Analysis Violence

Spiritual Salvation: The New Excuse for Violence and Threats Against Abortion Providers

Jessica Mason Pieklo

"Anything I can do to help protect people who are trying to provide services to women I was willing to do,” said Dr. Mila Means in an interview with Rewire, after the close of Angel Dillard's trial for writing her a threatening letter in 2011. “And I just had no idea it would turn into this.”

In 2009, Scott Roeder murdered Dr. George Tiller, leaving Wichita, Kansas, without an abortion provider. A full year would pass before local physician Dr. Mila Means considered stepping in to start offering abortions. She began training to offer the procedure as part of her Wichita practice—largely because nobody else was doing so.

“That was a big issue. Patients in need of services and not able to get them,” said Means in an interview with Rewire last week.

“I had someone who sought me out, who I only met once …. She had two children and was early on [in her pregnancy] and wanted a medical abortion,” said Means. “And I said ‘Well, I can’t do that here,’ and tried to refer her to Kansas City. But there was no way she could get away from her husband or anything to be able to get care,” Means continued.

“And that was really a big part of my thought: ‘Well, somebody’s got to do something in this city.'”

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Means has been tied up in litigation for the last five years because of a letter she received in January 2011 from a woman named Angel Dillard, who warned Means that should she go through with her plans, thousands of people across the country would be looking into her background to learn her habits and routines, and that Means would be checking under her car every day for explosives. That letter attracted the attention of the Department of Justice (DOJ), which sued Dillard under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. Last Friday, Wichita jurors sent a very dangerous message to the anti-choice movement where Dillard’s case was concerned: Present your threat to abortion providers as an attempt at spiritual salvation, and the law will look the other way.

The eight-person Sedgwick County jury concluded that Dillard’s January 15, 2011 letter, which also referenced Tiller speaking to Means from hell, constituted a “true threat.” In other words, that letter was a threat and not automatically protected free speech, as Dillard and her attorneys had argued.

But the jury also found that while it was reasonable for Means to feel threatened given the reference to Tiller’s murder, the car bomb mention, and so on, those threats were not enough to warrant any of the civil damages the DOJ had asked for on Means’ behalf, or the protective order the agency had asked for keeping Dillard away from Means.

See, Dillard’s evangelical Christianity included an angry God, a vengeful God, explained her attorney Craig Shultz to jurors in his closing argument. Dillard is a strong woman with strong beliefs who uses strong words to persuade others like Means, to change their ways, he said—in other words, her letter was just an example of those strong words.

“The letter was intimidating, but it was a more spiritual threat, a more emotional threat,” presiding juror and Wichita native Adam Cox, 37, told Rewire in an interview following the verdict. “It was not a threat of physical violence … and therefore it did not violate the law.”

This distinction—between spiritual violence and physical violence—is exactly the cover the radical anti-choice movement has sought from the law for decades. And that’s exactly what the Dillard jury gave them when they found Dillard not liable for threatening Means out of providing abortions in Wichita. Although the circumstances of the cases are obviously different, the idea that being spiritually compelled toward the threat of violence should be enough to excuse that threat in the court of law echoes the reasoning used by other anti-choice extremists.

It’s a mutation of the legal theory of justifiable homicide, the idea that an act like murder is legally excusable in some circumstances because it’s preventing a greater evil—in this case, legal abortion. That’s what Paul Hill used to try to justify his murder of abortion provider Dr. John Britton and Britton’s bodyguard in 1994.

Like Dillard, Paul Hill considered himself a minister.

It’s the same argument Roeder used during his trial for killing Dr. Tiller. It’s the same position advocated by Roeder associate and self-proclaimed minister Michael Bray, convicted in 1985 for possessing explosives and conspiring to blow up abortion clinics.

While Roeder, Hill, and Bray were convicted for their crimes, each, like Dillard, attempted to cloak their conduct in the guise of being called by God to act.

And this is the same line of thinking self-proclaimed Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooter Robert Lewis Dear Jr. has said he will use to defend himself should he be determined competent to stand trial.

When Dear was initially detained by law enforcement following the shooting, and throughout his legal proceedings so far, he has consistently made anti-choice statements. He’s repeated the idea that Planned Parenthood is “selling baby parts,” the same argument made by the anti-choice Center for Medical Progress and its founders David Daleiden and Operation Rescue’s Troy Newman, spread by heavily edited videos, and repeated ad nauseam by conservative lawmakers looking to stir up their base in a particularly ugly election cycle.

Dear faces a total of 179 counts, including murder and attempted murder, from the five-hour standoff. The hearing to determine his competency to stand trial continues May 10. In the first phase of that hearing last month, prosecutors portrayed Dear as a man with deeply held religious and political convictions, which they said motivated Dear to hold siege at the reproductive health-care facility and eventually kill three. It is those very same sincerely held religious beliefs and a paranoia that the federal government is persecuting Christians that, Dear’s defense team argues, rise to the level of a diagnosable delusional disorder, rendering him incompetent to stand trial. According to the detective on Dear’s case, Dear wants to raise a “defense of others” argument—in other words, again, the legal argument that a crime is justified to prevent a greater evil.

Dillard’s attorneys argued she was simply preaching the path to redemption for Means, and not sending out a larger call to action against her.

But the truth of the matter is that Dillard’s statements were enough to give seasoned domestic terrorism law enforcement officers a reason to visit Dillard—twice, as one investigator testified at Dillard’s trial. They looked Dillard up in their internal network to find they already had a flag on her for links to abortion extremist Roeder.

In other words, in 2011 and at the moment the FBI was sent in to investigate, as best as the evidence showed, Means was to be the next big target of anti-choice violence. And the only reason she wasn’t was because the portion of FACE that is designed to prevent acts of violence from happening actually worked. The DOJ responded, potentially preventing an act of abortion terrorism that would have caused physical harm. It really doesn’t matter that they declined to pursue a criminal case against Dillard, a point her attorneys tried to emphasize during trial. The DOJ still brought a civil case. And civil cases are expensive to bring, which means lawyers must also consider how much money the case is worth. It sounds crass, but it’s true; it’s not profit, it’s penalties and damages. In Dr. Mila Means’ case, those were valued at approximately $20,000. For civil cases, that’s rarely, if ever, enough for an agency to justify spending five years of resources. And still, the DOJ went in hard. That alone suggests this case means more than any $20,000 verdict for Means. This case, in terms of anti-choice violence, was and remains significant.

Means never ended up developing an abortion practice, a fact she ascribes to the impossibly anti-choice political and cultural climate of Kansas. “What happened was two-pronged,” explained Means in an interview after the close of the trial but before the verdict. One issue, she said, stemmed from when the Kansas legislature “passed the TRAP laws.”

In 2011, Gov. Sam Brownback (R) signed a series of anti-choice restrictions, including ones similar to those passed in Texas that are currently under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Those regulations, like hospital admitting privileges requirements and strict architectural requirements, have since been blocked by a federal court.

“I felt like, as an individual trying to fund getting started … there was no way I could have an ambulatory surgical center, and there’s still no guarantee that the doctors in this town will get [admitting] privileges,” Means said.

And then there was the other “prong”: Word had gotten out to the local anti-choice community that Means was training to expand her practice to provide abortions for patients who needed them. In addition to the added anticipated costs related to Kansas’ TRAP laws, Means had to consider security costs.

“As things progressed, I became much more aware of how expensive security was going to be,” said Means. For example, early in the process of attempting to expand her practice to include abortion services, Means attended a meeting with area providers. According to Means, security for that approximately two-hour meeting cost about $800.

Kansas needs abortion doctors. But Means is hesitant to recommend people come in and try and take up the work. “Only if they are prepared for it to be their whole life,” she said.

“The person that I trained with, he was in his 70s,” said Means. “I’m thinking that potentially our future providers are going to be physicians who have raised their kids, done their other kind of work, that still want to give, and are willing to crawl into a hole.”

That’s because, Means noted, violence against abortion providers is increasingly normalized. “The threats work,” said Means.

Means was pessimistic about the outcome of her case and concerned about the ripple effect such a decision could have for inspiring other threats of violence against abortion providers. “If we can’t even get people to look at [Dillard’s communication to Means] and say there’s something different here, how can we get proactive legislation [to protect providers]?” she wondered.

“Anything I can do to help protect people who are trying to provide services to women I was willing to do,” said Means. “And I just had no idea it would turn into this.”

The next day, the jury decision came down.

The jury found Dillard to be a threat. They just weren’t convinced she was enough of threat. That’s because the letter was sold as part of Dillard’s fire-and-brimstone spiritual redemption, the kind she could have been learning from Scott Roeder and Michael Bray.

Thankfully, Dillard’s case doesn’t hold much broad legal precedent, because it’s limited to the battle between Dillard, Means, and the DOJ. The DOJ could try and appeal the verdict, but it is a steep hill to climb. There are limited legal grounds to appeal in any case. Even with the problematic evidentiary rulings regarding Dillard’s purported prison ministry to Roeder and the inherent conflict between the jury finding Dillard’s letter to be a true threat but not enough of one, the DOJ has a lot of cases. The agency has to evaluate if, after five years of effort dedicated to pursing the case against Dillard, it is worth continuing. It’s a sobering reality for abortion rights advocates.

In the meantime, what that verdict shows is not just how ingrained radical Christian anti-choice sentiment is in places like Wichita, but how it is metastasizing into the law: Dillard wasn’t threatening Means’ physical well-being. She was just preaching. This was not about death to Means. It was about salvation.

The jury bought it.

The First Amendment protects the ugliest of speech. But it also demands accountability from speakers. That accountability is never about manners, or as Dillard’s attorneys claimed during her trial, shutting down abortion-related speech with which the government disagrees. It is always about whether that speech puts the safety of others in jeopardy.

Except when it’s not. When it’s speech outside abortion clinics directed at patients, abortion doctors, and clinic staff. Or when it’s women facing online death threats by former partners. Or when they are “spiritual threats” to car bomb abortion providers. Then that accountability and safety balance gets all out of whack. Inevitably, women’s lives are put in the cross-hairs.

“All of these people continue to embolden each other,” Means said.

She is exactly right. It is no coincidence that Dear shouted about “no more baby parts” at his arrest in Colorado, months after Daleiden and Newman began releasing videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue. Make no mistake about it: Abortion doctors are and will continue to be the main targets of the violent anti-choice right. But as the attack on Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood proved, if you go to a reproductive health-care facility, you are a potential target.

All of these people embolden each other. And a jury in Wichita just gave them another push.

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