Media

Anti-Abortion Violence and Harassment Was Already Bad. Right-Wing Media Are Making It Worse

Right-wing and anti-abortion media regularly serve as an agitator for harassment.

Photo Credit: PDImages / Shutterstock

Rates of Anti-Abortion Harassment and Violence Are High -- and Continuing toRise

Attacks on abortion clinics and providers have led to 11 deaths since 1993. In 1993, anti-abortion extremist Michael Griffin assassinated Dr. David Gunn outside his clinic in the first known murder of an abortion doctor in the United States. Since then, anti-abortion sentiment has contributed to 10 other deaths, as well as numerous injuries of providers, patients, and their families. In 2015, Robert Dear allegedly opened fire in a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic, killing three and injuring at least nine more. After the attack, Dear reportedly said the phrase “no more baby parts” as an explanation, likely referring to an oft-repeated right-wing media talking point based on discredited undercover videos from the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress (CMP). [The New York Times11/29/15Media Matters12/2/15New Republic12/15/16]

Abortion providers live “in a state of heightened fear and anxiety because targeted harassment follows them everywhere.” In the book Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism, authors David Cohen and Krysten Connon detailed the numerous types of targeted and personalized harassment abortion providers endure from anti-abortion activists. For example, in addition to dealing with anti-abortion proponents picketing at their houses and giving out personal information to their neighbors, providers also face the prospect of activists targeting their children and extended families. As ThinkProgress reported, anti-choice activists have “showed up to picket providers’ children’s schools and mailed letters to providers’ family members; some of them have also gone to accost providers’ parents in their nursing home.” According to the report, “Incidents that one person might interpret as a relatively harmless prank — like, say, splashing red paint on the front of an abortion provider’s house — don’t seem quite so harmless to the abortion providers on the receiving end.” Thus, providers often feel “under siege” and live “in a state of heightened fear and anxiety because targeted harassment follows them everywhere.” [ThinkProgress, 4/27/15]

Low-income patients facing extreme financial barriers to abortion may also face heightened harassment when visiting clinics. Lack of income creates many barriers to abortion access, the least of which is the inability to pay for an abortion due to the Hyde Amendment -- a restriction on the use of Medicaid funds for abortion services except in limited circumstances. In addition to financial barriers, closure of clinics may force patients to travel many miles to access a clinic, often resulting in a loss of income from being forced to take time off from work. For this reason, low-income patients may have to schedule their abortions for Saturday mornings, often the “peak hours for protesters,” and thus may be subjected to the worst harassment from clinic protesters, as explained by ThinkProgress [Media Matters6/20/16; ThinkProgress, 8/12/13;]

Last year, clinic violence and provider harassment increased to an all-time high. Data from the National Abortion Federation (NAF) shows that anti-choice protests and targeted harassment of abortion clinics and providers both rose in 2016 to the highest level since NAF began tracking them in 1977. According to NAF, there was also an increase in “a wide range of intimidation tactics meant to disrupt the provision of health care at facilities, including vandalism, picketing, obstruction, invasion, trespassing, burglary, stalking, assault and battery, and bomb threats.” While data from 2017 is not yet available, NAF explained, "In the first five months of 2017 ... there have been four times as many online threats and death wishes directed at abortion providers compared with the same period in 2016." [The Cut, 4/20/17; National Abortion Federation, accessed 8/1/17; Slate, 7/21/17]

Right-Wing and Anti-Choice Media Catalyze Harassment for Anyone Who Publicly Supports Abortion Access

Then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly repeatedly attacked Dr. George Tiller before he was assassinated by an anti-abortion extremist. In 2009, anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder murdered abortion provider Dr. George Tiller while Tiller was attending church. Before Tiller's assassination -- and prior to Bill O’Reilly’s ouster from Fox News due to numerous sexual harassment allegations -- O’Reilly openly bullied Tiller on his program. According to Rolling Stone, “O’Reilly had waged an unflagging war against Tiller that did just about everything short of urging his followers to murder him.” O’Reilly repeatedly called the doctor “Tiller the baby killer” and said there was a “special place in hell for this guy.” At one point, O’Reilly said, “And if I could get my hands on Tiller – well, you know. Can't be vigilantes. Can't do that. It's just a figure of speech. But despicable? Oh, my God. Oh, it doesn't get worse. Does it get worse? No." After Tiller’s assassination, O’Reilly claimed he only “reported accurately” on Tiller. [Rolling Stone4/19/17Media Matters6/4/0912/1/15]

The Lilith Fund was attacked by right-wing media after offering abortion funding to those affected by Hurricane Harvey. The Lilith Fund -- a nonprofit that provides funding for abortions for people who can’t afford the procedure -- raised funds for those affected by the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. Under normal circumstances, abortion services can already be difficult to obtain due to waiting periods, travel distances to clinics, and other restrictions on access. Natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey amplify these barriers to access by closing clinics or making abortion financially inaccessible. In response to The Lilith Fund’s efforts to help those impacted access essential health care, many right-wing outlets attacked The Lilith Fund and argued the organization was exploiting people who had already suffered a tragedy. For example, The Federalist claimed that “abortionists are scheming to raise the death count even higher” than those who already died as a result of Hurricane Harvey. Anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson wrote for Townhall that “we should never attempt to pile tragedy on top of tragedy, which is exactly what this ‘free abortion’ offer does to women.” On Fox News’ The Story With Martha MacCallum, The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway stated that “funding abortions only makes sense if you think the main problem with Hurricane Harvey was that it did not kill enough people.” [Romper, 8/31/17; The Federalist, 9/12/17; Townhall, 9/8/17; Fox News, 9/1/17National Review9/1/17]

People who speak publicly about having an abortion are frequently attacked in right-wing media. Right-wing media frequently target people’s personal accounts of obtaining an abortion. For example, The Daily Caller “edited” a New York Times op-ed from a woman who had a late-term abortion, adding inaccurate and stigmatizing language to demonize her difficult but medically necessary choice. More recently, actor Martha Plimpton faced an onslaught of right-wing outrage for joking about having her “best” abortion in Seattle. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson said that Plimpton’s comment were “gross,” “disturbing,” and “depressing,” and that “healthy cultures don’t create people like that. Something is wrong.” The Washington Times claimed that Plimpton’s comments “underscore the utter hypocrisy of the left” and that she was treating it as a “bragging right.” [Media Matters10/21/16; Fox News, via Twitter, 9/6/17The Washington Times9/6/17; Breitbart, 9/6/17; The Daily Caller, 9/7/17; Townhall, 9/8/17]

People who publicly speak about abortion also encounter harassment on social media. Renee Bracey Sherman, an abortion activist and writer, spoke about the abuse she has encountered on social media because of her public discussion of her abortion and the right to access the health service more broadly. According to Bracey Sherman, due to continued harassment she has blocked the words “baby killer” and “you’re a murderer” from her Facebook feed. Recently, on Twitter, Bracey Sherman spoke about how her being a black woman increases the amount of targeted harassment she receives. She tweeted, “So often when I receive anti-choice harassment, it’s often about race. They degrade me as a Black woman. This is about white supremacy.” The campaign #ShoutYourAbortion, which confronts abortion stigma by having people publicly speak out about their abortions, experiences frequent attacks on social media -- which is quickly evidenced when searching the hashtag on Twitter. The co-founder of the campaign, Lindy West, faced severe harassment, including from trolls impersonating her late father. [Slate, 11/15/16; Twitter, 8/25/17; Twitter, accessed September 2017New York Times10/1/15; Elle, 9/25/15; HuffPost, 9/29/15]

Right-wing media have played an active role in exacerbating harassment against those who support or campaign for abortion access. Right-wing media frequently exacerbate or play an active role in promoting harassment against those who support abortion access. For example, teenager Maddy Rasmussen gained media attention for her high school senior project which created a database of abortion clinics in the United States in order to provide patients seeking abortions with more accurate information about locations to receive care. Anti-choice outlet LifeNews attacked Rasmussen, claiming that she was missing the “fact” that “an abortion is never safe for the unborn baby or the mother.” In a similar incident, LifeNews also attacked an ice cream shop in Portland, OR, because it was holding a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood. The shop stated that although it had previously partnered with Planned Parenthood without facing attacks, having the promotion “covered on LifeNews.com” resulted in backlash and harassment. After the LifeNews article, anti-abortion protesters harassed the shop’s owners on the business's Facebook page and website, as well through several phone calls to the shop. [LifeNews, 5/31/17; ThinkProgress, 7/25/14]

Abortion Clinics and Providers Experience Consistent Harassment and Threats of Physical Violence From Anti-Abortion Groups

1. CLINIC ATTACKS

Anti-abortion activists recently stormed abortion clinics and trespassed in patient waiting areas. On September 15, a number of anti-abortion proponents trespassed at at least two clinics -- storming into waiting rooms in an effort to harass patients and dissuade them from obtaining abortions. Three clinics in Michigan, Virginia, and New Mexico were explicitly targeted by anti-abortion protesters. The protesters, who included members of the anti-abortion group Created Equal and Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, refused to leave and were arrested, before being released on bail later. One protester said this “rescue” -- the anti-abortion term for invading clinic property to halt normal operations -- signaled a revival of the so-called rescue movement of the ‘80s and ‘90s. As Robin Marty explained in Dame magazine, the so-called rescues signal a challenge to the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) that was “inevitable since the moment Donald Trump was elected,” with the enforcement of the FACE Act now falling under the purview of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. [HuffPost, 9/15/17Dame magazine, 9/18/17; LifeSite News, 9/15/17]

Cleveland’s only abortion clinic was vandalized eight times in three months. In June, local news reported that Cleveland’s only abortion clinic, Preterm, was “under siege” after eight instances of vandalism that broke 10 windows. While no one was hurt, Preterm Executive Director Chrisse France said the attacks were “targeted to us, specifically as an abortion provider.” As Bustle noted, “Such violent actions work only to make the space seem less safe for patients seeking healthcare that they’re legally entitled to access.” France explained to Bustle that Preterm “has a reputation for being unapologetic advocates for choice, known in the area for abortion-positive billboards that proudly proclaim ‘I’m grateful for my abortion’” which likely agitates anti-abortion protesters. [News 5 Cleveland, 6/21/17; Bustle, 6/22/17]

2. ATTACKS ON DOCTORS/PROVIDERS/RESEARCHERS

Anti-abortion group Operation Save America engages in targeted harassment of abortion providers. The anti-abortion group Operation Save America (OSA) has made a habit of targeting abortion providers after they leave clinics as well. For example, OSA often protests in the neighborhoods of the abortion providers and distributes flyers in the area with identifying information -- including the provider’s photo and home address. In July, OSA protested outside of Kentucky’s only remaining clinic in the hope that it would be shut down, eliminating abortion access in the state. During these protests, OSA members distributed flyers with pictures and home addresses of clinic providers headlined “KILLERS AMONG US.” Local Kentucky media reported that people who received the handouts “were afraid the fliers were inflammatory and could incite violence.” [Media Matters8/1/17]

A hospital issued a gag order against a provider “to end her advocacy” for abortion services. Following the release of CMP’s videos, MedStar Washington Hospital Center issued a gag order against Dr. Diane J. Horvath-Cosper “to end her advocacy” due to security concerns that attention was being drawn to the hospital’s abortion services. Horvath-Cosper told The New York Times, “The dialogue [about abortion] is dominated by those who have demonized this totally normal part of health care.” Horvath-Cosper emphasized the importance of speaking out as a way to combat abortion stigma -- the idea that abortion is inherently wrong or socially unacceptable. “The message that we’ve all gotten in society is that abortion is shameful, and that people who have abortions should be shamed, and I think that’s something we need to work against,” she said. [The New York Times5/2/16Media Matters5/5/16]

After speaking out about her rape, clinic director Calla Hales experienced extensive harassment from anti-abortion protesters. In June, Calla Hales, the clinic director of A Preferred Women’s Health Center in Charlotte, NC, told Cosmopolitan that her date raped her after she told him that she worked at an abortion clinic. In the following weeks, the protesters outside a Raleigh clinic -- where she worked at the time -- began yelling personal details about Hales, including “words said to her during the assault.” Hales started feeling “increasingly fearful, paranoid, and alone,” so she re-located to work at the Charlotte clinic. She said she didn’t press charges because, in part, she feared “retribution on my parents, my friends, my business, and my staff.” Following the release of the Cosmopolitan article, Hales again faced targeted harassment not just from protesters outside the clinic, but from anti-abortion outlets as well. Pregnancy Help News, LifeNews, The Federalist and Fox News’ website all ran an article attacking Hales, accusing her of letting a rapist walk free in order to “trash pro-life people.” In Rewire’s documentary Care In Chaos, Hales further detailed the particularly vitriolic harassment she faced at the Charlotte clinic, as well as the lack of response from the local police. [Cosmopolitan6/26/17; Bustle, 6/5/17; Pregnancy Help News, 6/28/17; LifeNews, 6/29/17; The Federalist, 7/3/17; Fox News, 7/3/17; Rewire, 7/11/17]

Aspiring Republican nominee for Alabama attorney general advocated targeting individual clinics and providers on social media. Samuel McLure, who is seeking the Republican nomination for attorney general in Alabama, has actively bullied and harassed abortion providers, clinics, and patients. As part of his campaign, McLure used Facebook Live to film outside an abortion clinic and stated, “I want to eradicate places like this.” According to Rewire, McLure also used social media to target an individual doctor, “providing links to an anti-choice website with the doctor’s personal information—including an address to her other practice and photos presumably of the doctor’s vehicle and license plate.” As Rewire also noted, McLure stated in another video that “it is the state’s attorney general job ‘to make it hell on earth’ for abortion providers.” [Rewire, 9/14/17]

CMP’s deceptive videos created an environment of increased harassment and threats of violence against providers and clinics. Prior to the 2015 Colorado Springs shooting, the FBI released a warning about an “uptick” of attacks on abortion clinics following the release of CMP’s deceptively edited videos targeting Planned Parenthood. CMP’s discredited videos also likely endangered the lives of the providers shown -- all of whom were filmed without consent. A district court barred CMP from releasing further video footage over concerns that it could subject the providers shown to harassment and violence. However, providers aren’t the only ones facing increased threats of harassment. Researchers who utilized legally donated fetal tissue have faced intimidation following CMP’s videos. After the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives -- a politically motivated investigation that secretly sourced numerous pieces of “evidence” directly from CMP -- began attacking abortion providers and researchers that utilized donated fetal tissue. According to the Democrats on the select panel, these efforts not only “increasingly abused congressional authority” but also “put doctors and researchers at risk.” [Media Matters12/9/157/18/165/26/174/29/16, 12/5/16]

3. ATTACKS ON/HARASSMENT OF CLINIC ESCORTS

Harassment of Louisville clinic escorts provide an example of the threats clinic escorts endure from anti-abortion protesters. Volunteer clinic escorts provide essential support to patients and their families as they navigate protesters so patients can access clinics for abortions or other reproductive health care. Personal accounts from clinic escorts demonstrate the sheer onslaught of harassment they face from clinic protesters as they provide patients comfort and support. Clinic escorts for Kentucky’s only remaining abortion clinic maintain a blog called “Every Saturday Morning,” which highlights the hostile environment escorts confront. This hostile environment can lead to physical injury -- such as when an anti-abortion protester grabbed an escort and threw her to the ground -- as well as intimidation, taunting, and online harassment. Members of OSA have also posted harassment and threats about the escorts on social media. OSA frequently refers to them as “deathscorts” and has targeted specific escorts in posts by naming them or taking their pictures.Following OSA’s July event in Kentucky, clinic escorts noticed “an increase in the number of anti-choice protesters as well as a heightened level of aggression,” including a protester who, according to one blog post, said that “we should go back to the old days of ‘lynching white women.’” In another post, escorts explained that despite these threats, “volunteer clinic escorts in Louisville and across the country will continue to show up and hold space for clients, whatever that looks like at a given clinic and for a given client. We’ll hope we don’t get hurt too badly.” [HuffPost, 12/2/16; Every Saturday Morning, 1/21/178/16/17; Facebook, 6/2/174/25/17; Operation Save America, “Field Manual for Abortion Ministry” 2015]

Anti-abortion protesters attempted to get a teacher fired because she was a clinic escort. In 2015, North Carolina clinic escort Shana Broders experienced personalized and targeted harassment when anti-abortion protesters found out that she was a teacher at a local elementary school. At first, protesters engaged in intimidation tactics, including threatening to contact her school, but they initially did not actually follow through on these threats. Eventually, someone called the school and said Broders was a “baby killer,” and that she should be fired. Broders noted that these personalized attacks did not start until she called the police on a protester who was trespassing on the clinic’s property by hiding behind a bush in order to ambush the clinic’s doctor. Although Broders’ school supported her, the district also had to take extra safety precautions for fear of protesters showing up to school events. [Cosmopolitan8/26/15]

Journalists Confront Anti-Abortion Harassment in Reporting on Abortion

Journalists who report on abortion receive death threats and harassment from anti-abortion proponents. A new study published in the medical journal Contraception surveyed journalists with experience reporting on abortion and found that over 80 percent “reported experiencing anti-abortion harassment as a result of their abortion work.” Journalists in the study came from a wide variety of media backgrounds and “very few described abortion or reproductive health as their sole area of focus.” Nevertheless, journalists reported anti-abortion harassment that “ranged from ‘nasty tweets’ to ‘death threats.’” One journalist recounted anti-abortion people tweeting her home address, which, she said, had a “chilling effect” on her desire to report on abortion or reproductive rights in the future. For most of the journalists in the study, though “they were initially ‘devastated’ and ‘overwhelmed’ by the harassment,” it eventually became “an expected part of covering abortion.” From Contraception (which requires a subscription):

Over 80% (n=28) of participants reported experiencing anti-abortion harassment as a result of their abortion work.

[...]

Participants had experience writing at 75 different media outlets, including television, radio, newspapers, and magazines, with a range of distributions (i.e., international, national, regional) and audiences (e.g., general interest, progressive, feminist). While all participants had experience reporting on abortion, very few described abortion or reproductive health as their sole area of focus.

[...]

Most participants reported experiencing harassment as a result of abortion reporting; 24 of 31 participants had faced some form of it. This harassment ranged from “nasty tweets” to “death threats,” a pattern consistent with the experiences of others affiliated with abortion, such as providers and patients. Some journalists’ experiences became particularly alarming:

Antis [anti-abortion advocates] tweeted out my home address. So that was an issue for me as a writer and it did have a chilling effect... It made me really terrified. (Brenna, 41)

Most participants expressed that they were initially “devastated” and “overwhelmed” by the harassment, but that it had become, for them, an expected part of covering abortion – even as they believed their editors were surprised by the level of vitriol that abortion journalists faced. [Contraception, 8/16/17]

Right-wing media attacked Teen Vogue after the outlet published an article tackling abortion stigma. In February, Teen Vogue published a guide about what to get a friend after an abortion -- in an effort to combat the stigma many people face after they have an abortion. Teen Vogue and the author of the piece both encountered attacks from right-wing and anti-choice media. National Review claimed Teen Vogue’s “blasé attitude” toward abortion was harmful to people who experience regret and emotional consequences after an abortion, even though the American Psychological Association has found that abortion does not cause mental health problems. Lifezette criticized Teen Vogue for engaging in a marketing scheme to promote abortion to underage girls. Anti-choice outlet LifeNews attacked Teen Vogue for promoting “pro-abortion propaganda.” [Media Matters2/16/17]

Julie Tulbert is the Abortion Rights & Reproductive Health Researcher at Media Matters for America. She has a J.D. from William & Mary Law School and a B.A. in Sociology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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