Anti-choice extremists continue their effort to render the Constitution meaningless, arguing that a woman who gave jail-house “counsel” to convicted murder Scott Roeder does not have to disclose the substance of those conversations with Roeder in the case against her because they are protected by the clergy-communicant privilege and the First Amendment.
Angel Dillard is accused of of sending threatening letters to Dr. Mila Means, a Wichita doctor training to offer abortions in the area after the 2009 murder of Dr. George Tiller. According to reports, Dillard told Means in a 2011 letter that thousands of people across the country were looking into her background. “They will know your habits and routines” the letter read. “They know where you you shop, who your friends are, what you drive where you live. You will be checking under your car everyday- because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it.”
Dillard argues she doesn’t have to tell them. In an affidavit filed to try and protect the communications, Dillard claims God had called her to reach out to Roeder and serve as a minister to him. According to reports, during their first meeting together Dillard claims she signed into prison logs as a ministry visitor but later, through those ministerial visits became Roeder’s friend. However, just because the two were friends, Dillard argues, doesn’t change the fact that she was still a “clergy” person to Roeder. Should the government be allowed to discover the substance of her communications with Roeder it would send a chill into all ministerial efforts in jail and prison settings generally.
Like This Story?
Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.
The government claims Dillard is no member of the clergy and therefore can’t protect those communications from discovery in the case against her. Furthermore, the government argues, even if Dillard had signed prison logs as a minister, there’s no evidence she is actually ordained, nor has Dillard produced any proof she is an actual minister. Finally, the government argues, even if she was qualified as a clergyperson, she and Roeder would have reasonably believed their conversations were being monitored and recorded which would undo any possibility of those communications remaining secret.
Testamentary privileges like ministerial privileges, or doctor-patient privileges, are designed to recognize the need to have open channels of candid communication, but are specifically not supposed to be used as a means to promote and protect otherwise unlawful behavior. In Dillard’s case, it’s easy to see why.
Dillard has good reason to want to keep the substance of those conversations secret. The Department of Justice has an open grand jury investigation into whether Dr. Tiller’s murder was connected to a broader effort by anti-abortion radicals to re-engange in acts of domestic terrorism against abortion providers and patients. And while no indictments have been handed down yet, the fact that the Obama administration has not backed off the links between Dillard, Bray and Roeder is further evidence of a more serious approach to domestic terrorism and clinic violence than the previous administration.
It’s unlikely that Dillard will be successful in protecting all of her communications from disclosure, but she may luck out and keep a few from the government’s lawyers. And if she does, the victory won’t be in shielding from disclosure a visit or two with a convicted murder, it will be in further emboldening the extremists in the right to try and distort reasonable constitutional religious protections in the name of their violent anti-woman agenda.
Women who have visited almost any abortion clinic in the United States have seen anti-choice protesters outside, wielding placards and chanting abuse. A Boston advertiser's technology, when deployed by anti-choice groups, allows those groups to send propaganda directly to a woman’s phone while she is in a clinic waiting room.
Last year, an enterprising advertising executive based in Boston, Massachusetts, had an idea: Instead of using his sophisticated mobile surveillance techniques to figure out which consumers might be interested in buying shoes, cars, or any of the other products typically advertised online, what if he used the same technology to figure out which women were potentially contemplating abortion, and send them ads on behalf of anti-choice organizations?
The executive—John Flynn, CEO of Copley Advertising—set to work. He put together PowerPoint presentations touting his capabilities, and sent them to groups he thought would be interested in reaching “abortion-minded women,” to use anti-choice parlance.
Before long, he’d been hired by RealOptions, a network of crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) in Northern California, as well as by the evangelical adoption agency Bethany Christian Services.
Flynn’s endeavors quickly won him attention in the anti-choice world. He was invited to speak at the Family Research Council’s ProLifeCon Digital Action Summit in January this year, and he got a few write-ups in anti-choice press.
Like This Story?
Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.
In an interview with Live Action News—the website for Live Action, the group run by anti-choice activist Lila Rose that is responsible for bogus attack videos against Planned Parenthood—Flynn gave some details about his strategy. He sends advertisements for his clients to women’s smartphones while they are sitting in Planned Parenthood clinics, using a technology known as “mobile geo-fencing.” He also planned to ping women at methadone clinics and other abortion facilities. His program for Bethany covered five cities: Columbus, Ohio; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; St. Louis, Missouri; and New York City.
“We are very excited to bring our mobile marketing capabilities to the pro-life community,” Flynn told Live Action News.
Anti-choice groups were tantalized by the ability to home in on the women they think will be most susceptible to their message.
“Marketing for pregnancy help centers has always been a needle in a haystack approach—cast a wide net and hope for the best,” said Bethany Regional Marketing Manager Jennie VanHorn, according to the report. “With geo fencing, we can reach women who we know are looking for or in need of someone to talk to.”
Flynn’s targeting of women seeking abortion presents a serious threat to the privacy and safety of women exercising their right to choose, as well as to abortion providers and their staff, a Rewire investigation has found. But due to weak and patchwork laws governing privacy and data collection in the United States, the conduct appears to be perfectly legal.
Women who have visited almost any abortion clinic in the United States have seen anti-choice protesters outside, wielding placards and chanting abuse. This technology, when deployed by anti-choice groups, allows them to send propaganda directly to a woman’s phone while she is in a clinic waiting room. It also has the capability to hand the names and addresses of women seeking abortion care, and those who provide it, over to anti-choice groups.
“It is incredibly unethical and creepy,” Brian Solis, a digital marketing expert, told Rewire, expressing a view that was unanimous among a dozen experts in digital security, privacy law, and online marketing we interviewed for this story.
Solis said this example was the inevitable application of a technology meant for one purpose—mass advertising campaigns that, while considered by many people to be unseemly and intrusive, do not generally amount to a threat—to a very different, and troubling, objective.
“You can grab an uncomfortable amount of information from someone’s device and the apps they use,” said Solis. “It’s unfortunate, but any woman who plans to visit an affected Planned Parenthood, or anyone who works for Planned Parenthood, should be afraid.”
When Ads Follow You Around
By now, most Americans have experienced the following phenomenon: You look at something online—a hotel, a flower delivery service, a course at a local college—and the next thing you know, ads for that thing follow you around the internet for the next week.
A watch you looked at now pops up next to your Facebook feed; an ad for a coffee machine you researched on Amazon now lurks on your favorite news sites. And maybe, after researching cars online, it seems that Toyota knows whenever you visit a lot, and sends ads to your phone as you walk through the dealership’s doors.
This is all part of the new landscape of digital advertising, where marketers can tailor their ads to very specific groups of consumers by compiling “personas” based on the thousands of shards of data we all create as we go about our activities online.
While theoretically anonymous, these marketing personas are surprisingly accurate. Marketers likely know your age, gender, occupation, education level, marital status, and—if you have GPS enabled on your phone and are logged into apps that track you—where you live, work, and travel.
What Flynn realized is that he could use the same technologies to infer that a woman might be seeking an abortion, and to target her for ads from anti-choice groups.
“We can reach every Planned Parenthood in the U.S.,” he wrote in a PowerPoint display sent to potential clients in February. The Powerpoint included a slide titled “Targets for Pro-Life,” in which Flynn said he could also reach abortion clinics, hospitals, doctors’ offices, colleges, and high schools in the United States and Canada, and then “[d]rill down to age and sex.”
“We can gather a tremendous amount of information from the [smartphone] ID,” he wrote. “Some of the break outs include: Gender, age, race, pet owners, Honda owners, online purchases and much more.”
Flynn explained that he would then use that data to send anti-choice ads to women “while they’re at the clinic.”
In his sales PowerPoint, Flynn said that he had already attempted to ping cellphones for RealOptions and Bethany nearly three million times, and had been able to steer thousands of women to their websites. The price tag for one of Copley’s campaigns, he said, was $8,000.
Flynn initially agreed to speak with Rewire for this story, but did not respond to multiple follow-up emails and phone calls. Much of this report is based on materials that he sent to people he believed to be potential clients. Numerous messages seeking comment from management for RealOptions went unanswered; Jennifer Gradnigo, a spokesperson for Bethany Christian Services, confirmed that they have used Copley’s services and “appreciate their ideas,” but declined to discuss specific campaigns.
Not everyone who received Flynn’s pitch emails was impressed. One recipient contacted Rewire after speaking with Flynn, and expressed horror at what Flynn told her he was able to do on behalf of anti-choice clients.
“I felt disgust, and I felt protective of these women who are going to seek sensitive medical services at a time when they’re vulnerable,” said the recipient, who is a social worker at a Northern California adoption agency. Rewire agreed to withhold her identity due to her fears of retaliation from anti-choice activists.
“They’re being spied on by this capitalist vulture who is literally trying to sell their fetuses,” she said. “To do this to women without consent is predatory and it’s an invasion of her privacy, and unethical.”
In emails and PowerPoint presentations sent in early March, Flynn claimed to have reached more than 800,000 18-to-24-year-old women on behalf of RealOptions, and to have sent more than 2,000 of those women to RealOption’s website.
Rewire obtained three examples of the ads that Flynn said he had sent to young women’s phones on RealOptions’ behalf.
The ads are typical of CPCs.
They ask, “Pregnant?” or “Abortion?” and then include statements like “It’s your choice. You have time… Be informed” and “Get the facts first.”
Like most CPCs, the claim that RealOptions provides “facts” about abortion is deceptive. While that language may lead women to believe they could obtain abortion care at RealOptions, in federal tax filings, the organization explains its mission as: “empowering and equipping women and men to choose life for their unborn children through the love of Jesus Christ in accordance with his word regarding the sanctity of human life.”
According to its website, RealOptions has received funding from the radical Christian group Focus on the Family. The organization was founded in 1981 by Marion and Tom Recine, fervent Christians who in a video posted to their website refer to the “many, many, many women who’ve come to Jesus because of the [RealOptions] centers.”
Flynn also says that he has targeted 140 abortion clinics on behalf of Bethany Christian Services over the past few months, and that 10,000 people clicked on the ads for Bethany that he sent to smartphones in those clinics, directing them to a “dedicated resource centers landing page.”
The social worker who received Flynn’s pitch deck told Rewire she was alarmed that Flynn had succeeded in reaching so many women on behalf of his anti-choice clients.
“He’s doing it and it’s working and it’s probably really impacting human trajectories,” she said. “It changes human lives to be funneled into a system like this.”
Advertising Is Now a System of Surveillance
Although it is now ubiquitous, mobile digital advertising is a relatively new phenomenon, only as old as the sophisticated smartphones on which it relies. As a result, laws and the regulators who enforce them are lagging behind when it comes to the many possible ways that bad actors can abuse smartphone advertising.
In terms of federal laws, many either don’t apply to Flynn’s conduct, or would allow it, according to Chris Hoofnagle, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Law, and School of Information.
“Privacy law in the U.S. is technology- and context-dependent,” Hoofnagle said. “As an example, the medical information you relay to your physician is very highly protected, but if you go to a medical website and search for ‘HIV’ or ‘abortion,’ that information is not protected at all.”
In other words, it’s almost certain that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, would not apply.
The other limitations, such as they are, come from two sets of laws. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and state attorneys general can prevent advertisers from sending false and misleading ads; they can also stop advertisers from lying about what information they are tracking and what they plan to do with it once collected.
The FTC did not reply to Rewire’s questions in time for the publication of this story. However, the commission does not have jurisdiction over nonprofits, so it is highly unlikely that it could take action in this case.
The second set of laws concern user consent. Companies like Verizon and AT&T, known as carriers, are required to get affirmative consent before using “Customer Proprietary Network Information” gleaned through cellphone towers—including call records and location—for marketing. Apps don’t use network information, but rely instead on the GPS built into phones. They also need to obtain affirmative consent to collect and use information for marketing.
Obtaining that consent is easier than many consumers may think.
“The reality of this stuff is that no one’s asking what marketers will do with their information when they click, ‘I Agree,’ when an app asks if it can use their location,” Hoofnagle said. “If one consents to that tracking, and consents for it to be used for advertising purposes, that’s pretty much the end of the story.”
Certainly, most people wouldn’t imagine that by agreeing that, say, Yelp, Snapchat, Tinder, or the New York Times could use their location, that marketers could then use the same information for the very different purpose of figuring out whether they are seeking sensitive medical services.
Hoofnagle says that such use is perfectly legal, as long as companies don’t lie about what information they’re collecting—even if those disclosures are buried in fine print.
For his part, John Flynn is confident that his campaign is within legal bounds.
“I have worked with pharma, medical recruitment and many others where we mobile geo-fenced medical centers without a problem,” he wrote in an email to a potential client. “Bethany’s campaign targeted just medical centers and there was [sic] no issues. RealOptions in the San Jose area is presently targeting colleges and medical centers without issue.”
In the absence of robust legal limitations in the United States, advertisers have organized into self-regulatory bodies to police themselves, acutely conscious that examples of egregious privacy violations could spark a public backlash, and lead consumers to block ads and to opt out of targeted marketing.
Lindsay Hutter, a spokesperson from the Direct Marketing Association (DMA)—a New York-based group that represents direct marketers—said in an email statement to Rewire:
A key pillar of DMA’s work is to ensure that data-driven marketers conduct their work on an ethical basis, respecting the private information of consumers. This is particularly true for sensitive medical information about particular individuals, the use of which for marketing purposes without permission is against DMA’s Ethical Guidelines. Any location-based marketing should be opt-in, with the consumer notified that marketing offers are being presented due to their location.
Hutter did not provide a direct reply to our questions as to whether targeting women who might be seeking abortion care on behalf of anti-choice groups would be in violation of DMA’s guidelines.
It would, however, violate Facebook’s standards, according to Tom Channick, a company spokesperson.
“Our policies prohibit ads that make implications, directly or indirectly, about a user’s personal characteristics, including medical condition or pregnancy,” Channick said. “Deceptive or misleading advertisements are also prohibited.”
Flynn claims that he has a “relationship” with Facebook that allows him to “place mobile and digital ads in Facebook pages,” but Channick said the company could find no record of Flynn or his company ever using their platform.
Calling Flynn’s campaigns “really objectionable,” Hoofnagle said that these kinds of practices are toxic to the digital advertising industry, as well as the platforms—like Google and Facebook—that depend on advertising dollars.
He said this example drives home the fact that the nature of advertising has fundamentally transformed with the rise of the internet, and as smartphones have become ubiquitous.
“Advertising is a system of surveillance now,” Hoofnagle said. “It used to be billboards and television. Now it’s surveillance.”
Extremists Could Use Women’s Phones to Learn Their Names and Addresses
Surveillance has long played a central—and deadly—role in the efforts of anti-choice activists to intimidate women out of accessing abortion care, and to stop providers from making it available.
In the late 1990s, an anti-choice extremist created a website called the Nuremberg Files—in reference to Nazi Germany—which was a list of the names and addresses of doctors who provided abortions. Operation Rescue maintained a site called “Tiller Watch” that monitored the doctor’s whereabouts until he was murdered in the spring of 2009. Extremists have published “Wanted” signs with photographs of abortion providers. Activists in Texas stalk people entering local clinics, noting their physical appearance and license plates, hoping to determine which women went through with their abortion and whether anyone changed their mind, as well as to identify clinic workers. Many providers around the country report having been followed on their way to and from work.
Sasha Bruce, senior vice president of campaigns and strategy at NARAL Pro-Choice America, says that tagging the cellphones of women who go to abortion clinics falls within the pattern of intimidation.
“Intimidation frankly is the lowest threshold—that quickly turns to violence,” Bruce said. “That’s part of what’s troubling about this. There’s a real incitement that this information can contribute to.”
Bruce said she was alarmed in particular because Flynn was not just collecting information about what women looked at online, but also about their physical locations.
“If you have the smartphone ID, and then you can tie that to a location outside of the clinic, let’s say a home, that’s a real security threat,” Bruce told Rewire. “I worry about the extension of that—the desire of anti-choice activists to know who these staffers are, and who the women are.”
To be clear, there is no evidence to suggest that Flynn or his clients have or want to use geo-fencing to learn the real identities of women seeking abortion. But experts told Rewire that the potential for others to abuse the technology is a cause for alarm. In keeping with the view that transparency fosters security, Rewire has chosen to outline the ways this tracking could be misused.
In theory, when marketers gather information about individual smartphone users through methods like geo-location, that data is anonymized, meaning that it is not attached to a person’s name, but rather to a unique number known as an “advertising ID.” That is the number associated with the particular copy of the operating system that each of us has downloaded onto our smartphone. If you use a Google phone, your operating system is Android; for iPhone users, it’s your copy of iOS. Much of what you do on your phone can be associated with that advertising ID.
In most cases, marketers want to collect data from millions of potential customers, said John Deighton, a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, in an interview with Rewire. The more data they have, the more ads they can send, which enhances their database.
“What your story is drawing to my attention is that these same surveillance technologies can be used at a much more micro scale,” he said. “You could imagine outright illegal use of geo-targeting: for example, geo-targeting a rich person’s house and getting an alert when they leave home.” That could, say, lead to high-tech burglary.
“Once you start realizing you can target desirable individuals, instead of being a big data function it becomes about tiny data,” Deighton said.
But if all of the data that marketers collect is supposed to be anonymized, how could bad actors—including anti-choice extremists—figure out the actual identities of the people they track?
The dirty secret of digital marketing is that it is in fact relatively easy to find out the real identities that are attached to our online IDs, according to experts who spoke with Rewire.
The most obvious way is simply to ask people for that information.
Both RealOptions and Bethany Christian Services require a person’s name and contact information in order to receive information online. Once a woman enters her name, email, home address, phone number, or ZIP code, that information is tied to her advertising ID, and Flynn could potentially marry that ID to all data associated with it and store it in what he calls his databank.
There are, however, plenty of less aboveboard methods to learn the name attached to an anonymous ID.
Any site or app that uses a profile with your name and any other information—Facebook, dating services, banking apps—can link your device, and your advertising ID, to the real you.
Legitimate services would not hand over personally identifying information willingly, but there are many instances of such information being made widely available. The cyber attack on Ashley Madison, the dating site for married people seeking extramarital partners, resulted in the release by hackers of the personal information of 32 million of the site’s users, revealing the potential for profile-based sites to be targeted.
Even without sophisticated hacks on established sites, bad actors can use techniques known as “social engineering” to learn the personal identities associated with advertising IDs.
For instance, if an anti-choice group wanted to learn the identity of women seeking abortions, instead of sending them ads for CPCs, they could send ads that seemed unrelated to abortion—for a competition to win $500, or for help with student loans—that tricked women into entering their names, email addresses, and any other information required by the form. Any woman who filled out the form would have unwittingly handed her name to anti-choice activists.
That would allow anti-choice groups to literally see women’s whereabouts in real time, said digital marketing experts who spoke with Rewire anonymously because they were not authorized to speak with the press. They described marketing software that allows them to see targeted individuals’ locations, the same way you can see yourself as a blue dot on a smartphone map. If certain people were seen at an abortion clinic regularly—say, during work hours—Flynn or his clients might even be able to infer that they work there.
“That’s what scares me about your story,” said Deighton. “Now we have an incentive to track people that isn’t the usual big data incentive.”
The question naturally arises: What can abortion providers and the women they serve do to fend off these digital affronts?
The simplest measure Planned Parenthood, or any other abortion provider, could take is to tell patients to leave their smartphones at home or in the car. If that isn’t possible or practical, the best advice is to turn off their GPS and log out of all apps before they come to a clinic.
It’s a simple step, but one that many people either won’t or don’t take, said Cooper Quintin, a technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to preserving fundamental rights in the age of technology.
“The way we need to fight back against this is by blocking these things that are tracking who we are and where we are and what things we’re looking at,” Quintin told Rewire. EFF considers location-based tracking to be a serious threat to privacy.
“Right now, there’s this big ideological debate about ad-blocking. What’s missing from that debate is the idea of blocking things that are tracking you. Tracking people and building up these databases of what they read online, where they go in the real world, linking their online behaviors to their offline purchases and real world behavior—these things can have real-world effects, and this is a horrific example of how this can affect people in a way that’s much more important than seeing some annoying or creepy ads that follow you around.”
Editor’s Note: Watch our video for info on how to avoid location-based tracking.
Just two days after NARAL Pro-Choice America submitted a letter asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate anti-choice activities as domestic terrorism, an extremist opened fire on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, murdering three people and injuring nine others.
On a frigid January afternoon this year, a day before the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, about a dozen fresh-out-of-college feminist campus organizers marched the halls of Congress after divvying up a list of representatives to visit.
Smartly dressed under bulky winter coats, organizers Kelli Musick and Chelsea Yarborough, who work for the national nonprofit the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), dropped by the office of Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).
Blackburn chairs the House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee’s Select Investigative Panel, created last October principally to investigate Planned Parenthood. The panel formed after the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) released a series of heavily edited videos in which it claimed—though never proved—that Planned Parenthood was illegally selling fetal tissue.
As part of their mission that day, Musick and Yarborough left written materials with a staffer asking Blackburn to either redirect her panel’s focus to violent attacks on abortion clinics, or to dissolve it. Specifically, the FMF wanted the congressional panel to investigate the leaders behind CMP, whose rhetoric has fueled a recent spate of threats and attacks against abortion providers, the foundation’s president, Eleanor Smeal, told Rewire in an interview. Though the investigative scope of the panel is actually quite broad, it does not specifically include abortion clinic violence as an area to probe.
Like This Story?
Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.
But in the four months since Musick and Yarborough submitted their request to Blackburn’s staff, the panel has forged ahead with its investigation, not just into Planned Parenthood’s fetal tissue donation practices, but into abortion practices generally. This week, House Democrats requested that Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) disband this panel, arguing that it amounts to little more than a biased, expensive witch hunt on fetal tissue researchers and abortion providers.
Really, though, the FMF’s mostly symbolic ask is part of a recent, ongoing push by abortion rights groups to demand that the federal government start taking violence and threats aimed at abortion providers more seriously. National organizations last year began identifying a spike in violent acts, such as arson, vandalism, and death threats, directed at reproductive health clinics and staffers.
NARAL Pro-Choice America started a campaign last November asking the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate these types of activities as domestic terrorism. Just two days after NARAL submitted its letter to the federal agency, an anti-choice extremist opened fire on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado murdering three people and injuring nine others.
This rise in threats and attacks—further documented in a report published last month by the National Abortion Federation (NAF)—has also prompted abortion rights groups to demand that the government strengthen and fully enforce the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, a 22-year-old federal law intended to ensure access to abortion clinics and to protect the lives of abortion providers and patients.
“The time for us being quiet is over,” Smeal said at a news conference held in January. “We are determined that we are going to bring the anti-abortion violence issue to the forefront of decision making.”
A Call for More FACE Investigations
The FACE Act, which allows for criminal and civil remedies, makes it a federal crime to use force or the threat of force to prevent people from accessing or providing reproductive health care. For example, the law bans the destruction of clinic property and the practice of blocking someone’s entrance into a clinic.
Before President Bill Clinton signed the FACE Act in 1994, some abortion foes would travel the country and barricade themselves in front of clinic doors. Such blockades came to be known as “operation rescue,” pioneered by the national group of the same name whose current president, Troy Newman, was involved in the aforementioned video campaign targeting Planned Parenthood.
“It’s called ‘interposition,'” Rev. Rusty Lee Thomas told Rewire in a phone interview. He said that this blockading practice is based on a biblical and historical concept, where “someone stands in the gap between the sort of tyrant and its victim.” Thomas said in this case, the doctors providing abortions were the tyrants and the aborted fetuses the victims.
Thomas now runs a group called Operation Save America. Back in the 1990s, he joined anti-choice activists in these ventures. But Thomas said he gave up this particular brand of protest after the DOJ sued him and others under the FACE Act in 1998, after he had attempted to block the entrances of reproductive health clinics in multiple cities in Ohio. Though the federal government ultimately dropped the charges, the threat of prison time and hundreds of dollars in fines ended his blockading days, Thomas said.
“Like anything else, when the price tag goes up, people really do have to weigh that,” he said. “By that time, the government was successful at scaring people and shutting it down. The tactic of ‘operation rescue’ was put to an end.”
Many abortion rights supporters agree with Thomas that the FACE Act curbed clinic blockades. They say this federal policy and similar state laws helped decrease violent attacks, such as clinic bombings and murders of clinic workers and doctors. Smeal said that, according to the FMF’s frequent clinic surveys, the year the FACE Act went into effect, more than 50 percent of abortion clinics reported experiencing violence; today that number has dropped to 20 percent.
Since 1994, the DOJ has filed a total of 27 civil FACE cases in 17 states, a Justice Department spokesperson told Rewire in an email. The spokesperson said the DOJ receives “a great deal of information” from national abortion provider groups, as well as from victims, local law enforcement, and media reports.
As Rewire has reported previously, both criminal and civil prosecutions under FACE tend to fluctuate based on which political party controls the White House: During President George W. Bush’s administration, for example, criminal prosecutions under the FACE Act declined by more than 75 percent to about two a year, compared to an average of ten prosecutions a year under the Clinton administration. During President Obama’s first term, the DOJ reported prosecuting 11 criminal cases under the FACE Act, charging 12 defendants.
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in March on the oversight of the Justice Department, Attorney General Loretta Lynch testified that her agency increased criminal prosecutions and civil cases filed under the FACE Act within the “past five or six years.” But she did not give the total number of cases prosecuted under the act. She estimated that under the Obama administration, the DOJ has charged a total of 12 criminal cases criminally and nine civil ones.
Advocates and providers say these figures pale in comparison to the number of acts of violence and harassment annually committed against clinics and providers nationwide.
Since the NAF began tracking abortion clinic violence in 1977, the organization reports that as of 2015, there have been 185 arsons, 42 bombings, 26 attempted murders, and 11 murders, three of which occurred last year.
Advocates are currently waiting to see whether the government will bring a FACE complaint against Robert Lewis Dear Jr., who invoked anti-abortion animus upon arrest and during his first media interview after he admitted to shooting up the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic last November. During her testimony in March, Lynch said the DOJ is reviewing “a possible FACE Act violation” against Dear while his murder case proceeds in state court.
It appears, however, that this case will be in limbo for a while. Earlier this month, a judge ruled that Dear lacks the mental competency to stand trial, after forensic psychologists diagnosed him with a delusion disorder they claim is based on the accused shooter’s fringe political beliefs, among them that federal agents are spying on him. Dear, meanwhile, has been very clear that he does not want to plead insanity; rather, he wants to argue that the attack on Planned Parenthood was legally justified because he was fighting against the greater evil of abortion. For the time being, Dear will be treated at a state psychiatric hospital until, if ever, he is deemed competent to stand trial.
In any case, it might seem unnecessary to charge Dear with a federal felony crime of obstructing access to abortion when he’s already on trial for multiple murders. But some advocates say that charging these crimes under FACE is important symbolically because, as with hate crimes, the FACE Act helps draw the link between crimes like vandalism, arson, and murder, and a specific bias against a group of people. Being able to illustrate a pattern of anti-abortion crimes is necessary in order to bring awareness to law enforcement and the public and to potentially deter anti-choice extremists from threatening or committing acts of violence, they say.
It’s for this reason that physician assistant Susan Cahill wanted to bring a FACE claim against Zachary Klundt, who destroyed her All Families Healthcare clinic in Kalispell, Montana, in March 2014, forcing her to forever shutter her clinic.
According to testimony that surfaced during the sentencing hearing, Klundt had texted his mother hours before the break-in, asking her for information about the “abortionist,” and had told a psychiatrist evaluating him after the break-in that Cahill was a “murderer.” Notably, Klundt’s mother sat on the board of the anti-choice pregnancy center that purchased Cahill’s old building and evicted Cahill.
Yet despite this circumstantial evidence, Klundt testified that he smashed all of Cahill’s medical equipment and personal photos and poured iodine on her patients’ medical records because of serious drug addiction, not anti-abortion animus.
“Even though everybody knows why he did it, legally it wasn’t tried that way,” Cahill told Rewire.
Though third parties can bring civil suits under the FACE Act, Cahill said she likely would be unsuccessful trying to use the statute in this case, because Klundt was only found guilty of vandalism and the court did not make a specific finding about his motivations in committing this crime.
Instead, she is suing Klundt, his family, and the crisis pregnancy center that forced her from her old building, for negligence, nuisance, and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” She said she hopes that if the case moves forward, discovery proceedings will surface what she suspects were Klundt’s anti-abortion motivations.
To be sure, not all anti-choice activists and abortion clinic protesters escalate to violence. And abortion opponents like Susan B. Anthony List national campaign chair Jill Stanek say the FACE Act goes too far in regulating the actions of protesters. Stanek told Rewire that most of these activists peacefully exercise their free speech rights to protest what they believe is a form of murder.
As an example, Stanek pointed Rewire to a FACE claim in 2010 in which the DOJ sued an activist in West Palm Beach, Florida, accusing her of blocking the flow of traffic at an abortion clinic while she tried to give pamphlets to a couple in a car. A federal judge dismissed the claim as baseless.
Stanek argued that it is a political strategy among abortion rights supporters to “play up” acts of anti-choice violence and threats. She added that abortion opponents also receive their share of attacks and threats, including herself. Upon returning from vacation in late January, Stanek said she found a brick thrown through her window with a note reading: “Quit the pro-life bullshit.” Her local newspaper in Mokena, Illinois, reported the alleged incident. Stanek posted photos she says depict the brick and busted window to Facebook.
While Stanek maintained that most abortion protesters organize peacefully and called people like Dear part of the “lunatic fringe,” she did concede that protesting in front of abortion clinics is, in part, an attempt by her movement “to stigmatize abortion doctors.” The goal is also, she said, to convince patients to turn away from clinics and for clinic staff to quit their jobs.
It’s this stigma and endless, sometimes hostile, presence in front of reproductive health clinics that, abortion providers told Rewire, can help breed eventual violence. But Stanek said the movement is not about to abandon this crucial aspect of their multi-pronged strategy to end legal abortion.
“As far as we’re concerned, the last front, the last place that we have a chance to save a baby is at the abortion clinic,” Stanek said. “Laws haven’t worked, pregnancy care centers haven’t worked, educating hasn’t worked. Now we have the mom going into the abortion clinic. And so that is what compels certain people to go to abortion clinics and try to get women to change their minds.”
Abortion Rights Advocates Say FACE Is Weak on Threats, Harassment
It was lunchtime during the summer of 2012 when Dr. Willie Parker walked outside of Jackson Women’s Health Organization in Jackson, Mississippi. It was his first day at the clinic, which happens to be bright pink and the last standing abortion clinic in the whole state. As such, it’s a regular fixture for protests.
As he walked to and from a nearby sandwich shop, Parker said he was accompanied by a protester who “berated” him the entire way. He felt intimidated and threatened.
Parker, who currently divides his time among six clinics in five states, told Rewire in a phone interview that the FACE Act is a “mixed bag,” arguing it does not fully protect providers, especially when they are not on clinic property. He added that abortion foes have learned all of the federal and local statutes to know how close they can physically reach patients and providers while staying inside the law.
“At what point am I out of the safety created by [the FACE] Act simply because I chose to walk across the street from an abortion clinic to get a sandwich?” he said.
Many abortion providers think FACE is a relatively weak law, particularly when it comes to harassment and threats made against them, an element of clinic violence many advocates say is often ignored at the federal level. Though it forbids “the threat of force,” such a provision is open to interpretation by the courts.
Drexel University law professor David Cohen, who co-authored a recent book about anti-abortion terrorism, told Rewire last year that the FACE Act should be amended to specifically include stalking and harassing abortion providers within the law’s current definition of “intimidate.” Additionally, Cohen recommends directing the courts to assess threats from the perspective of an abortion provider, and increasing penalties.
Threats to providers have drastically increased in the last year, say advocacy groups. They attribute this increase, in part, to the incendiary rhetoric that Planned Parenthood “sells baby parts,” a recurring mantra from the Center for Medical Progress’ smear campaign against the reproductive health-care network.
The NAF tracked 94 threats of direct harm in 2015, compared to just one threat in 2014. According to its latest report, NAF hired an outside security firm in mid-November last year to track online threats, which helped to identify more than 25,000 incidents of hate speech and threats within six weeks.
Meanwhile, researchers at FMF also witnessed a sharp rise in threats against abortion providers last summer. Smeal said researchers were so concerned that they postponed a clinic violence survey that they were prepping to come out earlier this year and instead tried to help clinics prevent threats from escalating into actual attacks.
“We were very, very concerned about the increasing level of threats,” Smeal told Rewire in an interview. “Most of us who have been involved in this for a long time thought it was one of the highest threat levels we’ve ever seen. We were waiting for the violent acts to occur.”
They didn’t have to wait long.
Dr. Savita Ginde, the medical director at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, was one of the doctors featured in one of CMP’s videos. After the video streamed online, Ginde allegedly received online death threats, as well as picketers outside of her home. In November, Dear was arrested for shooting up her clinic, declaring afterward, “no more baby parts.” Ginde was not harmed.
The connection of threats to violence worries advocates like Smeal. Extremists do not always act on their threats, but they sometimes do, she said. Or they create a climate that motivates someone to act out what the crowd is cheering for.
It’s for this reason that the reproductive rights community eagerly anticipated the recent trial in the Justice Department’s civil lawsuit against abortion foe Angel Dillard in the hopes that the result might strengthen future enforcement against threats under FACE.
In fact, the opposite might have happened.
The DOJ sued Dillard in 2011 after she mailed a letter to family practitioner Dr. Mila Means. Means was, at the time, training to perform abortions in Wichita to fill the gap left by Dr. George Tiller, whom Scott Roeder murdered two years earlier, admitting it was because Tiller performed abortions. In the letter, Dillard, who has ties to Roeder, told Means that thousands of abortion opponents across the country were monitoring her movements and that should she begin offering abortions, she should take care to check beneath her car for explosives every day “because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it.” In the letter, Dillard also referenced Tiller speaking to Means from hell.
The agency interpreted this letter as a threat of violence that violated the FACE Act. Means ended up not opening an abortion practice in Wichita. She told Rewire after the trial that she backed out, in part, because of the cultural and political climate against abortion in Kansas. “The threats work,” she said.
This climate was evidenced in the Wichita jury’s decision reached earlier this month. While the eight jurors did conclude that Dillard’s letter constituted a “true threat” not automatically protected by free speech, they also accepted Dillard’s attorneys’ arguments that her threats were religious in nature rather than violent.
“The letter was intimidating, but it was a more spiritual threat, a more emotional threat,” Adam Cox, the presiding juror, told Rewirein an interview following the verdict.
Thus, they found the letter did not violate the law and did not warrant civil damages or a protective order to keep Dillard away from Means.
Smeal said she was disappointed by the verdict in the Dillard case.
“It just shows you how hard it is to enforce this law,” she told Rewire in a phone interview.
Smeal said she is working behind the scenes with other advocates and lawmakers on efforts to eventually expand and strengthen the FACE Act. In the meantime, she said, law enforcement at all levels should be employing other existing laws to prosecute but also try to prevent violent attacks against abortion providers.
Some advocates, for example, have called on the federal government to treat demonstrated acts of anti-abortion violence, bomb threats, or murder as domestic terrorism.
Since NARAL launched its campaign last fall demanding that the DOJ begin investigating anti-abortion violence as domestic terrorism, NARAL Vice President of Policy Donna Crane said her group has seen more congressional members speaking out about abortion clinic violence as domestic terrorism.
“We think [the campaign] has raised important questions about why all too often anti-choice violence at women’s health centers is seen somehow as different, maybe even somehow a little bit more acceptable,” Crane told Rewire in a phone interview. “We believe that it’s just another flavor of domestic terrorism, and it should be talked about as such and treated as such.”
Smeal said her organization is similarly not backing down from its campaign asking the House committee investigating Planned Parenthood to take to task the activist groups that have, she believes, contributed to a dangerous climate for abortion providers and their patients.
Already, Smeal said, supporters have sent the committee thousands of emails as part of this campaign. And though she said it is difficult to know what effect the FMF’s campaign has had so far, she said she knows congressional members are listening.
Earlier in May, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the committee’s ranking Democratic member Rep. Janice Schakowsky held a press conference asking Speaker Paul Ryan to disband the House select committee, arguing that its investigation is putting access to reproductive health care as well as the lives of doctors and fetal-tissue researchers in danger, a point Smeal’s group has been making for months now.
“We’re going to keep it up, because we’re worried [the committee is] endangering health-care providers,” Smeal said of her group’s campaign. “We want to continue to shed light on this anti-abortion violence and basically are doing that in every way we can.”