Combating Anti-Abortion Extremism

By Shannon Scabora

Sign behind a bike that reads “68,000 women die from complications of unsafe abortion each year.” This photo was taken in 2009 at a DC vigil for Dr. George Tiller the day after he was murdered. Image by Priya Deonarain on Flickr.

Although abortion is both a safe and legal procedure in the United States, the anti-abortion movement continues to employ numerous tactics in an attempt to gain control over the reproductive freedom of millions of people. Anti-abortion extremism, which is equal parts overlooked and terrifying, is one such tactic.

Many people have heard of Dr. George Tiller, who served as the only abortion provider in Wichita, Kansas for 40 years. Likewise, many people know that Dr. Tiller was murdered by the anti-abortion movement. What many do not know, however, is that before he was killed, Dr. Tiller had been wearing a bullet proof vest to work every day. He was being stalked by anti-abortion extremists.

In addition to terrorizing targets with acts of violence and countless credible threats of violence, anti-abortion extremists harass providers, like Dr. Tiller, in more subtle ways. Targets of anti-abortion extremism often see crowds of protestors outside of their homes, outside of their churches, and outside of their children’s schools. They receive hate mail and phone calls. Their personal information is shared on various digital platforms, including the radio and public websites. This list only scratches the surface. There is no shortage of tactics anti-abortion extremists use to terrorize the daily lives of their targets.

Moreover, evidence shows that violence and harassment are rising correlatively with restrictions on abortion. The National Abortion Federation (NAF) reported record numbers of violent and disruptive incidents at abortion clinics in 2018, with incidents of obstruction doubling from 2017 to 2018. Despite these statistics, clinic personnel — providers, patients, staff, and volunteers — remain vulnerable under ineffective federal, state, and local laws. With the anti-abortion movement’s recent policy gains, abortion providers and patients must receive effective protection from anti-abortion extremism.

What is anti-abortion extremism?

Anti-abortion extremism includes anti-abortion violence, which is violence motivated by opposition to abortion. It also includes targeted harassment, which involves acts of anti-abortion protest that are focused narrowly on individual providers, supporters, or other individuals related to abortion providers or supporters (1). It is important to note the difference between targeted harassment and the various types of general protesting that do not constitute targeted harassment. Simply put, general protesting refers to all non-violent and non-threatening expressions of opposition to abortion (2). The key difference between general protesting and targeted harassment is that the former does not involve the targeting of specific providers, supporters, or patients. Protesting that involves opposition aimed at specific providers, supporters, or patients is targeted harassment.

Anti-abortion violence has taken the form of murder, arson, burglary, kidnapping, assault, vandalism, stalking, and clinic invasions and cyber-hacking (3). Common types of targeted harassment include verbal harassment, digital harassment by phone or email, clinic blockades, and picketing. In addition to occurring outside of clinics, anti-abortion picketing occurs at people’s homes, churches, schools, community centers, and other locations that are related to their personal lives.

Who does anti-abortion extremism affect?

Anti-abortion violence and targeted harassment affect a large swath of people that can be broken down into the following four categories: providers, secondary targets, patients, and organizations.

Providers are all people who contribute to the operation of medical facilities that provide abortions, and their jobs include performing abortion procedures and administrative functions; providing counseling, security, and pre- and post-abortion physical and emotional care; and any other activity that contributes to the provision of abortion services (4).

Secondary targets are people who are related in some way to abortion providers or people who have received abortions. Those close to abortion providers or supporters, including their children, partners, friends, and parents (5) are secondary targets. Relationally-distant people with connections to abortion providers or supporters, including neighbors, colleagues, and even landlords, have also been secondary targets (6). The goal of secondary targeting is typically to inflict harm upon or garner the attention of individual providers, organizations, or entities by way of harming those connected to them in some way.

Patients are people who visit medical facilities that provide abortions. In 2013, thirteen protestors physically blocked the entrance to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Queens, New York with 3-by-5-foot signs of aborted fetuses (7). In addition to creating a physical barrier, the protestors allegedly shouted death threats at volunteers escorting the patients. One patient was surrounded and forced to back up into a car and then against the clinic wall until she eventually retreated, never making it into the clinic.

Finally, organizations that support or are related to the provision of abortions have also been targeted by anti-abortion extremists. In the midst of one of its largest fundraisers, the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) was the victim of a string of cyber attacks. Hackers infiltrated the fundraiser’s website to send anti-choice messages to the organization’s donors and supporters (8). In 2015, hackers attempted to similarly target Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit organization that provides sexual and reproductive health care services. Although the hackers were stopped, the scheduling system utilized by patients was temporarily affected due to the hackers (9).

How is anti-abortion extremism regulated in Maryland?

In Maryland, there are two laws that affect anti-abortion extremism: a law that provides protection against clinic violence, Md. Code Ann., Crim. § 10–204, and a residential picketing ordinance, Montgomery County CODE § 32–23. The clinic protection law is a state-level law that prevents people in Maryland from physically stopping individuals from entering and leaving clinics. Punishment for violations is a fine of up to $1000 and/or imprisonment for 90 days. The law is a state-level version of a federal statute, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), which was enacted to, among other goals, combat anti-abortion extremism (10). Unlike the clinic protection statute, the residential picketing ordinance is a local-level law in Montgomery County that prohibits picketing in front of or next to private residences.

Both laws are important and flawed. While they each provide some level of protection for targets of anti-abortion extremism, they fall short in three ways: The clinic protection statute and picketing ordinance are geographically limited; the clinic protection statute fails to provide protection for all categories of people affected by anti-abortion extremism; the clinic protection statute does not offer protection from all types of violence and harassment.

The clinic protection statute only explicitly prevents behavior that occurs directly outside of clinics. Anti-abortion extremists target providers, patients, and other people in numerous locations, including at their private homes, their churches, and their schools. The law does not address the aforementioned other locations, leaving many targets of anti-abortion extremism without legal recourse when they are targeted outside of the areas surrounding clinics. Like the clinic protection law, the picketing ordinance has geographic limitations. Although it stops people from protesting outside of the private homes of abortion providers and other targets, it does not stop them from picketing elsewhere, like at schools, churches, or other locations that providers, patients, and other targets frequent.

In addition, many people who are targeted by extremists, like organizations and secondary targets, are rarely, if ever, actually at or around clinics. In practice, this means that entire categories of targets are not being protected by the clinic protection law. Family members, neighbors, and pro-choice advocacy groups are just a few examples of targets that would likely be unable to take legal action under the clinic protection statute for acts of anti-abortion extremism committed against them.

Finally, the clinic protection statute only explicitly prevents physical actions, thus limiting its ability to prevent other forms of harassment and violence, like cyber-violence and digital harassment, that are being used by anti-abortion extremists.

What can be done?

As anti-abortion extremism continues to rise and abortion remains under attack in the United States, it is crucial that we examine the protective laws that exist and work to expand and improve them. In Maryland, current laws can be expanded to explicitly include all types of anti-abortion violence and harassment, all locations where anti-abortion extremist tactics are employed, and all categories of targets. In addition, other counties in Maryland can fight for picketing ordinances like the one in Montgomery County. Reforming and enacting laws is a steep undertaking, but we can start by increasing our own awareness and spreading it to others.

  1. See David Cohen, Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism (2015) [hereinafter Cohen, In the Crosshairs].
  2. Alesha Doan, Opposition and Intimidation: The abortion wars and strategies of political harassment (2009).
  3. See National Abortion Federation, 2018: Alarming escalation in anti-abortion trespassing, obstruction, and vandalism (2018), available at https://prochoice.org/2018-alarming-escalation-in-anti-abortion-trespassing/; See Guttmacher Institute, Protecting access to clinics, State Laws and Policies (2019), available at https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/protecting-access-clinics
  4. Alesha Doan, Opposition and Intimidation: The abortion wars and strategies of political harassment (2009).
  5. Cohen, In the Crosshairs (2016)
  6. Alesha Doan, Opposition and Intimidation: The abortion wars and strategies of political harassment (2009).
  7. Auditi Guha, Anti-Choice Protestors Bullied, ‘Buttonholed’ Abortion Patients at New York Clinic, Rewire News, Feb. 19, 2018, available at https://rewire.news/article/2018/02/19/anti-choice-protesters-bullied-buttonholed-abortion-patients-new-york-clinic/
  8. Teddy Wilson, National Network of Abortion Funds Targeted in Cyber Attack, Rewire News, April 14. 2016, available at https://rewire.news/article/2016/04/14/national-network-abortion-funds-targeted-cyber-attack/.
  9. Steve Gorman, Planned Parenthood reports second website hack in a week, Reuters, July 30, 2015, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-plannedparenthood-cyberattack-idUSKCN0Q409120150730.
  10. Abortion Clinic Violence: Hearings Before the Subcommittee On Crime and Criminal Justice of the H. Committee on the Judiciary, 103d Cong. 213–36 (June 10, 1993).

The political leader of the pro-choice movement in Maryland.

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