public health crisis”; and codifying the Hyde Amendment to permanently block federal funding for abortion.

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Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the platform, which the Susan B. Anthony List deemed the “Most Pro-life Platform Ever” in a press release upon the GOP’s Monday vote at the convention. “The Republican platform has always been strong when it comes to protecting unborn children, their mothers, and the conscience rights of pro-life Americans,” said the organization’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, in a statement. “The platform ratified today takes that stand from good to great.”  

Operation Rescue, an organization known for its radical tactics and links to violence, similarly declared the platform a “victory,” noting its inclusion of so-called personhood language, which could ban abortion and many forms of contraception. “We are celebrating today on the streets of Cleveland. We got everything we have asked for in the party platform,” said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, in a statement posted to the group’s website.

But what stands out most in the Republicans’ document is the series of falsehoods and myths relied upon to push their conservative agenda. Here are just a few of the most egregious pieces of misinformation about abortion to be found within the pages of the 2016 platform:

Myth #1: Planned Parenthood Profits From Fetal Tissue Donations

Featured in multiple sections of the Republican platform is the tired and repeatedly debunked claim that Planned Parenthood profits from fetal tissue donations. In the subsection on “protecting human life,” the platform says:

We oppose the use of public funds to perform or promote abortion or to fund organizations, like Planned Parenthood, so long as they provide or refer for elective abortions or sell fetal body parts rather than provide healthcare. We urge all states and Congress to make it a crime to acquire, transfer, or sell fetal tissues from elective abortions for research, and we call on Congress to enact a ban on any sale of fetal body parts. In the meantime, we call on Congress to ban the practice of misleading women on so-called fetal harvesting consent forms, a fact revealed by a 2015 investigation. We will not fund or subsidize healthcare that includes abortion coverage.

Later in the document, under a section titled “Preserving Medicare and Medicaid,” the platform again asserts that abortion providers are selling “the body parts of aborted children”—presumably again referring to the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood:

We respect the states’ authority and flexibility to exclude abortion providers from federal programs such as Medicaid and other healthcare and family planning programs so long as they continue to perform or refer for elective abortions or sell the body parts of aborted children.

The platform appears to reference the widely discredited videos produced by anti-choice organization Center for Medical Progress (CMP) as part of its smear campaign against Planned Parenthood. The videos were deceptively edited, as Rewire has extensively reported. CMP’s leader David Daleiden is currently under federal indictment for tampering with government documents in connection with obtaining the footage. Republicans have nonetheless steadfastly clung to the group’s claims in an effort to block access to reproductive health care.

Since CMP began releasing its videos last year, 13 state and three congressional inquiries into allegations based on the videos have turned up no evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of Planned Parenthood.

Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund—which has endorsed Hillary Clinton—called the Republicans’ inclusion of CMP’s allegation in their platform “despicable” in a statement to the Huffington Post. “This isn’t just an attack on Planned Parenthood health centers,” said Laguens. “It’s an attack on the millions of patients who rely on Planned Parenthood each year for basic health care. It’s an attack on the brave doctors and nurses who have been facing down violent rhetoric and threats just to provide people with cancer screenings, birth control, and well-woman exams.”

Myth #2: The Supreme Court Struck Down “Commonsense” Laws About “Basic Health and Safety” in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

In the section focusing on the party’s opposition to abortion, the GOP’s platform also reaffirms their commitment to targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws. According to the platform:

We salute the many states that now protect women and girls through laws requiring informed consent, parental consent, waiting periods, and clinic regulation. We condemn the Supreme Court’s activist decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt striking down commonsense Texas laws providing for basic health and safety standards in abortion clinics.

The idea that TRAP laws, such as those struck down by the recent Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health, are solely for protecting women and keeping them safe is just as common among conservatives as it is false. However, as Rewire explained when Paul Ryan agreed with a nearly identical claim last week about Texas’ clinic regulations, “the provisions of the law in question were not about keeping anybody safe”:

As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in the opinion declaring them unconstitutional, “When directly asked at oral argument whether Texas knew of a single instance in which the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment, Texas admitted that there was no evidence in the record of such a case.”

All the provisions actually did, according to Breyer on behalf of the Court majority, was put “a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion,” and “constitute an undue burden on abortion access.”

Myth #3: 20-Week Abortion Bans Are Justified By “Current Medical Research” Suggesting That Is When a Fetus Can Feel Pain

The platform went on to point to Republicans’ Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a piece of anti-choice legislation already passed in several states that, if approved in Congress, would create a federal ban on abortion after 20 weeks based on junk science claiming fetuses can feel pain at that point in pregnancy:

Over a dozen states have passed Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Acts prohibiting abortion after twenty weeks, the point at which current medical research shows that unborn babies can feel excruciating pain during abortions, and we call on Congress to enact the federal version.

Major medical groups and experts, however, agree that a fetus has not developed to the point where it can feel pain until the third trimester. According to a 2013 letter from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “A rigorous 2005 scientific review of evidence published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester,” which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. A 2010 review of the scientific evidence on the issue conducted by the British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists similarly found “that the fetus cannot experience pain in any sense prior” to 24 weeks’ gestation.

Doctors who testify otherwise often have a history of anti-choice activism. For example, a letter read aloud during a debate over West Virginia’s ultimately failed 20-week abortion ban was drafted by Dr. Byron Calhoun, who was caught lying about the number of abortion-related complications he saw in Charleston.

Myth #4: Abortion “Endangers the Health and Well-being of Women”

In an apparent effort to criticize the Affordable Care Act for promoting “the notion of abortion as healthcare,” the platform baselessly claimed that abortion “endangers the health and well-being” of those who receive care:

Through Obamacare, the current Administration has promoted the notion of abortion as healthcare. We, however, affirm the dignity of women by protecting the sanctity of human life. Numerous studies have shown that abortion endangers the health and well-being of women, and we stand firmly against it.

Scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that abortion is safe. Research shows that a first-trimester abortion carries less than 0.05 percent risk of major complications, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and “pose[s] virtually no long-term risk of problems such as infertility, ectopic pregnancy, spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) or birth defect, and little or no risk of preterm or low-birth-weight deliveries.”

There is similarly no evidence to back up the GOP’s claim that abortion endangers the well-being of women. A 2008 study from the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion, an expansive analysis on current research regarding the issue, found that while those who have an abortion may experience a variety of feelings, “no evidence sufficient to support the claim that an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion per se, as opposed to other factors.”

As is the case for many of the anti-abortion myths perpetuated within the platform, many of the so-called experts who claim there is a link between abortion and mental illness are discredited anti-choice activists.

Myth #5: Mifepristone, a Drug Used for Medical Abortions, Is “Dangerous”

Both anti-choice activists and conservative Republicans have been vocal opponents of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA’s) March update to the regulations for mifepristone, a drug also known as Mifeprex and RU-486 that is used in medication abortions. However, in this year’s platform, the GOP goes a step further to claim that both the drug and its general approval by the FDA are “dangerous”:

We believe the FDA’s approval of Mifeprex, a dangerous abortifacient formerly known as RU-486, threatens women’s health, as does the agency’s endorsement of over-the-counter sales of powerful contraceptives without a physician’s recommendation. We support cutting federal and state funding for entities that endanger women’s health by performing abortions in a manner inconsistent with federal or state law.

Studies, however, have overwhelmingly found mifepristone to be safe. In fact, the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals says mifepristone “is safer than acetaminophen,” aspirin, and Viagra. When the FDA conducted a 2011 post-market study of those who have used the drug since it was approved by the agency, they found that more than 1.5 million women in the U.S. had used it to end a pregnancy, only 2,200 of whom had experienced an “adverse event” after.

The platform also appears to reference the FDA’s approval of making emergency contraception such as Plan B available over the counter, claiming that it too is a threat to women’s health. However, studies show that emergency contraception is safe and effective at preventing pregnancy. According to the World Health Organization, side effects are “uncommon and generally mild.”

News Abortion

GOP Fact-Check: Hospital Transfers Don’t Signal Abortion Dangers

Christine Grimaldi

Hospital transfers are not necessarily a cause for alarm, multiple sources told Rewire.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) justified her recent subpoenas of a prominent later abortion provider and first responders in the community where he works by pointing to “public reports” that people who sought abortion care from the doctor required hospital transfers.

Hospital transfers are not necessarily a cause for alarm, multiple sources told Rewire. In fact, the rare instances signal a continued commitment to appropriate patient care that begins in an abortion clinic. A patient may not require further treatment upon arrival at the hospital, indicating a proactive clinic rather than a dangerous one. Regardless of the circumstances, anti-choice activists often hijack so-called emergencies to fuel their coverage of the alleged dangers of abortion care.

Freestanding clinics manage most immediate abortion-related complications, including those that occur during later abortions, said Dr. Daniel Grossman, a provider and professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive services at the University of California, San Francisco.

Abortion-related complications are rare throughout all stages of pregnancy. The even rarer event that such complications necessitate a hospital transfer doesn’t indicate the work of a bad abortion provider, Grossman explained in an interview with Rewire.

“There are sometimes things that happen that are unforeseeable,” he said.

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Evidence Contradicts Blackburn Subpoena Claims

Grossman, his University of California, San Francisco colleague Dr. Ushma Upadhyay, and other reproductive health care practitioners and policy experts studied just how often those unforeseeable instances occur in a review of nearly 55,000 abortions covered under the fee-for-service California Medicaid program from 2009-2010. The state data allowed researchers to track subsequent follow-up care sought after an abortion.

Among all abortions, about one of 5,491, or 0.03 percent, involved ambulance transfers to emergency departments on the day of the procedure, the researchers found.

For procedures in the second trimester or later, major complications that required hospital admissions, blood transfusions, or surgery amounted to 34 cases, or 0.41 percent.

Many hospitals don’t provide abortions, which essentially forces providers to perform the procedure at a freestanding clinic or turn away patients, Grossman said. Providers would not do something unsafe, he stressed, “but that puts a lot of pressure on them because they don’t have that option of deciding to do the procedure of a higher-risk patient in a hospital.”

States that have enacted targeted regulations of abortion providers, known as TRAP laws, may force providers to gain hospital admitting privileges, even though hospitals can’t refuse to care for transfers and emergency arrivals. Many hospitals don’t want to issue admitting privileges to abortion providers, Grossman said, in part because their patient admissions are so infrequent—putting the onus back on clinics to provide abortion care.

Data supports Grossman’s assessment about abortion and clinic safety. Abortion care is one of the safest medical procedures performed in the United States, according to Planned Parenthood and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “The rate of complications increases as a woman’s pregnancy continues, but these complications remain very unlikely,” the groups said in a joint fact sheet.

Blackburn, the chair of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, framed such instances differently when she shifted the panel’s focus from fetal tissue research practices to later abortion care, issuing subpoenas in mid-May to Dr. LeRoy Carhart and various local and state entities in Maryland.

“Public reports indicate at least five women have been sent to the hospital since December while seeking an abortion in this clinic,” Blackburn said in a press release. Blackburn expressed concern for “the sake of the women who have been rushed from that clinic to the hospital with increasing frequency.”

Blackburn Allegations Rooted in Dubious Sources

Blackburn’s press release cited the five hospital transfers since December 2015, but her subpoenas demand documentation dating back to 2010—signaling a deeper scope to her investigation.

The National Abortion Federation (NAF), the professional association of abortion providers, countered Blackburn’s basis for the subpoenas.

“Abortion opponents have been targeting Dr. Carhart for years because he is a very vocal and visible abortion provider,” NAF spokesperson Melissa Fowler told Rewire in an email. Following the 2009 murder of Dr. George Tiller, Carhart arguably became the country’s most prominent provider of later abortion care.

The Maryland Board of Physicians, one of the targets of Blackburn’s subpoenas, indicates that Carhart is in good standing. The board’s online practitioner profile system lists no Maryland disciplinary actions, no pending charges, and no reported malpractice judgments and arbitration awards within the past ten years. Malpractice settlements are another measure of provider competence, and Carhart hasn’t had three or more malpractice settlements of at least $150,000 in the past five years, according to the system. Additionally, the courts have not reported “convictions for any crime involving moral turpitude,” which the board defines as “conduct evidencing moral baseness” and determines on an individual basis under common law.  

Absent allegations on the board’s website, the “public reports” smearing Carhart appear to come from anti-choice news outlets. In March, LifeSiteNews.com cited eyewitness accounts from anti-choice activists in reporting that Carhart sent a fourth woman to the hospital in four months. A leader of the radical anti-choice group Operation Rescue covered the same allegations for LifeNews.com.

The same website in 2013 alleged that the Washington Post downplayed the death of a young woman who sought a later abortion at the clinic. However, the Maryland medical examiner’s office found that the woman died of natural causes from a rare complication that can also occur in conjunction with childbirth, and state health officials found “no deficiencies” in the care she received at the clinic. Blackburn’s subpoenas include Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center, formerly Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, where the woman died.

Anti-choice organizations and their reports have played a prominent role in the current congressional inquiry. Troy Newman, Operation Rescue’s president, and David Daleiden founded the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), the anti-choice front group that triggered the select panel’s investigation into allegations that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donations obtained from abortions.

Blackburn referenced CMP’s heavily edited videos in her threat “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from StemExpress, the tissue procurement company that worked with Planned Parenthood. The GOP’s exhibits at the panel’s April hearing on fetal tissue “pricing” reportedly duplicated or nearly duplicated the “evidence” in the CMP attack videos.

Blackburn’s select panel spokesperson denied that the subpoenas are based on information from anti-choice sources.

“The subpoenas we issued are not based on the sources you have cited,” the spokesperson told Rewire in an email. “However, due to confidentiality agreements, we are not at liberty to disclose the identities of our sources.”

Anti-Choice Activists Hijack Emergencies

Although Blackburn’s evidence may come from different sources, the fact remains that Operation Rescue and other radical anti-choice activists are known for surveilling abortion clinics and making repeated records requests, all to report similar claims about botched abortions necessitating hospital transfers.

duVergne Gaines, director of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project, said surveillance tactics enable anti-choice activists not only to photograph and video emergency responders, but also follow up with Freedom of Information Act and equivalent state-level requests for records, including 9-1-1 tapes, if state laws permit their release.

“They collect data,” Gaines said in an interview. “They put that up on the websites themselves, on their own Facebook pages, and have no real knowledge about what or why an ambulance may have been contacted.”

Hospital transfers in some instances have nothing to do with the procedure. Contrary to initial anti-choice accounts, the Lincoln, Nebraska Journal Star reported that a woman transferred in 2015 from a local Planned Parenthood to a hospital “wasn’t suffering complications from an abortion, but had instead sought help at the clinic after being assaulted at her home nearby.”

At times, anti-choice activists may manufacture emergency scenarios, Gaines said. “The most obvious example is alleging that a minor is inside being forced to undergo a procedure against her will, and that can happen if they see a minor go in [to a clinic],” she said.

Rewire reported in March that police appeared at a Mississippi clinic and threatened to charge a single mother with fetal homicide after her daughter, a minor seeking a legal abortion, signed a bogus Life Dynamics document stating that she was being coerced into the procedure.

The prominent anti-choice group uses the document to deceive and intimidate patients and providers by threatening legal action should they go through with obtaining or providing abortion care.

NAF President Vicki Saporta said that many of her group’s members have experienced anti-choice tactics such as staking out clinics for emergency vehicles, placing calls to summon emergency responders, and trailing ambulances to hospitals with the aim of gathering confidential patient information. Preferred tactics depend on the local anti-choice community, she said.

Saporta pointed to a crisis pregnancy center that opened in the same complex as the Germantown, Maryland, clinic where Carhart practices. A Germantown Pregnancy Choices, which comes up as the Maryland Coalition for Life when entered into Google Maps, operates within less than 200 feet of the clinic. The Maryland Coalition for Life cited eyewitness accounts and a video in March to support allegations that an underage girl required a hospital transfer “due to medical emergencies related to a late term abortion.”

Anti-choice activists targeting clinics over safety share a common denominator. “Once their bogus claims are investigated, for the most part, no action is taken because nothing is actionable,” Saporta said.