The XX Factor

2015 Was the Most Violent Year in Recent Memory for Abortion Providers

Hostages are escorted by police during the shooting at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs on Nov. 27, 2015.

Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

According to new statistics collected by the National Abortion Federation, violence against abortion clinics and providers—which had been slowly declining in recent years—spiked dramatically in 2015.

In the months since a series of bogus sting videos accused Planned Parenthood of selling fetal tissue, attacks that aim to shut down service at clinics—including arsons, firebombings, and death threats—have spiked across the country. The violence peaked in November, when Robert Lewis Dear opened fire on a clinic in Colorado Springs, killing three people and wounding nine others. Now, in its annual “violence and disruption” statistics, the NAF has tallied just how much damage the deceitful videos appear to have done. The report details an increase in threats made to providers—from a single threat in 2014 to 94 in 2015—and a jump in online hate speech, from 91 documented cases in 2014 to 25,839 in 2015. The number of clinic blockades nearly doubled from 2014 to 2015. And incidents of picketing at facilities, which, according to the report, had been on the wane, increased from 5,402 in 2014 to a record-breaking 21,715 incidents in 2015.

The NAF has been collecting this data since 1977 and has recorded “11 murders, 26 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 185 arsons, and thousands of incidents of criminal activities directed at abortion providers.” This year, however, the organization was so overwhelmed by the barrage of online threats that in mid-November—roughly four months after the first video’s release—it hired an outside security firm to track them. “We estimate that if enhanced tracking had begun immediately following the release of the illegally recorded videos, the number of online threats and hate postings would be well over 100,000,” the NAF notes.

It’s impossible to say precisely how much of 2015’s surge in violence can be laid at the feet of the video smear campaign. As the L.A. Times editorial board wrote when it covered a clinic firebombing in October, “There is no evidence that [the attack] was a direct result of the anti-Planned Parenthood fervor. … Still, it is important to remember that as long as abortion has been legal in the U.S., abortion clinics throughout the country have been subject to arson and bombings.”

And in many cases, there is clear reason to believe that threats and attacks were inspired by the portrayal of Planned Parenthood as a monstrous peddler of baby parts. Dear attacked a clinic that is part of the Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains affiliate, which, as the NAF notes, made an appearance in the videos—and when he was taken into custody, he reportedly told law enforcement, “no more baby parts,” a line that connects his motives to the video’s false allegations. One of the most disturbing passages in the NAF report concerns threats on the life of a CEO whose organization, which procures fetal tissue for legitimate scientific research, was featured in one of the viral videos:

[A]n individual leveled death threats against her online. He stated that the CEO “is a death-profiteer” and “should be hung by the neck using piano wire and propped up on the lawn in front of the building…” The person went onto identify where the CEO lived and stated: “I’m going there … I’ll pay ten grand to whomever beats me to [CEO] … . [CEO] must die …” The same individual offered a reward online for the murder of a doctor, posting, “I’ll pay ten large to whomever kills [Doctor]. Anyone. Go for it.” Both of these targeted individuals had to employ extensive security measures to protect themselves as a result of these postings. NAF uncovered and provided these threats to the Department of Justice(DOJ). The FBI investigated, and the individual who made the threats was arrested and is now being prosecuted.

The NAF’s report is far from the first sign that anti-abortion fervor in our politics correlates with anti-abortion violence on the ground. In 2014, the Feminist Majority Foundation found that the percentage of women’s health clinics receiving threats of violence had roughly doubled since 2010; one of that report’s authors, duVergne Gaines, told the pro-abortion rights website Rewire (previously RH Reality Check), that anti-abortion terrorists seem “emboldened” by mainstream Republicans’ efforts to shut down clinics through targeted legislation. “They feel as though they can intimidate with impunity,” Gaines said. “That I see has a direct relationship to these legislative attacks.”

By willfully perpetuating the false narratives about Planned Parenthood, leading rightwing media outlets have, likewise, almost certainly supported terrorism and illegal activity. On Fox News, Bill O’Reilly accused the women’s healthcare provider of “Nazi Stuff,” while RedState has taken to referring to the organization as “our Auschwitz.” By portraying Planned Parenthood as an intolerable evil, powerful Republicans have given an unprecedented number of anti-abortion zealots license to do evil right back, acting on their most violent impulses.