Commentary Violence

How We Can Disrupt the Pattern of Anti-Abortion Violence

David S. Cohen & Krysten Connon

In the face of yet another clinic attack last month, this one in Colorado Springs, everyone who cares should be asking the same thing: What can we do to stop another act of violence?

Read more of our articles on the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting here.

The Planned Parenthood attack in Colorado Springs last month was not an isolated incident. Rather, it is part of an ongoing story of anti-choice extremists using violence to end lawful abortion. In the face of this pattern, everyone who cares should be asking the same thing: What can we do to stop another attack?

Unfortunately, this question arises again and again, after each tragedy. Since 1993, there have been 11 people murdered by anti-abortion terrorists. In all of these cases, murder was already against the law. Plus, since 1994, the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act has protected against clinic blockades and violence. In other words, even with laws on the books meant to prohibit them, these tragedies still happened.

Existing laws can be improved, of course, but the solution to anti-choice violence must be broader: It lies in destigmatization, depoliticization, and de-escalation.

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Why is abortion, a procedure almost one in three women will have in their lifetime, not talked about more often? Why is it so out of the ordinary that a recent episode of Scandal was celebrated for showing its main character obtaining the procedure? Why are abortion clinics separated from those providing other medical care? The answer to all of these questions has a large part to do with the stigma associated with abortion.

Abortion stigma is one of the main contributing factors to dangerous anti-choice extremism. When abortion is seen as different from other medicine and morally wrong, radicals take that message and translate it into aggression. After all, there’s no targeted and politicized violence in the world of dermatology or heart surgery. That’s because patients and providers of that care are not shamed and alienated like they are when it comes to abortion.

Furthermore, abortion has long been a political football, in part because of the way it has been so highly stigmatized, and that has only increased of late—which, in turn, worsens that stigmatization. Since 2010, there have been a record number of anti-choice laws enacted throughout the country. The passage of these laws has strongly correlated with increased harassment of providers, something that has been found by academic research as well as the recent Feminist Majority Foundation study showing that targeting of providers has increased from 2010 to 2014, the same timeframe in which this record number of new restrictions has been enacted.

The courts can work to further that stigma, such as in the Texas case the Supreme Court is hearing next month. Texas has regulated abortion clinics to almost non-existence, requiring doctors and clinics to jump through hoops that are not medically necessary and that no other similar health-care provider must follow. If the Court upholds these regulations, it will send the message that abortion care is not regular medical care.

But depoliticizing means more than just reducing the ways that abortion is needlessly restricted. It’s also about toning down the violent rhetoric. When providers are regularly called “murderers” or “baby killers,” the environment is not one ripe for reasoned discussion of a divisive issue. Rather, it’s one that primes people to take matters into their own hands.

The Colorado murders are a perfect example of this. Since July, when the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) released its deceptively edited videos, Planned Parenthood has been in the national crosshairs. It has been routinely attacked by the media, Congress, and presidential candidates. Presidential candidate Carly Fiorina in particular has been among the loudest in attacking Planned Parenthood, with her outrageous and discredited claims that the organization is not only “selling baby parts”—claims that originated with the CMP videos—but also keeping fetuses alive to harvest their organs.

It’s no surprise, then, that Robert Lewis Dear Jr. was reportedly talking about “selling baby parts” during his arrest in Colorado Springs. This seems to suggest he was following the lead that was set for him by the extreme politicization of the issue.

And on a local level, policymakers and law enforcement need to work every day to de-escalate the environment around abortion facilities and providers. Abortion clinics are often the scene of aggressive protests. Spend a Saturday morning observing your local clinic: In many places in the country, you will find people shouting, carrying gruesome signs, and following patients.

Some states and municipalities have tried to protect clinic entrances by forbidding the presence of protesters within a certain area around them, but last year the Supreme Court found that a Massachusetts law that created a 35-foot buffer zone around clinics was unconstitutional. However, this doesn’t mean nothing can be done. Smaller zones, like the 15-foot buffer zone in Pittsburgh, have so far been upheld in the face of a constitutional challenge following the Massachusetts case.

Other policies can also help to de-escalate the situation around clinics. Laws that protect against blockades, harassment, stalking, excessive noise, and other behavior that hampers good medical care tend to raise fewer constitutional concerns than buffer zones. For instance, every court that has addressed the constitutionality of FACE has found that it does not violate the First Amendment, and noise ordinances have been upheld around clinics as neutral ways to protect patients. These laws, as well as better policing to enforce them, can help patients and providers enter and exit clinics in a less charged environment. They also, when written clearly, give police clearer guidance on how to handle the conflict with anti-choice protesters, which decreases the likelihood that officers’ individual beliefs about abortion will influence how they respond.

Beyond the clinic environment, providers need to be better protected from the routine targeting they face. Their identities and personal information, including home addresses, can be kept from public discovery through laws like California’s Safe at Home Program, which should be a model for every state in the country; crimes against them can be sentenced more harshly when said crimes are based on their status as abortion providers. Municipalities can also enact residential picketing laws that restrict or outlaw protesting in front of an individual’s house and disturbing the peace and quiet that we all seek from our homes. These reforms won’t prevent all crimes, but they can help create a more normal, less terrorized life for abortion providers.

Despite the court decisions whittling away at Roe v. Wade and increased state regulations, abortion remains a legal right in this country—and patients and providers deserve to access it without fear of violence. But there are still extremists who feel they must take matters into their own hands. Only by destigmatizing abortion, de-escalating the environment around clinics and providers, and depoliticizing the issue as a whole can we make any headway into preventing another radical committing yet another act of terror.

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