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Right-Wing Terrorism: Arson, Bombs, and Break-Ins at Women's Clinics Seek to Instill Fear

Bombs and fires at women's health clinics are happening where abortion rights are under assault.
 
 
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"There's a history of terroristic violence by anti-abortion extremists, up to and including murders of doctors and clinic workers," Rachel Maddow said on Friday night, reporting on suspicious burglaries and fires at two women's health clinics in Georgia.  

It looks like that violent history's new chapters are being written in tandem with the continual legislative incursion on reproductive rights.

Friday, the day of Maddow's broadcast, was the very same day the healthcare providers at Women With a Vision, a provider in New Orleans that serves the most marginalized members of the population, woke up to find their offices charred and blackened, their equipment, files and resources devoured by flames.

A statement on the clinic's Web site reads, in part:

We lost everything. We do not have an office to operate out of right now. Most of our office equipment and all of our educational resources were destroyed. Because of the targeted nature, we can only assume that this was intentional.

Women With a Vision wasn't an abortion provider. But the very nature of their work did affirm the humanity and sexual agency of women, specifically poor women of color, the formerly incarcerated, HIV positive, and transgendered.

So the fact that they were targeted by arson comes as no surprise. As the national onslaught of reproductive rights restrictions known as the "war on women" incurs beyond just abortion toward all nontraditional sexuality and sexual agency--targeting birth control and cuts to preventive care, pushing back on domestic violence protections for immigrants and queer people-- so will the violence which goes hand and hand with these policies threaten more than just abortion providers, throwing a shadow of fear on anyone who aids women's health.

Furthermore, the vitriol and humiliation that's embedded in new anti-choice bills, laws and campaigns continues to ratchet up--with legislators exposing the names of doctors and patients, forcing humiliating ultrasounds on abortion seekers, allowing doctors to lie to patients, targeting minority women with racist laws and campaigns, and shutting down clinics--and thus the fringe and violent followers of their movement will also ratchet up their actions.

And yes, much anti-choice violence falls under the definition of terrorism, randomized violence meant to target civilians and instill terror. Women arriving for a pap smear scared that their clinic will be set on fire; AIDS patients showing up to get treatment and finding the doors of their clinic shuttered; pro-choice doctors writing in to a newspaper refusing to sign their names because of the repeated death threats they receive. These are some of the fallouts of such violence.

Three years ago this week, late-term abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was gunned down in his church, the most prominent victim of such anti-choice terrorism in recent years. As Jessica Valenti wrote in the Nation, the national attitude toward reproductive rights has only deteriorated since that tragic day: "I imagine that even for a man who had seen a lot of misogyny in his life, the current climate against women would be shocking."

Efforts to open another abortion clinic in Wichita are faltering, stymied by aggressive anti-choice actions. The patients who relied on Dr. Tiller have one less place to turn to. And during this last long period of legislative onslaught coinciding with the GOP sweeping into power in states and nationally, the violence has continued.

In summer 2010, a Planned Parenthood in California was attacked with a Molotov cocktail. The FBI report notes that "as a result of the ensuing fire, the clinic sustained more than $26,000 of damage and had to close for two days."

Last summer, a Texas Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas--one that did not provide abortions--was attacked with a Molotov cocktail, causing "serious damage." 

This past January, a man was charged with setting fire to a Pensacola, Florida family planning clinic, "gutting" it.

In April of this year a clinic in Wisconsin was firebombed. The man who did it said it was because they were "killing babies."

The offices of a vocally pro-choice female state politician in Texas were also firebombed by a mentally disturbed man this year.

Now we witness this new spate of violence in Georgia: break-ins and burglaries, vandalism and theft of files that contain the names of doctors--and particularly heinous arson.

"We’re very concerned about the escalation of violence in Georgia. We started out with burglaries against some clinics. They escalated to arsons," Vicki Saporta of the National Network of Abortion Funds told Amy Goodman. "And the last arson was set not in the middle of the night, as is the usual pattern, but during the day when patients and staff were at the facility. We were very lucky that no one was injured or killed in that fire."

On Friday night, Maddow said she feels that the specific nature of the violence in Georgia is of a pattern with and also different from past incidents. First of all, two men were seen on the scene. As Maddow said, "The possibility that two people were working together to commit violence is a significant thing." She notes that because perpetrators have "generally had connection to the extreme anti-abortion movement," but they have mostly "acted alone," this "adds alarm to an already alarming situation."

The other new facet to the Georgia violence Maddow noted? An apparent strong connection between the very details of the policy decisions in Georgia's legislative body and the nature of one of the burglaries. You see, as the legislators debated whether or not to release the names of abortion-providing doctors, the thieves in one of the clinics targeted a file containing...the names of abortion-providing doctors. The vitriolic nature of the public debate is bleeding out of the chambers of law, manifesting in criminal activity.

As with Women With a Vision in New Orleans, all of the physicians targeted did not perform abortions.

In this case, they had gone to the statehouse to speak to lawmakers about the issue of reproductive rights. Maddow pointed out that as a result of these actions in Georgia the threat of violence now hangs over doctors who not only perform abortions, but even speak up on reproductive rights at all. The War on Women is "fueling the extremism of the most extreme wing of the anti-abortion movement," the Feminist Majority and Kathy Spillar told Maddow.

Todd Stave is the founder of Voice of Choice, a small-donor funded group whose uniqe brand of pro-choice activism specifically aims at diffusing and ending harassment and bullying by anti-choice protesters. He said that the rhetoric from politicians can exacerbate these situations. "We're in a very desperate time in our economic cycle, when the most hopeless look to political leadership for direction," he says. "[Legislation that targets women] is the direction they're going in."

One problem he notes is that local law enforcement is beholden to the political currents--the same currents that push anti-choice extremism through legislatures. Stave says that in his mind, anti-choice violence and harassment is more like organized crime than terrorism, but the newfound ease of social media combined with a shrinking number of clinics has meant that there are a small number of targets against which "any idiots can get together and try to hatch a plan."

Hence his group. With 10,000 volunteers at the ready to gently call, email or counter-protest when harassment or bullying occurs, says Stave, sometimes just even the awareness that the group has anti-choicers on its radar is enough to put an end to the threatening behavior. "We don't try to escalate, we try to calm things down," he says. (They are careful to respect First Amendment rights.)

Maddow's segment:

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Video from Women With a Vision:

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published at the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Jezebel and the Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @fellowette and find her work at sarahmseltzer.com.