Violence Is the Anti-Abortion Movement’s Calling Card

The long history of violence against abortion providers has created a climate of fear, where every threat has to be taken seriously.

[PHOTO: Three people wearing rainbow vests that read 'clinic escort' stand next to each other]
Clinic escorts help patients safely enter a clinic free from harassment and protesters. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

“There’s a bomb in 3220 Latrobe, get everyone out before it goes off.”

Calla Hales was already on the phone with security last Saturday when she learned a bomb threat had been called into her abortion clinic. It was a chaotic morning at A Preferred Women’s Health Center of North Carolina, where Hales is the director. Someone in the parking lot had fallen ill in their car before even entering the clinic, and an ambulance was called. Hales knew the anti-abortion protesters who occupy the adjacent lot and harass patients would seize on this as evidence that her clinic was unsafe (despite the would-be patient never even making it in the door). She was on the phone with security, talking about the chaos in the parking lot, when a bomb threat came into the clinic’s call center line.

One of her employees made a beeline for police, who were already on site as they commonly are to monitor the protesters. Hales’ mind raced; first she wondered if the ambulance call was a ruse from someone trying to get inside the clinic. Then she realized that was unlikely—an ambulance call creates a record, and it would be a lot of effort just to get caught. She thought about where the bomb might be: the lobby, the waiting-room bathroom. Police evacuated the two buildings and did a walk-through, but found nothing suspicious.

“At that point, we kind of opened the building back up, but—not really a surprise to anybody—a lot of patients chose to reschedule.”

Hales thinks this was the caller’s intent all along. “I don’t think the intent was to cause physical harm; I do think the intent was to interrupt as much as possible. To scare patients, to stop care, [and to] scare staff,” she told Rewire News Group.

Hales said the longstanding history of violence against abortion providers—of clinic bombings and assassinations—creates a climate of fear, where every threat has to be taken seriously. And anti-abortion activists know that. They know that a bomb threat will disrupt an entire day of care. They know that protesters will inevitably scare some patients off. They know that providers are conditioned to expect the worst.

Hales is no stranger to anti-abortion violence. Abortion is her family business. Her parents opened APWHC when she was 8 years old. Her clinic is a hotspot for anti-abortion zealotry. On weekends, protesters turn up by the hundreds to harass patients and staff. When she got married last year, she had to enlist security measures to keep her celebration safe from protesters and violence. And a few years ago, Hales was raped on a date by a man who turned hostile when he found out what she did for work. When she got up to leave, he followed her to her car and attacked her.

In fact, the same day as the bomb threat, Hales received a call to her direct line asking if it “was the place where the girl who claimed to be raped by a protester worked.”

“It was just like a really big, like, kick to the gut of, ‘OK, this is coming back,’” Hales said.

That week was also the annual March for Life, when it’s not unusual for providers to see a spike in violence and harassment. Advocates on Twitter reported that on the same day as the bomb threat at APWHC, anti-choice protesters breached a clinic in Maryland and refused to leave, and a protester dressed in a KKK hood harassed patients outside a Wisconsin clinic. But Hales said the recent rise in violence goes beyond this single event.

“There’s been a spike at our clinic alone,” Hales said. “In the past two weeks, you’ve seen Planned Parenthood’s front door get shot out. You’ve seen clinic volunteers and staff members in various places being assaulted. You know, you’ve got this bomb threat. It’s unreal. And that’s two weeks—that’s 14 days into a new administration.”

Hales said she hasn’t seen similar levels of violence since 2016; with Trump in office, anti-abortion zealots seemed to feel seen and supported. But now that a Democrat is president, they’re angry again. They don’t feel represented, so they do what they can to be heard.

She also said the insurrection has emboldened protesters.

“It used to be a little bit more like a chess game of like, how far can I push? Because historically law enforcement really does side with protesters—it’s not uncommon for law enforcement to show up and know somebody who’s protesting because they go to church with them, or they’re friends with them,” Hales said.

“A lot of protesters, in general, have always just tried to toe the line to keep it a cordial relationship, because they know they’re going to win anyway. And since the insurrection, that idea of trying to keep it to keep that outward facing persona of being the good guy has kind of disappeared.”

It’s no coincidence that there were many familiar faces in the crowd at the insurrection: Providers and abortion advocates spotted some of the same anti-abortion terrorists who attack their clinics among those storming the Capitol.

For Hales, the involvement of law enforcement on these matters is complicated; within a reproductive justice framework, the decision to call the police is fraught. But police presence at the clinic is a constant—it’s not the wish of APWHC, she said, but rather a given, considering the climate created by the constant harassment by protesters.

Perhaps the most disheartening revelation from my conversation with Hales, though, was that in the days following the bomb threat, not a single news outlet reached out to her to cover the incident. This kind of erasure feels like gaslighting, she said; a bomb threat at a major health facility in the United States, in a field of medicine with a history of violent attacks, is as newsworthy as it gets. But when no one acknowledges it as such, she finds herself wondering if she’s overreacting.

She immediately drew a throughline from this to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram Live this week, where she talked about the trauma of being inside the Capitol during the insurrection and the way trauma compounds trauma—especially when people make a point of disbelieving or minimizing your experiences and feelings.

“It’s horrifying,” Halles said. “Because we know we’re important. We know the work we do is important. By no means does that mean I think we’re more important than anyone else. But it absolutely does mean that I think that our livelihoods matter.”