There was an increase in intimidation outside abortion clinics and obstruction of abortion providers in 2016, according to a National Abortion Federation report released on Wednesday.
Although incidents of extreme violence, such as murder, attempted bombings, and arson fell last year, incidents of hate speech and Internet harassment rose, and intensified after the election. Since the election, negative online commentary about abortion care and abortion providers has more than tripled from the pre-election monthly average in 2016.
The reported number of picketing incidents increased sharply and incidents of obstructed access to health care families more than doubled.
Extreme anti-abortion activists can shut down facilities and delay abortion care. For instance, last July a Virginia clinic received a bomb threat, which closed the clinic for the day. Police searched the facility and didn’t find any explosives on the premises. The closure delayed care for 36 patients, according to the report.
There is a long history of anti-abortion activists picketing outside of clinics and intimidating patients walking inside, but the reported number of picketing incidents in 2016 — 61,562 — exceeded those in every year since NAF began tracking incidents in 1977. Last year, there were 21,175 picketing incidents.
Given all of these trends, NAF said it’s important that law enforcement take threats against abortion providers seriously. Although police reacted swiftly to some of the incidents cited in the report, volunteers whose role it is to shield patients from activists’ aggressive tactics say that they wish the police would do more.
Ashley Gray, a clinic volunteer based in New Jersey, told ThinkProgress in 2015, “They’ve pretty much asked us not to call. To deal with it on our own.”
In its report, NAF said it is concerned that Attorney General Jeff Sessions “will not adequately enforce the laws that protect abortion providers and their patients from violence.”
Sessions could dial down enforcement of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), which prohibits the use of physical force, threat of physical force, or physical obstruction to injure, intimidate and interfere with accessing reproductive health care — as well as the intentional damage or destruction of a health care facility.
Sessions has the ability to use discretion in the prosecution of people who violate FACE. President Bill Clinton’s Department of Justice prosecuted 10 people a year on average under FACE, but those prosecutions dropped 75 percent under the Bush administration, according to Salon. As a United States senator, Sessions also voted against an amendment intended to stop anti-abortion activists from using bankruptcy laws to get out of paying fines for destruction of property.