In their crusade to ensure that every pregnant teen be forced to give birth whenever possible and no matter her situation, the House Judiciary committee has once more introduced and passed the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act (CIANA), a law that will make it much more difficult for a teen to terminate a pregnancy termination if she lives in a state with forced parental notification but is unwilling or unable to speak to her parents about it.
Republican backers say the bill is necessary to ensure that parents always have the “opportunity to be involved in a child’s life.” But the bill, which provides no exception in the case of rape or incest, instead serves to push families even further apart, especially as it would forbid the possibility of the teen turning to another trusted family member to step in and provide consent when a parent isn’t a safe or obtainable option.
Anti-choicers seem to have a love/hate relationship when it comes to “parental involvement.” As long as the parent is willing to try to talk a teen out of an abortion, they desperately want them involved. But when the parent believes a teen should have an abortion and the teen doesn’t, she is suddenly old enough to decide for herself.
Cutting out other family members, and refusing exceptions for rape and incest aren’t “ensuring parental involvement.” It’s “ensuring a teen gives birth.”
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In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how Muslim families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.
This is the second article in Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series. You can read the other pieces in the series here.
When Virginia native Mariam Abu-Ali was 14 years old, her life abruptly turned upside down. It was 2003, two years after the September 11 attacks and well into an era of counterterrorism tactics that were systematically hollowing out Muslim residents’ civil liberties and constitutional protections in the United States. But the Abu-Ali family never imagined they would be caught up in the dragnet.
Mariam’s then-22-year-old brother, Ahmed Omar, had been studying in Medina, Saudi Arabia, when he was arrested in connection with a series of May 2003 terrorist attacks in Riyadh.
In an interview with Rewire, Mariam says her brother, who was born in Texas, was held in solitary confinement in a Saudi jail for nearly two years without ever being charged with a crime. During that time, Mariam tells Rewire over the phone, there is strong evidence that he was tortured. Although defense expert Dr. Allen Keller, director of the Program for Survivors of Torture at the Bellevue/NYU Hospital, examined Ahmed and testified at his U.S. trial to the evidence of torture, an appeals court eventually ruled that Ahmed’s statements to Saudi interrogators were “voluntary.”
When, after months of legal pressure from his family, he was finally returned to the United States, a court for the Eastern District of Virginia charged him with multiple counts, including conspiring with an Al-Qaeda cell in Medina to carry out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Following a trial that permitted the admission of what Mariam called “a coerced confession,” he was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison, and later re-sentenced to life.
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Yet as legal experts like Elaine Cassel, author of The War on Civil Liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft Dismantled the Bill of Rights, have pointed out, “Nowhere in the indictment [was] Abu-Ali tied to any terrorist event or action”—either in the United States or in Saudi Arabia.
Instead, his case fell under the shadowy material support statutes that have governed much of the United States’ counterterrorism operation in the years since 9/11, under the USA Patriot Act of 2001. This set of laws allows the U.S. government to preemptively prosecute individuals for engaging in terrorism based on their perceived predisposition toward violence, rather than their actions. Over the past 15 years, hundreds of Muslims have disappeared in a warren of these convoluted laws; they are currently locked up in high-security prisons around the country.
A constellation of families, scholars, activists, and civil rights organizations have long challenged the effects of material support charges, as well as the unfair trials and the lengthy and harsh prison sentences that tend to follow them. Over the past few years, they have come together in a campaign called No Separate Justice, an attempt to unite far-flung groups and individuals who are working to dismantle what they say is a parallel and unjust legal system for Muslim residents in post-9/11 America.
Women like Mariam Abu-Ali have been at the forefront of the movement—along with Zurata Duka and Shahina Parveen, whose stories Rewire has previously reported on—advocating on behalf of their loved ones.
In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.
“Dangerous” Minds, Draconian Measures
Mariam Abu-Ali says her brother’s case represents many of the civil rights violations that have marred the decade and a half since 9/11, a sentiment that is echoed in the final opinion on Ahmed Omar’s case penned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
In its unanimous decision to uphold the guilty verdict on nine terrorism-related counts against Ahmed in 2008, the three-judge bench wrote:
Persons of good will may disagree over the precise extent to which the formal criminal justice process must be utilized when those suspected of participation in terrorist cells and networks are involved … the criminal justice system is not without those attributes of adaptation that will permit it to function in the post-9/11 world.
While the opinion does not explicitly state what these “attributes of adaptation” are, studies on counterterrorism indicate they could refer to any number of legal practices that have become normalized since September 11. In particular, they could refer to the use of material support statutes, which have played a significant role in the prosecution of Muslim Americans like Ahmed Omar.
As FBI Assistant Director Gary Bald testified to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in 2004:
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the material support statutes to our ongoing counterterrorism efforts. The statutes are sufficiently broad to include terrorist financers and supporters who provide a variety of resources to terrorist networks. The statutes provide the investigative predicate which allows intervention at the earliest possible stage of terrorist planning to identify and arrest terrorists and supporters before a terrorist attack occurs. [Emphasis added.]
In short, material support statutes have enabled federal authorities to prosecute people based on suspicion of what they might do in the future rather than any overt criminal act. The statutes primarily refer to “support” for terrorist networks as weapons, arms training, or direct funding. Prosecutors, courts, and juries, however, have interpreted the laws much more broadly to encompass the sharing of religious or political texts online, casual conversations between friends, or charitable donations to organizations in areas controlled by terrorist groups.
In many instances, material support charges have amounted to nothing more than thought crimes, in which law-abiding Muslim residents have been penalized simply for expressing their religious and political views.
According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, material support cases rose sharply in the decade following the September 11 attacks. Prior to 9/11, just six individuals had been charged under these laws in the United States. In the decade following, 168 of 917 domestic terrorism convictions analyzed by HRW fell under such statutes, accounting for 18 percent of all terrorism-related convictions in that time period.
Even a cursory look at some of these cases is sufficient to grasp the breadth of these laws, which have pushed deep into Muslim communities, tearing through many layers of social fabric along the way.
In 2012, the New York Times published an op-ed by Yale professor Andrew March on the case of Tarek Mehanna, a Pittsburgh-born doctor and community leader who was sentenced to 17 and a half years in prison because his opinions about Islam, expressed online, were deemed a form of material support for terrorist causes.
March wrote in the Times:
As a political scientist specializing in Islamic law and war, I frequently read, store, share and translate texts and videos by jihadi groups. As a political philosopher, I debate the ethics of killing. As a citizen, I express views, thoughts and emotions about killing to other citizens. As a human being, I sometimes feel joy (I am ashamed to admit) at the suffering of some humans and anger at the suffering of others. At Mr. Mehanna’s trial, I saw how those same actions can constitute federal crimes.
March’s op-ed illustrates a frightening truth about material support statutes: They allow for the preemptive prosecution of individuals who have not yet committed a crime but whom the government deems capable of possibly committing a crime in the future.
Other cases, such as the Holy Land Five, demonstrate a pattern in which material support laws have essentially criminalized charitable giving. The case involved the founders of the Holy Land Foundation, a Muslim charity that provided humanitarian aid to the needy, including women and children in Palestine. Though the government concluded that the Holy Land Foundation never directly aided a terrorist organization, it nonetheless prosecuted five of its members for funneling aid through charitable committees into areas controlled by Hamas, a designated Palestinian terrorist group, thereby violating material support statutes. Journalists called the verdict an attack on Islam itself, particularly the practice of zakat, which mandates that Muslims allocate a portion of their wealth or earnings for charitable causes.
From its very inception, the No Separate Justice (NSJ) campaign has fought this flawed notion, with mothers and sisters of the accused becoming the movement’s most prominent spokespeople. NSJ initially coalesced around the case of a Muslim American named Fahad Hashmi.
Hashmi had been working toward a master’s degree in international relations at London Metropolitan University when he was arrested at Heathrow Airport in 2006. In 2007 he became the first U.S. citizen to be extradited following the loosening of restrictions around the process after 9/11, according to an article by Jeanne Theoharis, a political science professor at Brooklyn College and co-founder of the NSJ campaign, who taught Hashmi as an undergraduate.
He was initially held in pretrial solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC) in downtown Manhattan. MCC’s notoriety was cemented in a 2010 New York Timesarticle that quoted a former Guantanamo detainee, who was also held at the MCC, as saying the Cuban military prison was “more pleasant” and “more relaxed” than the federal detention facility in New York City.
Hashmi was also subjected to special administrative measures, government restrictions on a terror suspect’s communications that amount to a gag order on the case and their conditions of confinement. Advocates say these were drastic measures relative to the charges against him: Hashmi’s only crime, according to Theoharis’ article, was allowing an acquaintance to spend a night in his apartment, an acquaintance who would later deliver a suitcase of raincoats and waterproof socks to Al Qaeda members. This same acquaintance would later become a cooperating witness for the government in exchange for a more lenient sentence, and testify against Hashmi in a trial that ended with a guilty verdict and a 15-year sentence.
Stunned by Hashmi’s conditions of confinement, a group called Theaters Against War linked arms with Educators for Civil Liberties and the Muslim Justice Initiative to host weekly vigils outside the MCC in 2009. These gatherings, which continue to this day, form the nucleus of the NSJ movement.
“We wanted to build a coalition so people from different backgrounds could bring their institutional expertise and moral conscience into the same arena as family members, and create a space where people could express outrage at what was happening,” Sally Eberhardt, one of NSJ’s earliest organizers, tells Rewire.
At first, larger civil liberties groups kept their distance, possibly because “this isn’t exactly the most funder-friendly issue in the world,” Eberhardt suggests. But advocates persisted, holding candlelight protests even on the bitterest winter nights, singing songs and chanting poems in the shadow of the detention center. Those intimate gatherings formed the basis of what is now a national movement, encompassing multiple organizations and dozens of families.
Two outspoken leaders are the Sadequee sisters, Bangladeshi Americans who have been among the strongest advocates of prisoners’ rights and the most public critics of the government’s targeting of Muslim men—including their brother, Shifa.
From the Streets to the Prayer Rug: Pushing Back Against State Violence
Ehsanul “Shifa” Sadequee was born in Virginia and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, the youngest of four siblings in a Bangladeshi-American family. According to his sisters, he was a curious and exceptionally kind child, who by his early teens had grown into a devout and diligent religious scholar.
In 2005, when he was just 18 years old, Shifa traveled to Bangladesh. In April 2006 he got married, but 12 days after his wedding, Bangladeshi authorities took and detained him, apparently at the behest of the U.S. government, for allegedly making false statements to the FBI at John F. Kennedy Airport on his way to Bangladesh the previous year.
Shifa’s sister Sonali, who is based in Atlanta, tells Rewire that this initial charge and arrest, which the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh later deemed a violation of international laws, was a terrifying process for the entire family. For days after Shifa was taken they had no news of his whereabouts. Fears that he would somehow wind up in Guantanamo, ensnared in the web of the “war on terror,” gnawed at the edges of their minds but the family pushed these aside, telling themselves that because Shifa had done nothing wrong, they had nothing to fear. With the phone ringing off the hook and the television on 24/7, they gleaned what scraps of information they could from CNN news reports.
It transpired that upon his arrest in Bangladesh, Shifa was stripped naked, wrapped in plastic, and flown via Alaska to New York, Sonali says, where he spent over three months at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn before being transferred to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. Shifa spent more than three years in pretrial solitary confinement before ever being formally charged with a crime, his sister said.
Once Shifa was inside the criminal justice system, Sonali explains, federal authorities quickly dropped the initial charges against him and began to build a case around allegations of material support.
At the heart of the case was Shifa’s renown as an Islamic scholar with a larger-than-life online persona—he had studied classical Arabic and the history of religion as a student in Canada and was a gifted translator, often sharing interpretations of Islamic or political texts on the internet. The Sadequee family says Shifa’s trial was riddled with shortcomings, including the use of previously classified evidence and the selection of jurors who admitted to having anti-Muslim bias—which Human Rights Watch says is a common problem. In addition, the prosecution used Shifa’s ideology as a brush with which to paint him as a fearsome radical, on the verge of carrying out a violent attack on U.S. soil.
Although Shifa, according to Sonali, never engaged in any actions beyond practicing free speech, he was found guilty on four terrorism counts in 2009 and, at the age of 23, sentenced to 17 years in federal prison. He represented himself at the trial, making him one of the first Muslim youth to do so in a national security case, according to his sisters.
Both Sonali and Sharmin Sadequee, who is based in New York, have been mobilizing on his behalf for over a decade. After years of shielding themselves from the backlash of isolation and Islamophobia that invariably accompanies charges of terrorism, the young women have turned their advocacy into an art form.
In an interview with Rewire, Sonali explains that when her brother was arrested, the women in her family developed an organic division of labor that allowed them to form a united front against the horror and uncertainty that had descended on their lives.
“I was already plugged into the social justice community in Atlanta, so I saw my role as tapping into that support network, bringing resources to my family to make sure we all understood the human rights issues involved, ensuring we had the skills to confront the media, which was bombarding us at the time,” she says. Her sister, meanwhile, dealt with the prisons, navigating bureaucratic visitation rules and ensuring Shifa had what he needed on the inside.
“Sharmin and my mother also reached out to the Muslim community, to mosques and other groups,” Sonali continues. “And the rest of the time, my mother was on the prayer rug. I don’t know how many hours she spent kneeling and praying.”
They built a website that is always fresh with the latest news about Shifa’s case and serves as a hub for their activism—they recently announced a letter-writing campaign to mark Ramadan, inviting more than 1,000 followers of a Justice for Shifa Facebook group to send greeting cards to Muslim prisoners. Countless hours are eaten up attending rallies, speaking on panels, or sitting with reporters, patiently unpacking the messy details of Shifa’s case.
The irony is that while the Sadequee sisters make a powerful team, they are constantly called upon to do what they say is the hardest thing of all: relive a time in their lives they would rather forget.
“I don’t like to do these interviews,” Sonali says bluntly. “I don’t enjoy them at all—but I recognize they have to be done. Only by sharing what happened to us, by talking about it, will others learn from it.”
They say they have been trying to create collective responses to state violence resulting from the “war on terror,” and hope to combat the government’s tactics of fear and isolation by building community power and resiliency. But this is easier said than done: Not only must the Sadequees contend with the lingering stigma of Shifa’s trial, but they also, until very recently, had to deal with the trauma of visiting their brother in a prison unit that has been described by former detainees as “Little Gitmo.”
CMUs: “A Religious and Political Quarantine”
Between 2009 and 2015, Shifa was imprisoned in the Communications Management Unit (CMU) at the federal detention center in Terre Haute, Indiana, a segregated portion of the prison comprised almost exclusively of Muslim men that has been the subject of a legal battle since 2010.
This past March, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) urged the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to reinstate a lawsuit the group first filed six years ago challenging CMUs, which the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) quietly ushered into existence under the Bush administration—the first in 2006 in Indiana, and the second in 2008 in Marion, Illinois.
Conditions in these units, which house 60 to 70 prisoners combined, are harsh, according to the CCR: Although inmates are not held in isolation, they are banned from having any physical contact with family members during visits, and their calls are restricted to two per week, each for 15 minutes. By contrast, other BOP inmates are allowed 300 minutes worth of calls every month.
CCR claims the CMUs violate prisoners’ procedural due process rights, and argue that placement in these units is both arbitrary and retaliatory, with Muslim prisoners vastly overrepresented.
“Between 2006 and 2014, about 170 individuals filtered through these units and 101 of them—about 60 percent—were Muslims, even though Muslims only constitute 6 percent of the general federal prison population,” CCR Senior Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol tells Rewire in a phone interview.
CCR reported in 2010 that in Marion, 72 percent of current CMU prisoners were Muslim, a 1,200 percent overrepresentation, while two-thirds of the CMU population in Terra Haute was Muslim, 1,000 percent higher than the national average of Muslim prisoners in federal facilities.
“We are challenging the lack of procedural protections before prisoners are placed in the CMU and also alleging that placement is in retaliation for protected political and religious speech,” Meeropol says, pointing out that inmates in the CMU are seldom given reasons for why they were moved into the units, and are routinely denied opportunities to earn their release into general population.
“CMUs are essentially a religious and political quarantine, the same kind of segregation that has supposedly been outlawed in this country,” she added.
In response to multiple requests for comment about these allegations, Justin Long with the Office of Public Affairs at the Information, Policy and Public Affairs Division for the BOP said in an email to Rewire, “The Bureau of Prisons cannot comment on matters currently in litigation,” and directed Rewire to the Bureau’s web page on CMUs.
In addition to being hard on inmates, Meeropol says CMUs are also “debilitating” for families, especially those with young children who cannot communicate with their fathers through letters, and often cannot understand why they are forced to speak to them through glass, using phones that are monitored by prison staff.
“Several mothers have told me that they’ve stopped bringing their children on visits because it was just too devastating,” Meeropol says.
The Collective Trauma of “Supermax” Prisons and Solitary Confinement
The alternative, some might say, is even worse. All over the country, Muslim prisoners are serving decades-long sentences in solitary confinement, which the United Nations has recognized as a form of torture. Advocates and relatives of terror suspects, or those incarcerated on terrorism charges, have long cried foul over these conditions of confinement, which they say is a form of collective punishment on entire families.
Zurata Duka, whose three sons, Dritan, Shain, and Eljvir were arrested in a manufactured terror plot by the government in 2007, is well aware of the toll of solitary confinement. Her sons have spent dozens of years between them in complete isolation, including long stints at the maximum-security facility in Florence, Colorado.
“My sons are strong—they never let us see them cry, even when their daughters are crying on the other side of the glass,” she says to Rewire. “But once my son Dritan told me he nearly lost his mind in isolation.”
Before his arrest, Zurata tells Rewire, Dritan had been very close with his youngest daughter. Every night he would put her to sleep, stroking her hair and singing lullabies. In those early days after he was taken away, the little girl would lie awake at night, calling out for her father. Unbeknownst to the family, thousands of miles away, Dritan was experiencing something similar.
“He told me, ‘Mom, I don’t know what happened. For three days I just lay there, stroking my pillow, thinking it was [his daughter]. I didn’t know who I was and I don’t know how I came back,’” Zurata recalls him saying.
His daughter was so desperate to see him that one day she penned a note to the president. It read: “Dear Mr. Obama. Today is my birthday. I am five years old. Please, if you can, bring my father back just for one day, so I can hug and kiss him, and then, if you want, you can take him back again.” Zurata says she mailed the letter to the White House. She never heard back.
Almost every family has a similar story. According to Mariam Abu-Ali, conditions of confinement often come up at annual gatherings of affected families, which she organizes in her role as director of the Prisoners and Families Committee at the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms.
“About 90 percent of the attendees are women,” she says in a phone interview with Rewire, “and they bring a lot of pain and anxiety into the room. But I’d say the meetings are cathartic,” she adds. “It’s the place where we build bonds with the only people who know what we’re going through.”
Several women who’ve attended the conference in the past tell Rewire they are powerful spaces, offering families a rare chance to speak openly about their lives without fear of being misunderstood, judged, or pitied. It is also a moment for families, particularly women, to share in the collective nature of their trauma, especially the pain of incarceration.
In the 13 years that her brother has served, Mariam says she has come to the painful realization that prisons don’t just lock up individuals—they are a form of bondage on the entire family.
Because Ahmed Omar is imprisoned 1,600 miles from the family’s home in Virginia, in one of the BOP’s maximum-security facilities in Colorado, they only see him once or twice a year. Visits are limited to three family members at a time, meaning Mariam has not seen Ahmed in two years. He reserves his two monthly phone calls for his parents, so she can only hope to talk to him when she visits them. Even these calls are a source of enormous frustration. As she wrote in a recent op-ed:
My mom has spent every Tuesday and Thursday of the last decade, at home, sitting by the phone, patiently waiting for a call that sometimes did not come. And when the call does come, what can one even discuss in 15 minutes? Do you ask him how he’s doing? How can you even ask him how he’s feeling? Do you discuss his prison conditions? His legal case? How do you break the news to him when his aunt or grandfather has passed away?
“What you have to understand is that my brother’s case wasn’t just one devastating ‘moment’ in our lives—it’s a lifelong struggle,” Mariam tells Rewire. “This is not something you ever get used to, or accept. It’s about learning new ways of coping every single day, like living with a chronic illness.”
Each day brings fresh challenges, and tough decisions. For instance, Mariam used to maintain a website, manage a Facebook page, and post daily updates on a Twitter account all relating to her brother’s case. One day she felt she just couldn’t do it anymore.
“At a point you have to ask yourself—do I work full time and provide for my family or do I advocate full time on behalf of my loved one?” she asks. “This work, it’s emotionally draining, it’s a daily struggle and it doesn’t necessarily get easier with time.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the officials whom Shifa Sadequee had been accused of making false statements to. It was FBI officers, not immigration officials.
Providers throughout the country have told Rewire that a document produced by Life Dynamics has been used to deceive and intimidate both patients and providers by threatening them with legal action should they go through with obtaining or providing an abortion.
Last February, AJ, a single mother in Mississippi, found herself at the back of an abortion clinic in Memphis, Tennessee, where two police officers threatened to charge her with fetal homicide.
It was yet another unexpected turn in a week of surprising events for AJ, whose name we have agreed to conceal for the sake of her family’s privacy.
Days earlier, AJ had received the kind of news that most parents of teenagers hope never to hear. Her 17-year-old daughter, a student at Lake Cormorant High School, texted her to say she thought she was pregnant.
Mother and daughter discussed the realities of raising a baby as a single teen in a low-income household. Initially, AJ’s daughter said that she wanted to have an abortion, but she cried when they went to the clinic, so AJ took her home. After more conversations, the daughter again decided to have an abortion, and AJ scheduled an appointment at CHOICES, a clinic in Memphis, half-an-hour’s drive across the border from their home in Mississippi.
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As they sat in the clinic waiting room, her daughter was distracted, texting on her phone with a woman in Hernando, Mississippi, whom AJ did not know. The woman had—to AJ’s consternation—been trying to persuade AJ’s daughter not to have an abortion. Her messages kept flashing up on her daughter’s phone. It’s wrong to have an abortion. God is not going to forgive you for this.
“Her mind was solely made up with the procedure that the clinic was going to do,” AJ recalled, “but when she had someone up in her ear telling her, don’t do this—I think the lady did really get in her head.”
Now AJ found herself being stared down by two police, with nervous clinic staff telling her they were unable to provide her daughter’s abortion at that time.
“The police explained that someone had called them saying that my daughter was there unwilling to have the procedure done,” AJ recalled in an interview with Rewire. “So when the police talked to me, they said that if I had forced her to do it they were going to bring fetal homicide charges against me. So we left, and came home.”
AJ was shaken by the encounter, and it would take several weeks and significant legal wrangling before she could make sense of how events had spiraled from what should have been a simple medical appointment into a serious brush with the law.
With assistance from her lawyer, over the course of the next few days, AJ would learn that in addition to the anonymous phone calls that had been made to the clinic while she and her daughter waited for her procedure, people unknown to AJ had faxed her daughter’s personal information—her name, medical information, and even her social security number—to countless numbers of doctors, police, and other strangers in at least two states, without AJ’s knowledge or consent. She would discover that her daughter had been picked up from school and driven across the state border by a person that AJ did not know. And before the saga was resolved, AJ would even find out that an attorney she’d never heard of had purported to represent her daughter, and had sent threatening letters to the abortion clinic, directly interfering with her daughter’s medical treatment.
A Rewire investigation has found that at the center of the drama that unfolded in AJ’s life was a document produced by Life Dynamics, the prominent anti-choice group that is based in Denton, Texas, which receives the majority of its funding from the fracking billionaires Dan and Farris Wilks. The Wilks brothers are also the main backers of Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign.
The document is a bogus “notice” that tricks women into believing they have signed away their legal rights to receive an abortion. Providers throughout the country have told Rewire that this document has been used for years to deceive and intimidate both patients and providers by threatening them with legal action should they go through with obtaining or providing an abortion.
In AJ’s case, the tactic did not work. But her story is an illustration of the intrusive and dishonest techniques used by anti-choice activists to deprive women of their constitutional rights. Abortion providers familiar with the document worry that, for each of the women who ultimately receive the care they desire, countless more may be too intimidated to try.
School Employees Introduce Student to Anti-Choice Activist
The involvement of anti-choice activists in AJ’s daughter’s life began with an innocent conversation between the daughter and a teacher at her school in early February 2015. Rewire was not able to speak directly with the daughter, but confirmed many of the details of AJ’s account with documentation provided by AJ’s attorney, Latrice Westbrooks. Rebecca Terrell, the executive director at CHOICES in Tennessee, also confirmed that the incident involving the police occurred in February last year.
When the daughter confided to her teacher that she was pregnant, the teacher informed another school staff member, and that staffer then contacted a third woman—a stranger to AJ’s daughter, and not a member of school staff—who arranged to meet the girl after school. To this day, AJ has been unable to learn this woman’s identity.
On February 19, the unknown woman drove AJ’s daughter—a minor—across state lines to Millington, Tennessee, where they visited a clinic called Confidential Care for Women, which is a crisis pregnancy center.
Crisis pregnancy centers have a long track record of providing false information to women. Their names and marketing materials are designed to trick the public into thinking that these centers provide abortion when, in reality, they are run by anti-choice groups who deliberately mislead women, and stall for time, in the hopes of diverting them from accessing abortion care. These centers have been the focus of numerous investigations by congressional committees, cities, andindependent investigators who have all caught them lying to women about the risks of abortion procedures, as well as misleading them on the types of services crisis pregnancy centers actually provide.
While AJ’s daughter was at Confidential Care for Women, staff performed an ultrasound and had her sign a document titled, “Patient Notice of Intent.”
As AJ would eventually discover, it was that document that created astonishing difficulties in attempting to secure her daughter’s medical care.
The notice is a boilerplate document drafted in small-print, ersatz legalese.
I have decided to continue my pregnancy to term. However, I am being subjected to coercion by others that is meant to compel me to terminate my pregnancy against my will.
The document then says that if the person who signed it is “brought” to a health-care facility to obtain an abortion, their presence would be a result of “threats, intimidation, force or threats of force.” It also threatens civil and criminal action against “all participating members of the healthcare facility’s medical staff and non-medical support staff” for a laundry list of 15 offenses, including wrongful death, sexual assault, child abuse, and fetal homicide.
The form lists Sheila Williams as the “contact person at the pregnancy center.” In a telephone interview with Rewire, Williams, who said she is the “client services person” at Confidential Care for Women, confirmed that her center continues to have patients sign these notices of intent, but declined to say why, other than that they are “self-explanatory.” Williams repeatedly sought to learn the identity of the patient who was the subject of our call; we declined her requests.
Crucially, the document claims “it is probable that a person or persons whose objective is to prevent me from either withholding or withdrawing my consent for an abortion will accompany me to this facility.”
That last claim appears to be what prompted police to threaten AJ with charges of fetal homicide if her daughter obtained an abortion.
“They said they would bring legal actions against me,” AJ told Rewire. “They were saying there’s nothing I can do because if she’s a teenager and she doesn’t want to have an abortion, it’s wrong for me to force her to have it. And I wasn’t forcing her, I was just letting her know what it’s really going to be like to have a baby.”
Deceptive Form Produced by Group Tied to Fracking Billionaires
The form is copyrighted to Life Dynamics, a Texas-based group dedicated to ending legalized abortion in the United States. Life Dynamics is known for its ongoing anti-choice activities. Over the years, the organization has sent DVDs to thousands of lawyers across the country, urging them to sue abortion providers. And through its “Spies for Life” program, it seeks to enlist the public as spies on abortion clinics, and unsubtly encourages activists to trawl through abortion providers’ trash.
According to the most recent available public tax filings, between 2011and2013, Life Dynamics received the majority of its funding from Dan and Farris Wilks—the Texas fracking billionaires—via the Thirteen Foundation, one of the vehicles they use to make charitable contributions. While the brothers have scattered their wealth throughout the fundamentalist Christian world, the other major current beneficiary of their largesse is the presidential campaign of Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
A spokesperson for Life Dynamics declined to answer our questions for this story.
Lawyers told Rewire that the type of document signed by AJ’s daughter would not have any legal force, especially when signed by a minor.
But that hasn’t stopped anti-choice groups from using the documents, according to multiple providers from different regions of the country, who said they are familiar with these phony notices.
Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, told Rewire that providers all across the country have contacted her group about these forms. She ticked off states in which clinics had shared them with her recently: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Maryland to name a few. Terrell from CHOICES in Memphis told Rewire that her clinic receives multiple such forms every year, and Lori Williams, clinic director at Little Rock Family Planning Services in Arkansas, said her clinic also regularly receives these forms.
The forms are frequently given to minors, who later report that they were coerced into signing them by people such as their boyfriend’s parents, who oppose abortion for their own religious or political reasons.
“It’s just another tactic to intimidate and coerce women into not choosing to have an abortion—tricking women into thinking they have signed this and discouraging them from going through with their initial decision and inclination,” Saporta said.
Saporta and multiple providers told Rewire that the tactic frequently fails, as long as a girl or woman makes it to a clinic. Staff are well trained when it comes to the informed consent process, and support their patients to make their own decisions, whether or not that results in an abortion. In this particular case, CHOICES faced the unusual situation that police were present while a patient was seeking care, and according to Terrell, there was confusion as to who had called the police.
What worries providers are the girls and women who never come to the clinic, believing they have signed their rights away.
“The ones who do come and say that they do want to obtain an abortion, the clinics do their own informed consent process and take the time to ensure that the woman is not being in any way coerced,” Saporta said. “You don’t know about how many women don’t come to the clinic to attempt to obtain care.”
Single Mom Faces More Legal Threats From Anti-Choice Activists
After returning home from that visit to the clinic, AJ and her daughter spent the next few days discussing her daughter’s options. At one point, her daughter appeared to vacillate, saying she might want to continue her pregnancy. AJ talked with her about what that would entail—what it would mean for her daughter’s social life, for her studies, and for her future. She also explained the financial reality of having a baby: AJ was already struggling to support herself and her daughter by working 64 hours per week between two jobs as a card dealer at local casinos.
Ultimately, the 17-year-old decided that she wanted to terminate her pregnancy, and AJ made another appointment at CHOICES, for February 21, 2015.
But when they arrived, CHOICES staff again told AJ they could not perform the abortion. Minutes before, the clinic had received a threatening legal notice from an attorney in Tupelo, Mississippi, named Stephen M. Crampton, who claimed to be representing AJ’s daughter.
“Be advised that this office represents [REDACTED], age 17,” the fax read. “Her mother is transporting her to your clinic as I write.” Crampton purported to put the clinic on “legal notice that any procedure you administer would be against [REDACTED’s] wishes and her constitutional right to choose, and you will face legal consequences if you choose to ignore her stated choice.” (Emphasis in original.)
Crampton named Cathy Waterbury as the employee at Confidential Care who had faxed through the notice of intent to CHOICES. Waterbury has since left Confidential Care, according to Williams, but she is listed in federal tax filings as the chief officer of a Tennessee nonprofit, Heart to Heart, which describes its mission as “abortion alternatives.” Heart to Heart is based in Millington, Tennessee—the same town listed on the notice as Confidential Care’s address. The documents also list the same phone number for both Confidential Care and Heart to Heart. We attempted to contact Waterbury through publicly listed phone numbers, but were unable to reach her.
AJ had never heard of Williams, Crampton, or Waterbury. This brought to five the total of unknown adults who had interfered with AJ’s daughter’s health decisions without AJ’s knowledge, in addition to the two school staffers. AJ would later learn that Crampton had been in contact with her daughter while she was wrestling with her decision about whether to continue her pregnancy.
The involvement of an unknown attorney in her child’s health decisions would be troubling enough, but Crampton is not just any neutral lawyer, seeking to do his client’s bidding. Based on his online profiles, Crampton is in fact special counsel to the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based nonprofit law firm that represents anti-choice extremists, including David Daleiden, the activist who has recently been indicted by a Texas grand jury for his role in creating the deceptive attack videos against Planned Parenthood last summer. Neither Crampton nor the Thomas More Society responded to our requests for comment.
For all the strangers that AJ could identify who had been given sensitive information about her daughter’s health, the document that Confidential Care had AJ’s daughter sign indicated that—contrary to what their name would suggest— they could have disseminated it to an almost infinite number of third parties.
In addition to the legal threats it contained, the notice of intent also included a section that permitted Confidential Care to “immediately forward copies of this document to the following”:
Every abortion clinic or other abortion provider to which I might be taken;
Every law enforcement entity (police department, sheriff’s department, district attorney’s office, etc.) with jurisdiction where I might reside and those with jurisdiction where the abortion might be performed; and
My legal counsel and/or the legal counsel representing the Pregnancy Center.
AJ learned that Confidential Care had already faxed a copy of the notice to CHOICES, apparently on the same day that her daughter had visited Confidential Care. AJ does not know who else received a copy.
That was particularly worrisome because the document did not just inform all recipients of AJ’s daughter’s pregnancy, but it also contained the girl’s full name, her full address, and even her date of birth and her social security number.
Williams, of Confidential Care, was unapologetic about distributing this private information about a minor to third parties. “I am fully aware of what we sent out,” she told Rewire.
When pressed on the fact that this case involved a minor—who was not legally competent to sign such a document—Williams pointed to language in the document that asserts that the minor gives permission to the pregnancy center to “provide this document to every city, county or state social service agency responsible for the protection of underage children with jurisdiction where I reside and those with jurisdiction where the abortion might be performed.”
Williams then asked again for the patient’s name, saying, “I have concerns for patient confidentiality.”
Williams declined to answer questions about whether she and her center are bound by federal patient privacy laws. She said that someone else from her organization would answer those questions, but we never heard back from any other Confidential Care representative.
Abortion providers say that when they receive these notices, they almost always contain this level of personal information—a practice that disturbs Vicki Saporta of the National Abortion Federation.
“It’s particularly unconscionable that they indiscriminately send out patient information,” she said. “If she had concerns about patient confidentiality then she would not be having the patient sign the form to begin with and sending it all over town in violation of the patient’s confidentiality.”
At this point, AJ decided she needed a lawyer. She contacted Latrice Westbrooks, who knew she had to act fast because AJ’s daughter’s pregnancy was approaching the end of the first trimester, and mother and daughter were concerned that it might soon become more difficult for her daughter to obtain an abortion at a local clinic.
Despite multiple phone calls, Crampton never replied to Westbrooks. Ultimately, she had to draw up legal paperwork to prove to the clinic that Crampton was not AJ’s daughter’s legal representative, and that the document the girl had signed was not legally binding. As soon as the clinic was satisfied that it was legally able to do so, staff provided AJ’s daughter with her abortion.
Westbrooks says the clinic’s cautious response was understandable, given the threats they had received and the general atmosphere of intimidation currently surrounding abortion care, especially in the South. However, she says that the tactics used by the various anti-choice activists are alarming.
“My main concern here is that a minor was taken advantage of, and that school officials took the decision out of the hands of the parent and guardian and took it upon themselves to make a health-care decision on their behalf,” Westbrooks told Rewire. “It’s important for people to know that they have a choice to change their mind—whether it’s to keep their child or terminate their pregnancy—and not to let someone force them into making any kind of health-care decision.”
Westbrooks said that her client does not currently plan to take legal action against the school; neither the school nor the district replied to Rewire’s requests for comment.
While AJ’s daughter eventually obtained the care she wanted, AJ says the situation took a toll on her. Throughout the course of less than a month, AJ found herself threatened by police, and ensnared in a web of anonymous strangers who sought to impose their own ideological views on her daughter’s life.
“I’m truly a strong person,” she told Rewire, “but that really got the best of me.”