Anti-abortion extremists are domestic terrorists

They have created fear among providers that something violent can happen to any of them at any time

July 6, 2015 2:00AM ET

Part of Kristina Romero’s job as the regional director for several reproductive health clinics in the South, some of which offer abortion services, is to drive one of the clinic doctors to and from work. That way anti-abortion extremists can’t identify the doctor’s car.

One day, as Romero left her home, she saw a big poster with the doctor’s picture in a bullseye. There were more: The posters started in front of her house and continued along the entire route she took to get to the clinic.

To Romero, the posters were not only threatening to the doctor, but also to her. That they lined her route to work was a clear sign that anti-abortion extremists had followed her. The message, she explained, “was for me to be scared. It was for me. There’s nothing in my experience with the protesters that stands out more than that morning when I got up to go get the doctor and saw the doctor’s picture all over town.”

This is just one example of what abortion providers face in America today. Anti-abortion extremists who engage in such threatening behavior — and too often, the media outlets that cover them — consider it part of protest of the larger issue of abortion. But these targeted threats are forms of terrorism that are meant to scare providers into stopping the provision of abortion services. As one provider told us, such tactics go “beyond bullying. It’s this extreme bullying and intimidation and harassment,” which creates a “culture of terror” among providers.

To call anti-abortion extremism domestic terrorism may seem surprising, but that is the conclusion of our new book, “Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism.” It’s a conclusion we reached after analyzing 87 interviews with abortion providers from 2011 to 2014 about their experiences being the targets of anti-abortion extremists. According to the Feminist Majority Foundation, in this time period, this kind of individual targeting has substantially increased.

And yet, to call such acts terrorism is immensely controversial. In fact, anti-abortion terrorism has been almost completely absent from the renewed national conversation about domestic terrorism spurred by last month’s church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.

Crystalizing this controversy, in early 2009, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) actually reached the conclusion that anti-abortion extremists were terrorists in two reports. But in the face of strong backlash from many different constituencies, including anti-abortion groups, DHS caved to public pressure and pulled both reports less than two months after they were released, claiming they were inadvertently released before being fully vetted.

The first DHS document, titled “Domestic Extremism Lexicon (PDF),” sought to define “key terms and phrases” in the effort to combat “the threat that domestic, non-Islamic extremism poses to the United States.” Among the terms was “anti-abortion extremism.”

The onslaught of threatening behavior is rooted in the failure of anti-abortion forces to accomplish their ultimate political goal: ending abortion entirely.

The second document, “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment (PDF),” was released two weeks later. This document was an intelligence assessment of the department’s growing concern over “violent radicalization within the United States.” Among the concerns were “groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.”

Although neither document explicitly referred to anti-abortion extremists as terrorists, each did so by implication. In both, the DHS explained the extremist threat to the U.S., including anti-abortion extremism, with language that equated extremism with terrorism.

Our interviews with abortion providers demonstrate just how wrong DHS was to bury these reports. Many abortion providers nationwide are being individually targeted, and fear — justifiably — for their lives. Since 1993, eight abortion providers have been murdered because of their lawful profession: four doctors, two receptionists, a security guard and a volunteer escort. The most recent murder occurred in 2009, when Dr. George Tiller was assassinated in the foyer of his church, just weeks after DHS pulled its two reports.

Less extreme forms of targeting also instill fear in abortion providers — precisely because they take place against this backdrop of violence. When an abortion provider’s picture appears in crosshairs on a poster as part of a protest outside a clinic; when a provider’s family receives death threats; when a provider receives multiple calls from unknown phone numbers or is followed home from work; when a provider’s parents receive bullying mail at their home halfway across the country from where the provider lives; and when any types of targeted harassment that we detail in our book take place, it terrorizes providers by capitalizing on the past murders.

This conception of terrorism is consistent with many experts’ definitions of the term. For instance, Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, defines terrorism as “the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change.” The power of terrorism, according to Hoffman, is that it is “designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target.”

The onslaught of such threatening behavior is rooted in the failure of anti-abortion forces to accomplish their ultimate political goal: ending abortion entirely. Despite a succession of Republican appointees to the Supreme Court, these justices have not overturned Roe v. Wade. And while anti-abortion activists have successfully limited abortion access throughout the country, they have faced setbacks as well; the latest is the Supreme Court’s Monday ruling temporarily allowing 10 Texas abortion clinics to remain open. Moreover, public opinion on abortion — which until recently has remained relatively static in opposing criminalizing abortion in all circumstances — is moving toward the pro-choice position.

To try to accomplish what they have been unable to do through normal political channels, extremists use other methods: targeted harassment and intimidation. It’s terrorism, pure and simple.

David S. Cohen, associate professor at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, is co-author of “Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism.” He is a board member of the Women’s Law Project and the Abortion Care Network.

Krysten Connon is a 2012 graduate of the Drexel University School of Law and co-author of “Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism.” She is an attorney at Pepper Hamilton LLP in Philadelphia.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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