A Movement of None: The FBI’s Bogus ‘Pro-Choice Extremist’ Label

Well, technically, there was ONE man who threatened anti-abortion leaders—but he had no connection to pro-choice groups.

[Photo: A typewritten paper sits in type writer feed.]
According to the Abortion Extremism Reference Guide for Law Enforcement, ”[b]oth pro-life and pro-choice abortion extremists engage in criminal activity and seek to further their ideology, wholly or in party through force or violence.” Shutterstock

A commonly held definition of terrorism is when someone or some group uses violence or the fear of violence to accomplish a political goal that they have otherwise been unable to accomplish through ordinary political channels.

Which is why it’s pretty uncontroversial that much of what anti-abortion extremists do is terrorism. They have murdered, assaulted, vandalized, trespassed, threatened, bombed, and more. All in the name of trying to end abortion, something they have been unable to do despite decades of conservative political successes. The modern conservative movement has been very successful at restricting access to abortion and making it difficult for many women, especially poor women and women of color, to actually get an abortion. But what they have not been successful at is actually abolishing abortion in this country. Thus, the extremists have resorted to violence and the fear of violence to try to accomplish this goal.

This isn’t news to most people aware of the history of anti-abortion violence and extremism in this country.

But what is probably news is that, thanks to documents obtained from the FBI last week by the transparency organization Property of the People and first reported by Jezebel, we now know that the Trump administration considers abortion rights supporters as terrorists as well.

The document is titled “Abortion Extremism Reference Guide for Law Enforcement,” and it was distributed to local law enforcement in 2017. According to the document, “[b]oth pro-life and pro-choice abortion extremists engage in criminal activity and seek to further their ideology, wholly or in part through force or violence.” After describing the anti-abortion extremists as using force to cause injury or death to providers as well as economic harm to facilities, the document then describes “pro-choice extremists.”

According to the FBI, these abortion rights supporters “believe it is their moral duty to protect those who provide or receive abortion services.” The catalyst to this type of extremism is “[c]riminal activity or violent rhetoric targeting [clinics] or pro-choice individuals or organizations” and “[r]estricted access to abortion services.” The FBI recognizes that this form of supposed extremism “is not considered a movement to the extent of pro-life extremism” and notes that “[o]nly one pro-choice extremist has been prosecuted, and that person acted independently and without any direct affiliation to a pro-choice group.”

All this over one person? Who are we talking about now? Apparently, it’s Ted Shulman, the self-described “first pro-choice terrorist” who was sentenced to jail in 2012 for threatening to kill two anti-abortion movement leaders. Shulman had no connection to any part of the abortion rights movement and was charged by federal prosecutors in New York.

Threatening people’s lives is always wrong, but there is no possible world in which Ted Shulman’s two threats create an entire new category of “pro-choice extremism” that the FBI should be worried about. As Jodi Magee, the CEO and president of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, said at the time of his arrest, “Our doctors have received hundreds and thousands of death threats and worse at the hands of anti-abortion activists …. That kind of violence is a noted pattern in the anti-abortion movement. To my knowledge, [anti-abortion activists] are not persecuted in the same way that physicians providing legal medical services to patients have been.”

The FBI is ignoring this history by lumping pro-choice extremism in with terrorism from anti-abortion extremists. There have been no politically motivated assassinations or murders of anti-abortion leaders, as there have been of abortion providers. There have not been decades of violence and threats of violence directed at anti-abortion individuals and their property, as there have been against abortion providers and clinics. What makes abortion providers fear for their lives when an extremist harasses them, even in a way that is far from violent, is that the provider knows that others like them have been assaulted and even murdered in the past for no reason other than that they were providing this form of lawful medical care. That’s what instills this fear, and capitalizing on this knowledge is why anti-abortion extremists are so effective.

Pro-choice activists don’t do this. Yes, Ted Shulman threatened two people, but there is no one else who has come close to what he did. What pro-choice activists want is access to abortion and support for women who seek this form of health care. They have tried to accomplish this goal through various means, but they have not used violence or the threat of violence to accomplish this goal. One person did, but that’s it. That is not terrorism.

What’s happening here is twofold. One, the Trump-Pence administration is demonizing abortion in every way it can. That’s been a central plank of its time in office—by reinstating the global gag rule, appointing anti-abortion justices and judges, supporting exemptions for women’s health rules, and much more. Now, under President Trump, the victimized white man and his pet issue—restricting women’s reproductive choices and controlling their bodies—has a friend in the FBI. Turning this one instance into an entire new category of terrorism is just another example of anti-abortion politics writ large.

And two, one of the basic platforms of the modern conservative movement—white males acting as victims—is rearing its head in yet another way. Like the Covington Catholic High School students who have turned the tables by asking the FBI to investigate supposed threats made against them as part of a “hate campaign,” modern conservatism is practically built on the notion that, as the country diversifies and more people who used to lack power gain access to it, white men who oppose reproductive autonomy are the new victims. And their oppressors? The pro-choice movement—an actual movement—and all those who fight for reproductive justice. To the FBI, those are the new terrorists.