Boulder, Colorado, has for decades made its abortion providers feel welcome. The city council passed one of the nation’s first laws regulating the distance between protesters and patients seeking reproductive care, and residents took to the streets in protest when it became clear the Supreme Court was ready. to overturn the constitutional right to abortion, as it did last month.
“Boulder is probably the most pro-choice community in the country,” said Warren Hern, director of the Boulder Abortion Clinic. “But there are people in the community who want me dead.”
From targeted killings of doctors to vandalizing clinics and intimidating staff, danger is a fact of life for abortion providers in the United States. With states now empowered to ban the procedure after the Supreme Court struck down federal abortion rights, reproductive health experts fear a new wave of violence.
“Anti-abortion violence is more prevalent when you have those moments of uncertainty and upheaval, and that’s what we have now,” said Mary Ziegler, a legal historian at Florida State University College of Law who studies abortion. ‘abortion.
That would add to the jitters felt by abortion providers in states where the procedure remains legal, but where a change in the party controlling the state legislature could upend their ability to provide care.
“No woman’s life or health should be at the mercy of the next election, the zip code, Mitch McConnell or Donald Trump,” Hern said, referring to the Republican Senate leader and former president. .
The anti-abortion movement has always found its greatest success in courtrooms and state houses, passing laws that restricted access to clinics and encouraging Republicans to appoint Supreme Court Justices who would vote to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which until last month protected abortion rights. .
Yet in the 1990s, extremists in the movement came to the conclusion that more needed to be done. Since then, four abortion doctors have been murdered and clinic staff and bystanders have also lost their lives in shootings and bombings targeting facilities, with the latest fatal incident occurring in 2015.
Such violent attacks have “succeeded in that they made people less interested in going to abortion clinics and less interested in going to abortion providers,” Ziegler said.
They also transformed the lives of abortion providers, who began wearing bulletproof vests in public and outfitting their clinics with security doors and bulletproof glass.
But Ziegler said the attacks were often counterproductive because they swayed public opinion against anti-abortion groups and reminded Americans of the ties between the anti-abortion movement and white supremacists.
“In the United States, people thought more negatively that the anti-abortion movement was some kind of misogynistic white supremacist movement. Being a violent movement makes a lot of people reluctant to associate with you,” Ziegler said.
When insurgents attacked the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, “many of our vendors recognized people. These are people who walked out of their clinics,” said Melissa Fowler, program manager at the National Abortion Federation, which monitors violence against clinics.
Its data, which spans the United States, Canada, Mexico City and Colombia, shows an increase in violence and harassment toward abortion providers. Each type of incident the organization follows in its annual report increased last year from 2020, including harassment of clinic staff, which in the US jumped 200% from the previous year, with 12 incidents reported.
Fowler said the last wave was in 2015, when anti-abortion groups posted misleading videos about Planned Parenthood, while the following year’s election further heightened tensions.
“We’ve seen in recent years people being more open and bolder with their hate,” she said. “I think it also contributes to an environment where people could be bolder and more aggressive outside of clinics.”
In 1993, David Gunn became the first abortion doctor to be murdered, and soon after, a group of activists signed a petition saying that “the use of force” was justified to stop abortion. Extremists have killed two other doctors in this decade, including Barnett Slepian, who was shot through a window of his house by an extremist with a high-powered rifle.
In 2009, George Tiller was assassinated at his church in Wichita, Kansas. Hern considered him a friend.
“He was a very good person and a friend of mine and he helped a lot of women, and that’s why he was killed,” Hern said.
“Any doctor who performs abortion in this country is the target of assassination, as well as anyone who helps him.”
Much of the violence in the past has coincided with political losses, Fowler said. Gunn’s murder came a year after the Supreme Court generally upheld abortion rights in Planned Parenthood v Casey, and shortly after Bill Clinton took office. Tiller’s assassination was not far back in Barack Obama’s time in the White House, while a 2015 mass shooting in Colorado Springs neared the end of his term.
Prominent anti-abortion organizations have rejected the violence. Following Tiller’s killing, National Right to Life executive director David N O’Steen said the group “unequivocally condemns any act of such violence, regardless of motivation.” The pro-life movement works to protect the right to life and increase respect for human life. The unlawful use of violence is directly contrary to this objective.
Yet for many providers, the threat of violence is rarely far from their mind.
In her decades of working with abortion providers across the United States, Julie Burkhart can’t think of a single facility that hasn’t been picketed by protesters or vandalized. She worked in clinics where windows were smashed with bricks or shot. In a clinic, someone opened the roof and used a hose to flood the building.
Indeed, protesters greeted her as she worked to open what would be the only abortion clinic in Wyoming’s second-largest city, Casper. Weeks before she began operations and days after the Supreme Court opinion overturning abortion rights leaked in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, an arsonist set the building on fire.
Now she is emptying the flame- and smoke-damaged interior in preparation for a November reopening, though Wyoming is among the states set to ban abortion.
“It’s a moment that I hoped never to see, that we collectively would never see,” Burkhart said.
But one person who saw the reversal of the court coming was Tiller, her mentor with whom she had worked in Wichita for eight years.
“He had a feeling that ultimately Roe would be knocked down. It was definitely on his mind. And me, at that time, when he expressed that, I still didn’t feel like to see the same handwriting on the wall as him,” Burkhart said.
“I’m sad that what he thought came true.”