Abortion clinics report 'alarming' rise in picketing, vandalism and trespassing

Julia Carrie Wong


US abortion providers reported an “alarming escalation” in incidents of disruption and intimidation in 2018, according to new findings report by their professional association, the National Abortion Federation (NAF).

Trespassing reached the highest level since the NAF began recording such incidents in 1999, while incidents of obstruction of facilities grew 78% from 2017 to 2018. Providers also reported record levels of picketing (99,409 incidents) since recording began in 1977, and the highest number of incidents of vandalism (125) since 1990.

The group also recorded decreases in incidents of stalking, burglary, and assault and battery.

The report comes amid continuing fallout from the recent spate of anti-abortion legislation in statehouses across the country. On Friday, a federal judge in Mississippi blocked that state’s recently enacted ban on abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy; civil liberties and reproductive rights organizations filed a lawsuit challenging Alabama’s extreme new abortion ban; and Missouri’s governor, Mike Parson, signed a ban on abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy.

Related: ACLU and Planned Parenthood file lawsuit against Alabama abortion ban

“Anti-choice individuals and groups have been emboldened by the rhetoric of President Trump, Vice President Pence and other elected officials and we are seeing this play out in more instances of activities meant to intimidate abortion providers and disrupt patient services,” said Katherine Ragsdale, interim president and CEO of NAF, in a statement.

Trump and other politicians advocating for the restriction of access to abortion have frequently engaged in false and inflammatory rhetoric about the practice, using emotive and inaccurate language such as “infanticide” or “late-term abortion”.

In recent weeks, several state legislatures have enacted so-called “heartbeat” bills . These laws criminalize abortion after six weeks, when what anti-abortion activists call a “fetal heartbeat” is detected. At six weeks, a pregnancy involves an embryo, not a fetus, and while some tissue does throb, the embryo has not yet developed an actual heart.

“Demonizing health care providers and women who rely on them for abortion care has become one of the go-to tactics for anti-choice politicians,” added Ragsdale. “Those lies have consequences and it is not the anti-choice politicians who are facing those consequences; it is those who are denied abortion care and the providers targeted by threats, harassment, and violence who are.”

NAF began tracking violence and disruption against abortion providers in 1977, though the categories it tracks have changed over the years.

The new abortion bans in Alabama and Missouri are expected to be blocked by lower courts, just as the Mississippi law was. They are designed to be appealed to the US supreme court, which anti-abortion activists hope will reverse the precedent of Roe v Wade.

In his order granting a preliminary injunction against the Mississippi law, Judge Carlton Reeves appeared to express a certain amount of irritation with the tactic, writing: “Here we go again. Mississippi has passed another law banning abortions prior to viability … The parties have been here before.”

Reeves had previously ruled against a 15-week ban on abortion, he wrote, and the passage of “an even more restrictive bill” did not move him to reconsider.

“This Court previously found the 15-week ban to be an unconstitutional violation of substantive due process because the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that women have the right to choose an abortion prior to viability, and a fetus is not viable at 15 weeks lmp,” he wrote, using the initialism to denote weeks after a woman’s “last menstrual period”. “If a fetus is not viable at 15 weeks lmp, it is not viable at 6 weeks lmp.”