In the Wake of Roe, Violence Will Increase. Healthcare Workers Must Be Protected

Clinic escorts stand in the parking lot outside a Planned Parenthood in St. Louis, Mo., as anti-abortion demonstrators protest on May 31, 2019. At the time, the clinic was the last location in the state performing abortions. A trigger ban went into effect on June 24, 2022, minutes after the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs was released. Abortion is now banned outright in Missouri. (Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)

A newly released report on anti-abortion violence by the National Abortion Federation (NAF) documents significant increases in violence and threats of violence against abortion providers in the run-up to the Court’s decision in Dobbs and the challenges faced by providers during the pandemic. In the wake of Roe, violence will continue to increase.

NAF released its report on the morning of June 24. Only hours later, the Supreme Court overturned the longstanding precedents of Roe v. Wade. In response, the Department of Homeland Security issued a memo warning of likely extremist violence.

Abortion providers have long been aware of the link between political victories for anti-abortionists, such as anti-abortion bans, and an increase in violence perpetrated by those extremists. Following the enactment of Texas’ S.B. 8 which banned abortions after six weeks, harassment, threats and protests increased not only in Texas but also in surrounding states.    

Violence against abortion providers rose significantly in 2021, following the trend of the past decade. Harassment of providers and patients also rose. Stalking rose 600 percent, blockades 450 percent, hoax­­ devices 163 percent, invasions 129 percent and assault and battery 128 percent, compared to the previous year.

While reported incidents fell during the height of the pandemic in 2020, staff and escorts testified that burnout and shortages, along with lack of compliance to social distancing among the anti-abortion protesters, made the pandemic more stressful and dangerous for staff and patients alike.   

The people that perpetrate these acts against abortion providers are not just passionate protesters. Many of them are members of known extremist and white supremacist organizations.

Melissa Fowler

The white nationalists participating in the Jan. 6 insurrection ignored social distancing protocols while committing violence and destruction. Similarly, anti-abortion extremists continued to put patients and staff at risk throughout the pandemic. In fact, many tactics used at the insurrection, and the rioters themselves, were familiar to abortion care providers.

Melissa Fowler, NAF’s chief program officer, said that during the pandemic, providers “continued to see large groups of protesters defying stay at home orders, gathering in large groups without masks, taunting patients, breathing on them, coughing on them. … At the time [we] really tried to call that hypocrisy out. For people who purport to be so pro-life, they didn’t seem to care about the lives of the people in their communities that they were putting at risk during a global pandemic.”  

Fowler said it’s important to remember that “the people that perpetrate these acts against abortion providers are not just passionate protesters. Many of them are members of known extremist and white supremacist organizations.” Tolerance of violence and extremists in one area inevitably spreads into the mainstream and is a danger to democracy.   

On January 6, 2021, the world watched as violent insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol and tried to overthrow the government. Abortion providers recognized a number of the people at the Capitol as they are the same individuals who target abortion clinics and harass and terrorize clinic staff.

“2021 Violence and Disruption Statistics,” NAF

NAF has been preparing abortion providers for increased violence in the wake of Roe‘s overturn. Abortion providers have long felt frustrated with what they perceive as a lack of support and protection from violence—just one of the ways right-wing extremism has become normalized in the United States over the past decade. One of NAF’s goals is to call the general public’s attention to this issue. 

“We are dealing with real people’s lives and a very well documented and coordinated campaign against people that we love and that are important health care providers in their community,” warned Fowler. “And so for us right now, our focus is just on our members, on abortion providers across the country and and trying to help them be prepared for for what’s to come in the next few months.”

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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Phoebe Kolbert is an undergraduate student at Smith College studying sociology and reproductive health and justice. She is an editorial intern with Ms. and a contributor to the Mainer News Cooperative. Find her columns for Mainerhere.