Trespassing, death threats at abortion clinics rose to alarming levels in 2017

Trespassing more than tripled and death threats nearly doubled.

Planned Parenthood volunteers ensure access to clinic for patients with scheduled appointments during protest. (CREDIT: Photo by Andy Katz/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Planned Parenthood volunteers ensure access to clinic for patients with scheduled appointments during protest. (CREDIT: Photo by Andy Katz/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Trespassing at abortion clinics more than tripled last year and death threats and threats of harm nearly doubled, according to a new report from the National Abortion Federation, a professional association of abortion providers.

There were also more incidents of obstruction at clinics, from 580 in 2016 to more than 1,700 in 2017. Harassing phone calls and hate mail also rose 33 percent from last year.

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“We know that hostile rhetoric, including rhetoric from anti-abortion elected officials, can incite some to take the law into their own hands by threatening abortion providers and committing acts of violence,” NAF President Vicki Saporta said in a press release on the report. ” … The protesters are feeling emboldened by the political environment and seeing what they could get away with.”

Last fall, an abortion clinic in Chicago received threatening messages. “You are all pieces of [expletive] and I will kill to stop these atrocities. I will blow you up if I have to, burn the clinic down,” one note read. “I will do whatever is necessary.” Those messages were sent by Luke Wiersma, who said he was part of a group called Army of God, an extremist group that opposes abortion, according to the Chicago Sun Times. The group’s history of extremism reportedly began in 1982, when three men who called themselves Army of God abducted an abortion provider, Dr. Hector Zevallos, and his wife, Rosalie Jean.

Over the past few decades, violent anti-abortion extremists have been responsible for bombings, murders, arson, and butyric acid attacks, with acid attacks being more common in the 1990s. Since 1977, there have been more than 220 bombings and arson attacks at abortion clinics, according to the NAF report. Suspicious packages and bomb threats are also tactics intended to disrupt and close clinics. Bomb threats and suspicious packages/hoax devices in 2017 held fairly steady from 2016, with one less bomb threat and one more incident of a hoax device/suspicious package.

In 2016, intimidation and in obstruction of abortion providers increased. People also engaged in more picketing of clinics. Picketing incidents — 61,562 — exceeded picketing in every year since NAF started tracking incidents in the 1970s. There were 21,715 picketing incidents in 2015. From 2016 to 2017, there was a 26.8 percent increase in picketing incidents.

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Abortion clinics are supposed to be legally protected by 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. But as Rewire explained in March, anti-abortion activists have claimed these threats are protected free speech and FACE is enforced by the Justice Department. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a long record of opposing abortion. Last year, Democratic senators called on him to enforce the law and other protections in response to harassment and obstruction.

Anti-abortion activist Angel Dillard, whose letter to a Kansas physician in 2011 mentioned the physician checking under her car for bombs, was initially called protected free speech by a federal judge who said it was meant as intimidation, but not as a threat. The Department of Justice, which had filed a civil lawsuit against Dillard, then turned to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, which said a jury in Wichita would decide. The jury ultimately decided Dillard did not intend to intimidate the doctor in 2016. When the jury made this decision, it hadn’t even been a full year since Robert Lewis Dear killed three people at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic.