In 2017, abortion foes escalated from protesting at reproductive-health clinics to trespassing and obstructing health-care services at three times the rate as they had in 2016, according to a report released Monday by the National Abortion Federation (NAF)—the nation’s largest professional association of abortion providers.
The year of the surge also happens to be the same year militant activists introduced the so-called Red Rose Rescue movement, which is loosely based on the aggressive “rescue” tactics of the 1980s that saw massive clinic blockades, as well as incidences of violence. As Rewire.News has reported, the leaders of this nascent movement are encouraging activists nationwide to enter abortion clinics, hand patients red roses, beg them to cancel their appointments, and then resist arrest when asked to leave.
NAF believes a general sense of feeling emboldened by the current political climate has contributed to a sharp rise in trespassing, clinic blockades, threats of harm, and disruption of reproductive-health care at clinics.
“We see in terms of the rhetoric we monitor and the activities that are taking place that [anti-abortion activists] are emboldened by what they see as a very supportive [presidential] administration,” NAF President and CEO Vicki Saporta told Rewire.News in a phone interview. “They are doing what they can to disrupt care at clinics and make it much harder for clinics to access care.”
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Indeed, President Donald Trump’s White House has welcomed the anti-choice movement into its ranks. Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, has consulted with anti-choice groups, including the Center for Medical Progress, whose members have been charged with multiple felonies related to a campaign in which they deceptively edited videos falsely alleging that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donations.
NAF has been tracking statistics on violence and disruption at abortion clinics since 1977. In its most recent report, the organization identified 823 incidents of trespassing in 2017, compared to 247 in 2016, the most NAF has seen since it first began tracking trespassing statistics in 1999.
Additionally, the report found that instances of obstruction—which NAF defines as “the act of causing a delay or an attempt to cause a delay in the conduct of business or prevent persons from entering or exiting an area”—tripled from 580 to 1,704 between 2016 and 2017. Clinic invasions rose from seven to 11, the highest number NAF has seen since 1993, the year of the first known murder of an abortion provider. NAF reported an increase in targeted hate mail and harassing phone calls (from 869 to 1,156), as well as the first attempted clinic bombing in years, at the Women’s Health Practice in Champaign, Illinois, last November.
Last year also saw one of the first major clinic blockades in years. Last May, about a dozen activists associated with the Texas-based group Operation Save America (OSA) blocked the front entrance of EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville, Kentucky. As a result, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) charged these activists with violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which makes it a federal crime to try to block access to reproductive-health clinics using tactics like clinic blockades, intimidation, and threats of force.
Saporta said NAF’s researchers have found that abortion-clinic protesters feel encouraged by this administration’s general hostility for abortion rights and feel empowered to impede access to abortion and other reproductive-health services.
She said she believes—and Rewire.News’ reporting has shown—that OSA activists felt emboldened by Republican Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s open hostility toward abortion clinics in his state when they blocked the Louisville clinic’s doors. And shortly after the Louisville blockade, OSA President Rusty Thomas told Slate he had wanted to see what kind of friend he had in the Trump administration; however, the DOJ sued his group shortly after that interview, in mid-July.
Then last September and December, about a dozen activists staged coordinated protests at five clinics in five different cities. So far, for their actions—which Saporta said made up four of the 11 clinic “invasions” recorded last year (in one of the five clinics, protesters left when asked to and did not resist arrest)—Red Rose Rescuers have only faced misdemeanor trespassing charges, and some have been sentenced to probation for their crimes and have been barred from picketing at abortion clinics, orders protesters have promised to defy. Some of the rescuers’ court cases are ongoing.
Abortion-rights advocates like Saporta believe these Red Rose Rescues and clinic invasions generally violate the FACE Act.
In previous interviews with Rewire.News, Lauren Handy—one of the Red Rose Rescue organizers whose trial for trespassing at the Alexandria Women’s Health Clinic in Alexandria, Virginia, is scheduled for later this month—has been open about her willingness to take aggressive direct actions in the name of stopping abortions, such as entering clinics and resisting arrest.
“Four years ago cops told me to move across the street and shamefully I did,” 24-year-old Handy recently posted on Facebook. “What would I do TODAY if the government, that funds and sanctions the daily mass murder of preborn children, told me to ‘go across the street’? Hindsight is brutal. #RRR #ImGoingIn #WWJD.”
On the other hand, NAF found a decrease in burglary (from 66 in 2016 to 34 incidents in 2017), vandalism (from 109 to 92 incidents), and general online hate speech (from 42,726 to 15,773 incidents), and no acts of “extreme violence,” such as murders or attempted murders. Saporta said it’s common that when abortion protesters feel empowered politically, they tend not to lash out in extreme, violent ways. She noted that anti-choice activists likely feel they have judicial recourse in addition to legislative recourse against abortion rights with conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch now on the high court.
“We find that when anti-abortion activists feel like they have other recourse, they often don’t engage in forms of extreme violence,” Saporta said. “All the murders [against abortion providers or at abortion clinics] were done while we had a pro-choice president.”