Politico’s leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade has generated a fair share of news coverage about the future of abortion rights and the history of the antiabortion movement.
A number of pieces have explored how conservatives got us to this moment and how abortion rights have divided US politics for half a century. Journalists and commentators have examined the judicial philosophy of antiabortion activists, the public’s opinion on reproductive rights, and how abortion became a hot-button topic at election time.
But one topic has largely been missing from mainstream coverage: the role of right-wing violence in the movement against reproductive freedom. Yes, antiabortion forces defeated Roe through dogged political campaigning. But they also used outright violence, including attacks on abortion clinics, doctors, and patients.
This isn’t exactly a secret. In 1991, the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology warned that there was an “epidemic of antiabortion violence in the United States.” From 1977 to 1988, the journal reported, there had been a hundred ten instances of arson, firebombing, or bombing of abortion clinics, and over the same stretch “the national rate of violence was 3.7 per 100 abortion providers and 7.2 per 100 nonhospital abortion providers.” One study a few years earlier, published in the American Journal of Political Science, found that antiabortion crime was concentrated in areas with a “greater acceptance of violence toward women.”
When filing their amicus brief in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case that will likely overturn Roe, a group of feminists made sure to mention the antiabortion right’s violent track record:
Acts of anti-abortion violence during the period from 1977 to 2019 include at least 11 murders, 26 attempted murders and at least 756 threats of harm or death, 620 stalking incidents and four kidnappings. Crimes directed at clinic facilities have included at least 42 bombings, 189 arsons, 100 attempted bombings or arsons, and 662 bomb threats. The actual numbers are likely much higher.
Among these incidents were the 2009 assassination of George Tiller, a Wichita, Kansas doctor who performed late-term abortions, while he was at church and a 1997 abortion clinic bombing outside Atlanta that killed two and injured six. (The perpetrator of the latter, antiabortion extremist Eric Rudolph is currently serving a life sentence at the ADX Florence Supermax prison.)
Eleanor Bader, coauthor of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism, wrote in an email to Jacobin that antiabortion zealots have “stalked provider’s children with relentless messaging that their ‘parent kills babies,’ and shot at, and ultimately killed, more than 10 clinic staff people, including doctors and receptionists. This violence has not been directed to any other type of medical care and has led to increased antiabortion stigma. This relentless movement has fought against all gains made by women and has had tremendous success in its efforts to roll back feminist progress.” Since 2017, abortion rights advocates say they’ve seen a general rise in antiabortion violence.
While it’s commonly thought that these acts are the random outbursts of lone wolves, at least one study, focusing just on incidents of violence in Pensacola, Florida, found:
There is evidence that many of the militant anti-abortion groups have affiliations with the Ku Klux Klan, various militias and militant anti-taxation groups. One of these groups, the United States Taxpayers Party, is preparing a training facility to teach “militant” and “unmerciful” techniques. Two of its leaders, Jeffrey Baker and Howard Phillips, have publicly advocated the killing of abortion providers. Although the number of violent extremists is small, their impact has been disproportionately large.
In recent days, some commentators have correctly noted this violent strain of the antiabortion right. Writing in the Washington Post, Monica Hesse gave a nod to “abortionists who go to work in bulletproof vests in picketed buildings,” and USA Today outlined how abortion clinics are reassessing their safety measures in light of Roe’s imminent demise.
But for the most part, this major piece of post-Roe history has been rendered a footnote. That not only distorts the historical record, it whitewashes the antiabortion movement. Because those seeking to guarantee reproductive freedom by providing abortions haven’t just been harassed and defamed — they’ve been under the constant threat of violence.