On November 27, 2015, evangelical Christian Robert Dear methodically drove to a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic — asking for directions along the way — entered the building and began shooting with a semi-automatic rifle. He ultimately killed three people and wounded another nine, all before eventually surrendering to police.
In the two years that have followed, Dear — who proclaimed himself a “warrior for the babies” — has yet to be found competent to stand trial, remaining in prison indefinitely while his case is on hold.
But while it has been two years since an anti-abortion extremist murdered staff or patients at a clinic, much has changed in the last year that makes another violent clinic attack nearly inevitable in the future.
In the last few months, there’s been a significant increase in suspicious packages found at locations that perform abortions. In some cases, these have been hoax devices meant to cause fear but not damage. Others, such as a package in Champaign, Illinois, may not have been so benign.
The attempted arson at Women’s Health Practice at the beginning of November and another two weeks later in California suggests that, once more, clinics are under attack as abortion opponents grow bolder with a new, anti-abortion administration at the national helm.
Arson and property damage are just a few ways that abortion opponents are showing they’ve been emboldened under the Trump administration. Trespassing, aggressive harassment and blockades are also on the rise, showing a newfound disdain for federal laws like the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act.
In the spring of 2017, about a dozen activists associated with Operation Save America physically blocked the doors to the only abortion clinic in Louisville, Kentucky, refusing to move until police physically pulled them aside. Then, in September, activists in three states coordinated simultaneous clinic “rescues” in three cities, entering clinics in Michigan, Virginia and New Mexico. They refused to leave the buildings until police arrested them and removed them physically from the premises.
So far, those arrested in the September actions have received only suspended fines and sentences. And organizer Monica Miller of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society announced plans to have a second “red rose rescue” in the future, noting in an email newsletter on November 21 that none of the earlier “rescuers” had been charged with a FACE Act violation.
Meanwhile, even those clinics that did have some protections are seeing them ebb in the first year of the Trump administration. An Engelwood, New Jersey, buffer zone enacted in March of 2014 has now been dismantled less than four years later, with the mere 8-foot buffer deemed “too expansive” and in violation of first amendment rights.
The ruling is one of the first attempts to roll back buffer and bubble zone protections in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision that struck down a Massachusetts buffer zone, with other cases still pending.
Trespassing, harassment, clinic invasions and even arson attempts all show that abortion opponents are escalating their tactics with the belief that we’ve turned a page on how aggressively the Department of Justice will prosecute those who attack abortion clinics, staff and patients.
The FACE Act is only as strong as the willingness of the federal government to charge the individuals who violate it. And without actual jail sentences as a deterrent, protesters will continue to test out the law. Slaps on the wrist only signal that activists who want to break what they believe is an “unjust” law can do so without repercussions, stripping down what little protections clinics currently have.
While those who are working to defang the FACE Act and trespass on clinic property may not be the ones committing acts like arson or murder, they’re still contributing to widespread violence and intimidation.
With mass shootings happening in the US on a regular basis, it’s lucky that we haven’t experienced another situation like the one involving Robert Dear — an abusive, mentally ill, white Christian who unloaded his weapon into an abortion clinic full of patients. Unfortunately, unless police and the judicial system fully defend and prosecute those who violate any laws at abortion clinics, another horrific act of violence will be inevitable.