‘People want me dead’: abortion providers fear violence after Roe overturned

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images

Boulder, Colorado, has for decades made its abortion providers feel welcome. The city council passed one of the country’s first laws regulating how close demonstrators could get to patients seeking reproductive care, and residents took to the streets in protest when it became clear that the supreme court was ready to overturn the constitutional right to abortion, as it did last month.

“Boulder is probably the most pro-choice community in the country,” said Warren Hern, director of the Boulder Abortion Clinic. “But there are people in the community who want me dead.”

From targeted killings of doctors to vandalism of clinics and intimidation of staff, danger is a reality of life for abortion providers in the US. With states now empowered to ban the procedure after the supreme court overturned federal abortion rights, reproductive health experts fear a new wave of violence.

Related: Biden urged to do more to defend abortion rights: ‘This is a five-alarm fire’

“Anti-abortion violence is more common when you have these moments of uncertainty and upheaval, and that’s what we have now,” said Mary Ziegler, a legal historian at Florida State University College of Law who studies abortion.

That would add to the nervousness abortion providers feel in states where the procedure remains legal, but where a change in the party controlling the state legislature could upend their ability to provide care.

“No woman’s life and health should be at the mercy of the next election, or zip code, or Mitch McConnell or Donald Trump,” Hern said, referring to the Republican Senate leader and the former president.

The anti-abortion movement has always found its greatest success in courtrooms and statehouses, passing laws that curbed access to clinics and encouraging Republicans to appoint supreme court justices who would vote to overturn the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling, which until last month protected abortion rights.

Yet by the 1990s, extremists with the movement came to conclude that more needed to be done. Since then, four abortion doctors have been assassinated and clinic staffers and bystanders have also lost their lives in shootings and bombings targeting facilities, with the last deadly incident occurring in 2015.

Such violent attacks have “been successful insofar as it’s made people less interested in going to abortion clinics and less interested in going to abortion providers,” Ziegler said.


They have also transformed life for abortion providers, who have taken to wearing bulletproof vests in public and outfitting their clinics with security doors and bullet-resistant glass.

But Ziegler said the attacks were often counterproductive because they swayed public opinion against anti-abortion groups and reminded Americans of the links between the anti-abortion movement and white supremacists.

“People in the United States thought more negatively of the anti-abortion movement as being a kind of misogynist white supremacist movement. Being a violent movement makes a lot of people reluctant to associate with you,” Ziegler said.

When insurrectionists attacked the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, “a lot of our providers recognized people. They are people who have been outside their clinics,” said Melissa Fowler, chief program officer at the National Abortion Federation, which monitors violence against clinics.

Its data, which encompasses the US, Canada, Mexico City and Colombia, shows an increase in violence and harassment towards abortion providers. Every type of incident the organization tracks in its annual report rose last year compared with 2020, including stalking of clinic staff, which in the US jumped 200% from the year prior, with 12 incidents reported.

Fowler said the latest surge dated back to 2015, when anti-abortion groups released misleading videos about Planned Parenthood, while the following year’s election further raised tensions.

“We’ve seen in the last few years people being more out and more bold with their hate,” she said. “I think that also contributes to an environment when people might be more bold and more aggressive outside of clinics.”

In 1993, David Gunn became the first abortion doctor to be assassinated, and not long after, a group of activists signed a petition saying “the use of force” was warranted to stop abortion. Extremists killed two more doctors that decade, including Barnett Slepian, who was shot through a window in his home by an extremist with a high-powered rifle.

In 2009 came the assassination of George Tiller at his church in Wichita, Kansas. Hern considered him a friend.

Related: ‘Police may be at your hospital bed’: an abortion rights activist on post-Roe criminalization

“He was a very fine person and a friend of mine and helped a lot of women, and that was why he was killed,” said Hern.

“Any doctor that does abortion in this country is the target of assassination, as well as anyone who helps them.”

Much of the violence in the past coincided with political losses, Fowler said. Gunn’s murder came a year after the supreme court generally upheld abortion rights in Planned Parenthood v Casey, and shortly after Bill Clinton took office. Tiller’s assassination wasn’t far into Barack Obama’s time in the White House, while a 2015 mass shooting in Colorado Springs was near the end of his term.

Prominent anti-abortion organizations have repudiated violence. Following Tiller’s assassination, the executive director of National Right to Life, David N O’Steen, said the group “unequivocally condemns any such acts of violence regardless of motivation. The pro-life movement works to protect the right to life and increase respect for human life. The unlawful use of violence is directly contrary to that goal.”

Yet for many providers, the threat of violence is rarely far from their minds.

In her decades of work with abortion providers across the United States, Julie Burkhart can’t think of a single facility that hasn’t been picketed by demonstrators or vandalized. She’s worked in clinics where windows were broken with bricks or shot out with bullets. At one clinic, someone cut open the roof and used a hose to flood the building.

Indeed, protesters greeted her as she worked to open what would be the only abortion clinic in Wyoming’s second-largest city, Casper. Weeks before she was going to start operations, and days after the leak of the supreme court’s opinion overturning abortion rights in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, an arsonist torched the building.

Now she’s gutting the flame-and-smoke-damaged interior with an eye to reopening in November, even though Wyoming is among the states moving to ban abortion.

“It’s a time I hoped I would never see, that we would collectively never see,” Burkhart said.

But one person who saw the court’s reversal coming was Tiller, her mentor whom she had worked alongside in Wichita for eight years.

“He did feel that ultimately Roe would be overturned. That was without a question in his mind. And I, at that time when he expressed that, I still didn’t feel like I could see that same writing on the wall that he did,” Burkhart said.

“I’m sad that what he thought came true.”