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Hidden Danger: The Violence Lurking Just Beneath The Surface Of Mainstream Anti-Choice Politics

Anti-Abortion Violence: A Real-Life Horror Story

In 1998, Iowa anti-abortion radical David Leach used his website as a platform to serialize Rescue Platoon, a mini-novel telling the story of a future, final war against abortion. The fictional account of the future of insurrectionary anti-abortion violence tells of a “righteous wrath” to come, replete with bombs, murder, and deranged vigilantism. The story ends with a bloodbath of epic proportions as the violent anti-abortion crusaders serving in the “Army of God” gain the final victory.

Violent anti-abortion militant Neil Horsley.

Violent anti-abortion militant Neil Horsley.

Though Rescue Platoon was penned as a fictional account, it serves as a blueprint for anti-abortion terrorism. In between the descriptions of bloody massacres and clinic bombings, the mini-novel provides operational and tactical advice for committing acts of violence, even recommending specific targets for anti-abortion violence. While the identity of Rescue Platoon’s author remains a mystery, many people believe that militant anti-abortionist Neal Horsley is responsible for writing the apocalyptic story described as a ‘call to arms’ for violent anti-abortion zealots.

Horsley's website, containing a 'hit-list' with the names and personal information of abortion providers.

Horsley’s website, containing a ‘hit-list’ with the names and personal information of abortion providers.

Neal Horsley is the creator and webmaster of The Nuremberg Files, one of the most virulent anti-abortion sites on the Web. On his site, Horsley provides extensive personal information about abortion providers – everything from pictures, work and home addresses, and phone numbers, to license-plate numbers, social security numbers, and even the names and birth dates of providers’ family members. He encourages visitors to his site to send photos, videos, and other data on “the abortionist, their car, their house, friends, and anything else of interest.” While Horsley claims that the information will be used to “prosecute abortionists when abortion becomes illegal,” the list of abortion providers reads more like a hit list. Names listed in plan black lettering are still “working”; those printed in “Greyed-out” letters are “wounded”; and those names that are crossed out (“strikethrough”) indicate doctors who have been murdered by anti-abortion activists. Even more damning, within hours of the 1998 murder of abortion provider Dr. Barnett Slepian, Horsley had already crossed out Dr. Slepian’s name, adding him to the list of other murdered abortion providers.

Beyond promoting and celebrating the murder of abortion providers and the bombing of clinics, Horsley encourages states to secede and take control of the federal government’s nuclear weapons. According to Horsley, staging a violent revolution involving nuclear warfare is the one strategy “guaranteed” to end legalized abortion.

When ‘Peaceful’ Protests Turn Deadly

While Horsley represents an extreme, militant wing of the anti-abortion movement, violence and anti-abortion activism all too often go hand in hand. Even seemingly “nonviolent” anti-abortion activists are often directly affiliated with the very groups who are implicated in acts of anti-abortion terrorism ranging from harassment and assault to clinic bombings and killings, as Jill Filipovic explained in the 2013 article, “How the Right Plays With Murder: The Anti-Abortion Movement’s Cycle of Violence,” which provides a chillingly detailed account of the connections between so-called “peaceful” protests and deranged acts of violence perpetrated against abortion providers and clinic staff.

An anti-abortion protest, organized by the violent group 'Operation Rescue.'

An anti-abortion protest, organized by the violent group ‘Operation Rescue.’

According to Filipovic, mainstream anti-abortion organizations provide a smokescreen for the extreme and often violent acts of more radical groups. Protests at abortion clinics are often organized by extremist groups such as Operation Rescue, Lambs of Christ, and the Army of God. Chillingly, there is a clear pattern of targeting clinics for ‘nonviolent’ protests shortly before the same clinics become the target of anti-abortion terrorism. While mainstream anti-abortion groups may not directly participate in the violence, they are – at the very least – passive supporters of anti-abortion terrorism. Filipovic explains how this works:

The more radical antiabortion groups rally their supporters around a small handful of doctors and clinics who they’ve decided are particularly bad. They use offensive, overhyped language to impress upon their (often very religious, sometimes young) followers the urgency of the situation, telling them that they are literally the only bulwarks standing between life and death for thousands of babies. They compare abortion clinic workers to Hitler, to Nazis, to mass murderers. Right-wing radio, blogs, news shows and other media pick up on those talking points and disseminate them to wider audiences.

While that’s happening, more mainstream antiabortion organizations and Republican political leaders capitalize on that energy to introduce antiabortion legislation, anti-contraception legislation and a slew of other laws intended to make abortions harder to get and birth control harder to access. Some of the radical antiabortion leaders transition into positions of power in more mainstream groups, or are elected into political office. What were once far-right views — for example, that contraception is the same as abortion — make their way into the mainstream, and are adopted by large contingents of the Republican Party. While radical positions are being mainstreamed, some of the more extreme activists who have spent years hearing that abortion providers are Nazis but the U.S. government won’t do anything about it decide to take the next logical step and bomb a clinic or kill a doctor. The mainstream antiabortion organizations shake their heads in ‘disapproval’. Then they support the grass roots in rallying their extremist troops all over again.

A Long History of Violence

According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, in the past three decades anti-abortion activists have targeted providers with more than 6,400 acts of violence including bombings, arsons, death threats, kidnappings, assaults, and murders, as well as more than 175,000 acts of disruption including bomb threats and harassing phone calls. Based on these numbers, abortion providers in the U.S. are confronted with violence every 1.7 days and deal with other forms of harassment 16 times each day. 

Among the most horrifying acts of anti-abortion terrorism are the murders of several abortion providers during the 1990’s, and most recently, in 2009, the murder of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas. NARAL Pro-Choice America describes the brutal, calculated killing of Dr. Tiller:

Abortion_AntiChoice Violence_Roeder“On May 31, 2009 Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider, was shot and killed while attending church in Wichita, Kansas. Dr. Tiller was one of only a few doctors in the nation who provided abortion services late in pregnancy, and had been a focal point for abortion opponents for decades. In January 2010, anti-choice activist Scott Roeder was convicted of first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated assault in connection with the crime. During his testimony, Roeder admitted that he had been thinking of attacking Dr. Tiller for years, and had considered different ways to do so, such as positioning himself like a sniper on a rooftop or cutting off Tiller’s hands with a sword. Roeder also expressed his frustration that two efforts to prosecute Dr. Tiller had failed. ‘There was nothing being done and the legal process had been exhausted, and these babies were dying every day,’ Roeder said. ‘I felt that if someone did not do something, he was going to continue.’ In April 2010, Roeder was sentenced to life in prison.”

Mourners attend the funeral of Dr. George Tiller, a beloved doctor.

Mourners attend the funeral of Dr. George Tiller, a beloved doctor.

In response to Dr. Tiller’s murder, Operation Rescue founder and former president Randall Terry referred to him as a “mass murderer” and said that, “horrifically, he reaped what he sowed.” Conservative commentator Ann Coulter responded to Dr. Tiller’s murder by saying, “I don’t really like to think of it as murder. It was terminating Tiller in the 203rd trimester.”

Before his murder, Dr. Tiller had been targeted twice by anti-abortion groups. In August 1993, Dr. Tiller was shot twice in the arm outside a health center in Wichita, Kansas and in June 1986 a pipe bomb exploded at his clinic, Women’s Health Care Services, which caused more than $70,000 in damages.

Sadly, Dr. Tiller’s murder is not an isolated incident. NARAL has documented a pattern of brutal slayings committed by anti-abortion extremists, including:

1998: The Murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian: Dr. Barnett Slepian, an obstetrician-gynecologist who endured protests and harassment for years, was shot and killed by a single bullet fired through his kitchen window on October 23, 1998, in Amherst, New York. James Kopp, a known anti-choice activist, spent a year planning Dr. Slepian’s murder, selecting him from half a dozen other abortion providers in the Buffalo area because the rear window of Dr. Slepian’s home that faced the woods made him “vulnerable.” Kopp spent almost two years on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List before he was captured in France in March 2001. Following a jailhouse confession and an unprecedented one-day trial, Kopp was convicted under state law for second-degree murder and reckless murder with depraved indifference to human life in March 2003. He was sentenced to the maximum penalty of 25 years to life imprisonment. In October 2006, the New York State Court of Appeals affirmed the state conviction, rejecting Kopp’s last-ditch effort to have it overturned.

In addition, Kopp was tried on federal charges for Dr. Slepian’s murder. In January 2007, Kopp was convicted on federal charges of violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act and of using a firearm to commit the murder. In June 2007, Judge Richard Arcara of Federal District Court sentenced Kopp to life in prison for the FACE violation and added a 10-year sentence on the weapons charge.

Additionally, Kopp is the prime suspect in a series of shootings of three Canadian doctors and one American doctor that began in 1994. Each of these sniper shootings, including the murder of Dr. Slepian, occurred in late October or early November, coinciding with the November 11 Remembrance Day in Canada, a holiday that anti-choice activists have appropriated as “Remember the Unborn Children Day.”

1998: The Murder of Clinic Security Guard Robert Sanderson: On January 29, 1998, a bomb exploded in front of the New Woman All Women Health Care clinic in Birmingham, Alabama. The explosion killed the clinic’s security guard, Robert Sanderson, an off-duty police officer, and badly injured nurse Emily Lyons, leaving her nearly blind and with medical bills totaling approximately $750,000. Eric Robert Rudolph was charged with the attack and was also indicted for three bombings in the Atlanta area, including the 1997 bombing of an abortion clinic. After evading law enforcement for five years, Rudolph was captured on May 31, 2003 in his hometown of Murphy, North Carolina. In July 2005, Rudolph entered a plea – avoiding the death penalty – and received two life-term sentences without parole for the Birmingham bombing.

1994: The Murder of Clinic Receptionists Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols: On December 30, 1994, John Salvi opened fire with a rifle in two clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts, and then traveled to Norfolk, Virginia, where he was arrested after allegedly firing 23 shots into another clinic. Two clinic receptionists – Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols – were killed and five others were injured in the rampage. The Brookline and Norfolk clinics had long been the targets of intense anti-choice violence and harassment. In March 1996, Salvi was convicted of the murders.

1994: The Murder of Dr. John Britton and Clinic Escort James Barrett: Reverend Paul Hill, a well-known abortion protestor and director of the anti-choice group Defensive Action, was convicted in 1994 for the murders of Dr. John Britton and 74-year-old clinic escort James Barrett outside a reproductive-health clinic in Pensacola, Florida. The two victims were shot with a 12-gauge shotgun on July 29, 1994. A second escort was wounded. Before the shootings, Hill had been arrested for his anti-choice activity and had repeatedly advocated the use of force. Hill did not appeal his conviction and, in September 2003, he became the first killer of an abortion provider to be executed.

1993: The Murder of Dr. David Gunn: After enduring years of harassment, threats, and clinic blockades, Dr. David Gunn, a physician who provided abortion services, was murdered on March 10, 1993, during an anti-abortion protest at a Pensacola clinic. During the summer of 1992, “wanted” posters featuring Dr. Gunn’s photograph, home telephone number, and schedule were distributed at an Operation Rescue rally in Montgomery, Alabama. Michael Griffin was charged and convicted of the murder and must serve at least 25 years in prison before being eligible for parole.

The Hidden Danger of Anti-Choice Politics

I wrote this article to make a few points. First, to show why abortion clinic buffer zones, which are now under attack by anti-choice legislators, are truly a matter of life and death for the doctors who bravely face harassment, threats, and violence every time they go to work, as well as for the women who seek their care.

While the mainstream movement does not usually directly commit violence, their ties to violent anti-abortion terrorists are unbreakable.

While the mainstream movement does not usually directly commit violence, their ties to violent anti-abortion terrorists are unbreakable.

I also wanted to make clear the violent underpinnings of mainstream anti-choice politics and activism. While anti-choice lawmakers may not directly engage in violence, they are part of the same movement that is responsible for anti-abortion terrorism. In her article, Jill Filopovic describes the relationship between mainstream anti-choice groups and anti-abortion extremism as the “anti-abortion ecosystem.”

“It gives the more mainstream players plausible deniability when violence occurs, while allowing the radical actors to keep pro-choice activists and clinic workers in a state of fear. It’s a multi-pronged onslaught that dismantles abortion rights and terrorizes providers out of working. It’s not a handful of crazies shooting doctors, bombing clinics and blocking healthcare access. Shooting doctors, bombing clinics and blocking healthcare access are all necessary parts of the bigger picture,” Filopivic writes.

Filopovic goes on to explain how the passive acceptance of violence among anti-choice lawmakers contributes to anti-abortion terrorism:

“While clinic workers and pro-choice activists are busy stemming the tides of potential violence, from engaging in clinic defense actions to buying bulletproof vests to seeking out legal protections for providers, antiabortion organizations are also leading the legislative charge in Albuquerque. They’re trying to outlaw certain types of abortion in the city itself, knowing they can’t pass similar measures in the Democrat-dominated state Legislature. Even if they succeed, the legislation is likely unconstitutional; nevertheless, pro-choice advocates will have to spend enormous amounts of money and time fighting it, and the case will likely go on for years before it’s resolved. The Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Ordinance mirrors the national Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, sponsored by prominent Republicans in Congress and championed by the National Right to Life Committee.

Legally requiring that a woman carry a pregnancy to term against her will is in itself an act of violence against the female body. Insisting that doctors are genocidal murderers who must be stopped at any cost incites other acts of violence. Antiabortion political leaders benefit from the fear and anxiety these acts of violence cause.

That’s why antiabortion groups aren’t just trying to change the laws in Albuquerque, they’re protesting at the Holocaust Museum, and using terms like “killers” and “genocide.” That’s why you don’t hear more mainstream antiabortion groups condemning or even criticizing such actions.

Why would they? Terror, violence and harassment may turn off much of the American public, but those tactics work to a point — at a cost that antiabortion groups seem happy to live with.”

This is the terrifying reality of the anti-choice movement. Whether they know it or not, anti-choice activists are participating in a movement propelled by terrorism and murder. The actions of radical anti-abortion groups defy the supposedly “pro-life” motivations of the movement, yet anti-choice activists and legislators still affiliate themselves with these groups. Every time a Republican lawmaker pushes an anti-choice law, or espouses their anti-choice beliefs, they are adding fuel to the fire. And like an uncontrollable wildfire, all it takes is a spark to reignite the destructive flames.

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