Following Increased Anti-Choice Protests, Bomb Threat Reported at Virginia Building Housing Abortion Clinic

The threat triggered the building’s second evacuation of the day.

For years, abortion opponents have protested outside the building on Saturdays, Rosemary Codding, director of the clinic, told Rewire in a phone interview. But lately, these protests have been an almost daily occurrence. Rosemary Codding

Two signs, reading “Bomb Bomb Bomb” and “Bomb Bomb,” were left near the door of an office building in Falls Church, Virginia, on Thursday afternoon, according to the owner of the abortion clinic housed in that building.

The sheets of paper, which local police are investigating as a bomb threat, triggered the building’s second evacuation of the day. In the morning, in response to reports of smoke and the sound of explosions from employees in the building, local firefighters had discovered what a spokesperson for the Falls Church Police told Rewire were exploded firecrackers.

The office building, located on South Washington Street in the Washington, D.C. suburb, houses several doctors’ offices, including Falls Church Healthcare Center, a reproductive health clinic that provides abortions. For years, abortion opponents have protested outside the building on Saturdays, Rosemary Codding, director of the clinic, told Rewire in a phone interview. But lately, these protests have been an almost daily occurrence, Codding said. She believes the firecrackers in the elevator and the bomb threat are connected, and that whoever left them was targeting her clinic.

“Pro-choice healthcare centers have experienced an increase in harassments, threats and the presence of protesters since the election,” Codding said in a written statement.

Susan Finarelli, communications director for the City of Falls Church, told Rewire in an interview that police are investigating both of today’s incidents and have not yet determined whether they are related or who the target of the bomb threat is. She said police are also investigating an incident in July, when a similar sign reading “bomb” was found outside the office building, leading to a building evacuation.

“We don’t know that they are the target,” Finarelli said, referring to Falls Church Healthcare Center, “but it is a concern for the police, and we are keeping that in mind. The investigation is ongoing.”

All over the country, abortion clinics are facing increased harassment and threats of violence, despite the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act and other federal laws designed to crack down on such actions.

The National Abortion Federation (NAF) last week released a report showing that 2016 saw an increase in intimidation tactics at abortion clinics, including vandalism, burglary, and bomb threats. The group also noted an “escalation in hate speech and internet harassment,” which it said intensified after the November election. In 2016, clinics across the country reported nearly 43,000 incidents of hate mail and internet harassment compared to nearly 26,000 incidents in 2015, according to the report. Similarly, clinics reported nearly 62,000 instances of picketing, compared to nearly 22,000 instances the year prior. And according to NAF, clinics reported nine bomb threats in 2016, compared to four in 2015.

Codding said that she has definitely noticed an uptick in the number of protests outside her building since Donald Trump won the presidential election and believes there is “absolutely no question” the two are related.

One of the signs left outside the building housing Falls Church Healthcare Center (Image via FCHC)

In general, abortion providers and advocates are nervous about whether the Trump administration will investigate or prosecute incidents of harassment and threats of violence against clinics.

“We … remain concerned that Attorney General Jeff Sessions will not adequately enforce the laws that protect abortion providers and their patients from violence,” NAF’s report reads. “Sessions has a long record of opposing protections for abortion providers, and was endorsed by the antiabortion extremist group Operation Rescue.”

Michelle Kinsey Bruns, an abortion rights advocate and volunteer clinic escort, told Rewire that the increased rate of clinic threats nationwide should be concerning for the U.S. Department of Justice because, as recent history has shown, such threats often escalate to actual violence.

“For decades, there has been a pattern of escalation from threats to vandalism to violence by anti-choicers directed at clinics,” Burns said. “It’s all on a spectrum of very real intimidation of the staffs and the patients who are in these health-care centers.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify the number of sheets of paper left by the door and the manner in which they were left.