Commentary Violence

Abortion Providers Facing Violence Are Likely on Their Own Under Trump

David S. Cohen

With Jeff Sessions confirmed Wednesday as the new U.S. attorney general, there is slim hope that clinics can rely on the Justice Department to enforce policies fighting anti-choice terrorism.

Last week, information surfaced that the Trump administration is going to rename and re-focus the government’s “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE) program. The new program would shift its focus from all forms of violent extremism to only Islamic extremism. According to sources contacted by Reuters, the new unit would be called either “Countering Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism.”

This change could have devastating effects on a number of fronts. Terrorism in this country already includes widespread violence from homegrown domestic terrorists, many of whom harbor anti-choice views. This shift in policy means that in its quest to enact policies that punish Muslims as much as possible, the Trump administration is showing a concerning willingness to turn a blind eye to anti-abortion terrorism.

According to its as-of-writing extant webpage, currently the CVE program recognizes that “violent extremist threats come from a range of groups and individuals, including domestic terrorists and homegrown violent extremists in the United States, as well as international terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL.” The program as it exists now “aims to address the root causes of violent extremism by providing resources to communities to build and sustain local prevention efforts and promote the use of counter-narratives to confront violent extremist messaging online. Building relationships based on trust with communities is essential to this effort.” CVE program initiatives, including grants, have been directed toward Muslim communities in the United States, but also toward groups working with white supremacists and other domestic terrorists. With the change, the effort would be targeted only at Muslim communities and not others.

Ignoring these domestic terrorists and radical right-wing extremists sends a terrible message to the country and the world. What it says is that the United States is not concerned enough with the likes of Dylann Roof (who shot and killed nine people inside a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina) or Timothy McVeigh (who killed 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing). Both were inspired by radical right-wing ideologies and committed their acts of terror as a way to further their beliefs.

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Instead of focusing on these white men and those like them, the country is concerned only with acts of terror carried out by one particular religion. This will, in turn, brand that entire religion as prone to extremism, almost certainly worsening the already dire environment for Muslims in the country.

This message has clear effects in the area of anti-choice terrorism too. Since 1993, there have been 11 people killed by such terrorists in this country, including most recently the 2015 mass shooting at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, where three people died and nine were injured. The admitted shooter, Robert Lewis Dear Jr., had a long history connecting him to anti-abortion extremism. Given Dear’s political goal, even the likes of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) recognized that Dear was a domestic terrorist.

Anti-choice domestic terrorism isn’t just about killings. As Krysten Connon and I documented in our 2015 book Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism, extremists terrorize abortion providers in many different ways, including stalking, death threats, hate mail, home picketing, physical assault, and more. These forms of terrorism are rarely punished by law, even though they have extremely negative effects on abortion providers’ lives and have serious ramifications for the provision of essential health care. One of the recommendations our book makes is for everyone, including the government, to more widely recognize that abortion providers being targeted is terrorism.

The announced change about the CVE program is directly counter to this recommendation. The government needs to send a clear message that all forms of terrorism need to be addressed, including those motivated by anti-abortion extremism.

To the best of my knowledge and research, the CVE program’s grants have never gone to fund countering anti-choice violence and extremism. Instead, the bulk of the work that the federal government has done on this issue has been through the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) enforcement of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, as well as with the DOJ’s National Task Force on Violence Against Health Care Providers. Thus, in previous years, the announcement of the change of name and focus for the CVE program would be concerning as a symbol of the federal government’s commitment, but would not have practical effects on abortion.

However, we are embarking on a new age when it comes to the DOJ. With Jeff Sessions confirmed Wednesday as the new U.S. attorney general, there is slim hope that clinics can rely on the DOJ to enforce the FACE Act or continue to work on anti-abortion violence through its task force. Because of Sessions’ past vehement opposition to abortion, Vicki Saporta, the president of the National Abortion Federation, said that the organization has “serious concerns about the safety of abortion providers” under Sessions. Meanwhile, one of the country’s leading anti-choice extremists, Troy Newman, has said that he “could not be happier” about Sessions possibly heading the DOJ.

It’s clear that under Sessions, fighting anti-choice extremism will not be a priority of the Trump DOJ—or even worse, it could be completely ignored. Combine this new DOJ reality with the changed focus of the CVE program, and the message to abortion providers and clinics in the coming years will be crystal clear: You’re on your own in the fight against anti-choice terrorists.

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