Standing strong against violence: Abortion facilities not the only target

Acts of violence now extending to family planning clinics

Three pro-choice groups banded together to announce the news that one-third of all American reproductive health clinics experienced severe violence in 1996. Their press conference was cut short, though, by the news that an Atlanta abortion clinic was the target of a bomb. News of a second, more severe attack less than a hour later only served to demonstrate that fire bombings and other acts of violence continue to threaten the health and well-being of every reproductive health care provider and patient across the nation.

"It’s really important that providers are not complacent and that law enforcement officials are taking these threats seriously, because there certainly has been an upswing in anti-abortion activity," says Vicki Saporta, executive director of the Washington, DC-based National Abortion Federation (NAF).

For those who do not work in an abortion-providing facility, the ongoing threat of clinic violence may not be as well understood, says Ann Glazier, director of clinic defense and research at the New York City-based Planned Parenthood Federation of America. But acts of violence are extending to family planning clinics as well, she warns.

For example, arson attempts were recorded in August 1995 and January 1996 at an Oregon Planned Parenthood affiliate, a family planning, non-abortion-providing facility.

"The arson attempts at the Planned Parenthood clinic represent another disturbing trend that NAF has noted," states the 1996 clinic violence survey analysis from NAF. (See ordering information in sources box, p. 43.) "More and more frequently, facilities which offer reproductive health care which support a woman’s right to choose — but do not actually perform abortions — are also being targeted for violence and harassment."

For example, according to the Planned Parenthood Federation’s 1996 survey, a Hannibal, MO, family planning clinic that made abortion referrals but offered no abortion services was nearly destroyed by arson in September 1996. Criminals broke into the facility, painted hostile slogans on the walls, and poured gasoline on the counters to ignite the fire, yet left $2,400 in cash and electronic equipment untouched.

"Clinics which make referrals for abortions, which are affiliated with Planned Parenthood, or that are otherwise publicly associated with support for the right to choose abortion are the primary targets," the 1996 survey points out. "This trend may indicate the expansion of violent anti-choice hostility to include not just those facilities which directly provide abortion services, but also those which provide contraception, referrals for abortion, and support for a woman’s right to choose."

Clinic violence is monitored by three national organizations: the NAF, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the Arlington, VA-based Feminist Majority Foundation.

Planned Parenthood’s Chronicle of Clinic Violence includes reports from Planned Parenthood affiliates and other reproductive health care facilities. It reads much as a diary, listing events in chronological order. A scan of the 1996 document reflects a wide range of activities, from the Dec. 18, 1996, attempted murder of a New Orleans physician, as well as death threats, arson, and bombings, to reports of disruptive acts including vandalized and glued door locks, blockaded entrances, burglaries, and thefts.

NAF, which has collected statistics on anti-abortion violence since 1977, compiles an annual survey from its approximately 350-member facilities and supplements it with information from newspaper reports, law enforcement agencies, and colleague organizations.

According to the organization’s 1996 report, while the overall number of violent incidents dropped by approximately 21% from 1995, incidents of nonviolent disruption, such as harassing phone calls and hate mail, more than doubled. (See charts, this page.) When the two categories are combined, the number of incidents more than doubled from 1995 to 1996, the analysis concludes. (See chart, p. 43.)

While the 1996 survey reflects a significant decline in arson (from 13 in 1995 to three in 1996), NAF officials caution that one trend continues: the repeat of arson attempts until serious damage to a facility occurs. A Boise, ID, clinic was attacked in May 1996, followed by a second attempt later that month that caused it to move to another location. A Phoenix clinic underwent three arson attempts within a two-week span in December 1996.

"This demonstrates a disturbing single- mindedness on the part of some perpetrators of anti-abortion violence," the survey analysis states. "When efforts to destroy a health center with one arson attempt fail, some perpetrators are returning again and again until they get it right."

The 1996 National Clinic Violence Survey Report, compiled by the Feminist Majority Foundation, may represent the most comprehensive quantitative approach to analyzing the rate of violent incidents. (See ordering details in sources box, this page.)

For its 1996 report, requests were mailed to more than 900 U.S. clinics, with surveys completed by more than 300 facilities representing 45 states and the District of Columbia. These clinics included members of national organizations such as the NAF and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, as well as some 28% unaffiliated with any national group.

According to the report, almost one-third (29.5%) of clinics reported one or more types of violence, including death threats, stalking, bomb threats, bombings, blockades, chemical attacks, invasions, arson, and arson threats during the first seven months of 1996. When other types of activities are included, such as vandalism and home picketing, however, the number of facilities experiencing some form of violence, harassment, or intimidation rises to 45.8%.

While the level of violence at the nation’s abortion clinics declined for the second consecutive year, the actual rate of decline slowed, the report states. Between 1995 and 1996, the percentage of clinics reporting severe damage dropped by only 9.1% compared with a 13.3% drop in violence between 1994 and 1995.

The number of bombings, chemical attacks, and arson threats against clinics rose for the first time since 1994, the Feminist Majority Foundation report reflects. However, the numbers of death threats, bomb threats, stalking, home picketing and clinic vandalism continued to decline.

While acts of violence continue to be a fact of life for many facilities, their employees continue to offer services, as evidenced by the foundation’s survey. Only 3.9% of clinics reported staff resignations in 1996 related to anti-abortion violence, a drop from the 9% level reported in 1995.

Although strides continue to be made, there is considerable room for improvement, says Jennifer Jackman, PhD, the foundation’s director of policy and research.

"We held this press conference [in January] to really issue a clarion call," she notes. "While violence is down, about one-third of clinics are still facing serious violence, and that’s intolerable."

(See articles on how law enforcement can aid in deterring clinic violence and how you can protect your facility against acts of violence, pp. 44-45. Also included in this issue is a patient handout on first trimester abortions.)

Selected references

National Abortion Federation. Anti-abortion Violence and Harassment, 1996: An Analysis of Trends. Washington, DC; 1997.

Feminist Majority Foundation. 1996 Clinic Violence Survey Report. Arlington, VA; 1997.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America. 1996 Chronicle of Clinic Violence. New York, NY; 1997.