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Abortion access

Violence and harassment
at U.S. abortion clinics

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Frequent violent protests against abortion clinics, in the form of arson, firebombing, and vandalism, started in the early 1970's in the U.S. after the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade theoretically gave abortion access to all women -- at least during their first trimester.

Then, as now, most of the violence appears to be mainly criminal activities by individual religiously-motivated individuals acting alone. However, cases in the 1990s involving the assassination and attempted murder of abortion providers in both the U.S. and Canada have shown that some perpetrators appear to have been sheltered by a network of sympathizers. That shows a degree of organization and conspiracy.

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Beliefs about abortion and abortion access:

People hold diverse beliefs concerning the ethics of abortion in general and the right of individual women to choose to have an abortion for themselves. Public opinion pollsters and many commentators attempt to squeeze beliefs into only two categories: pro-life and pro-choice. However, as a minimum, there are at least three categories each with many sub-categories to consider:

bullet Pro-life movement: They typically believe that human life -- in the form of an ovum and spermatozoon -- becomes a human person during the process of conception. They are motivated by a strong desire to reduce the number of abortions -- typically by restricting abortion access.
bullet Anti-abortion movement: Individuals in this movement also hold pro-life beliefs. However, they go one step further and feel that acts of violence against abortion clinics are justifiable in order to lower the number of abortions.
bullet The pro-choice movement generally teaches that human life becomes a human person at various stages later in gestation. They view a woman's access to a safe and affordable abortion as a fundamental human right.
bullet More details

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Level of violence and harassment at abortion clinics

One source reported in late 1996, that there has been "over $13 million in damage caused by violent anti-abortion groups since 1982 in over 150 arson attacks, bombings, and shootings." 1

bullet Many pro-choice individuals and groups blame these criminal acts on the most violent extremists in the pro-life movement. Some believe that the violent rhetoric heard from pro-lifers motivates the more radical pro-life fringe to resort to violence.
bullet Many pro-life individuals and groups blame the violence on groups which are quite separate from the pro-life movement -- anti-abortionists who have little regard for human life.

The National Abortion Federation reports "Incidents of Violence and Disruption Against Abortion Providers" in the U.S. and Canada. 2 Their data from 1989 to 2004 is shown below. The number of incidents of picketing is also shown:

  Murders, Attempted Murders Bombing, Arson, Attempted Bombing or Arson Invasion, Assault & Battery, Vandalism, Trespassing, Death Threats, Burglary, Stalking... Hate Mail, Harassing Phone Calls, Bomb Threats... Arrests Made at Blockades Number of Blockades Number of Incidents of Picketing
1989 0 11 66 51 12358 201 72
1990 0 14 60 32 1363 34 45
1991 2 10 83 157 3885 41 292
1992 0 32 221 1481 2580 83 2898
1993 2 20 430 650 1236 66 2279
1994 12 15 143 395 217 25 1407
1995 1 16 142 296 54 5 1356
1996 1 9 102 618 65 7 3932
1997 2 16 205 2908 29 25 7518
1998 3 10 127 946 16 2 8402
1999 0 10 326 1685 5 3 8727
2000 1 5 209 1031 0 4 8478
2001 0 5 7901 435 0 2 9969
2002 0 1 265 302 0 4 10241
2003 0 3 140 331 0 10 11244
20042 0 2 40 130 0 4 3445


  1. Includes 554 Anthrax hoaxes.

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Effects of the FACE law:

The "Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994", the FACE law, was signed into law in 1994. First-time offenders can receive fines of $100,000 and jail sentences of up to one year. In 1994-JUL, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that federal marshals will provide protection to any abortion clinic requesting it. These actions seem to have had a sudden dampening effect on the number of blockades and the number of arrests at blockades. Protestors seem to have changed tactics, and engaged in hate letters, harassing phone calls, bomb threats, etc. There has been a fairly steady rise in the number of incidents of picketing.

The RICO law, which was originally aimed at combating organized crime, has been used against organizers of abortion clinic blockades in the mid 1990's. More recently, RICO has been used against the Pro-Life Rescue League and Operation Rescue.

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Multiple instances of anti-abortion violence in Florida:

Pensacola, FL: This city was a focal point for anti-abortion crime from mid 1984 to mid 1994: 4

bullet 1984-JUN: An abortion clinic was bombed.
bullet 1984-DEC: The same clinic was bombed again.
bullet 1986-MAR: A second clinic was broken into and vandalized; two female employees were assaulted. John Burt, a former member of the KKK, and his daughter were tried and convicted. John Burt became the local leader of Rescue America.
bullet 1993-MAR: Michael Griffin, allegedly a member of Rescue America, assassinated Dr. David Gunn outside an abortion clinic. Griffin's lawyers claimed that Burt had brainwashed Griffin into committing the killing. (There is a consensus among mental health professionals that this sort of "Manchurian Candidate" programming is impossible). Griffin was convicted and given a life sentence.
bullet 1994-JUL: Paul Hill, a former Presbyterian minister and leader in Defensive Action assassinated a physician and bodyguard outside another abortion clinic; he also wounded the wife of the bodyguard. He was sentenced to both life imprisonment on federal charges, and execution on state charges.
bullet 1994-AUG: Five KKK groups demonstrated adjacent to an abortion clinic in Melbourne FL. They were opposed to abortions given to whites; they encourage abortions to persons of other races. They named Hill their hero of the month.

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The "killing season" in Canada and northern New York state:

During the 1990s. late October and early November were referred to as the "killing season" by some abortion-rights advocates. Abortion providers in northern New York state and Canada were attacked on five of the six years from 1994 to 1998:

bullet 1994-NOV-8: Dr. Garson Romalis of Vancouver BC was shot in the leg.
bullet 1995-NOV-10: Dr. Hugh Short of Ancaster ON (Near Hamilton) was shot in the elbow.
bullet 1996: No shootings occurred. 
bullet 1997-OCT-28: A physician in Rochester NY received minor shrapnel wounds.
bullet 1997-NOV-11: Dr Jack Fainman of Winnipeg MN was shot in the shoulder.
bullet 1998-OCT-23: Dr Barnett Slepian from Amherst NY (near Buffalo) was murdered, although the perpetrator claimed that he only wanted to wound the doctor.

All five were shot through a glass window or door at their homes. Rewards totaling $547,000 (about $365,000 in US funds at the time) were offered by Canadian authorities for information leading to the conviction of the person(s) responsible.

Some speculated that the timing of many of the shootings was linked to Remembrance Day, celebrated in Canada on NOV-11, and to Veteran's Day celebrated in the U.S. on the same day. This is an occasion when the country remembers its war dead. The shooter in each case used a rifle, and shot from the rear of the doctors' homes at dusk or in the evening. James Charles Kopp (a.k.a. Atomic Dog) was indicted in 1999-JUN for the murder of Dr. Slepian. He was on the FBI's "10 most wanted Fugitives" list for years until he was arrested in France and returned to the U.S. for trial. It is obvious that Kopp was helped to remain out of sight by an underground group. 

In 2003-MAY, James Kopp was given the maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison for the Slepian murder. Some speculate that Kopp was also responsible for the other "killing season" attempted murders.

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Other violence and harassment in Canada:

Long known for their love of peace and tranquility, Canadians have not been immune to the abortion controversies. In addition to the attempted murders cited above, there were other examples of violence and harassment:

bullet 1990-FEB: A clinic in Vancouver, BC was broken into in 1990; medical equipment was destroyed.
bullet 1992-MAY: An explosion generated by a sophisticated gas weapon leveled the Morgentaler abortion clinic in Toronto, ON.

During the late 1990's, two Canadian pro-life groups lost their charitable status with Revenue Canada, because of excessive political activity. The Roman Catholic church withdrew its funding of some pro-life groups after they started to cause disturbances in the neighborhoods of abortion providers. Attendance at abortion protests now fail to attract large numbers of supporters. They are reduced to the occasional candlelight vigil or peaceful march.

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Bioterrorism scares:

Between 1998 and 2000, more than 80 letters which threatened Anthrax contamination were sent to U.S. clinics in 16 states. Anthrax is a potentially fatal bacteria if its spores are inhaled into the lungs. All of the letters turned out to be hoaxes.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington on 2001-SEP-11, similar Anthrax letters started appearing in political offices and news media in New York, Washington, and other cities. Some letters actually contained the deadly bacteria. In late October, abortion clinics in 13 states throughout the U.S. received about 150 letters marked "Time sensitive security information enclosed" with return addresses from law enforcement groups. They were mailed from five states. Inside was a powder and a death-threat letter allegedly signed by the "Army of God." That group allegedly advocates violence against abortion providers. Heather Herndon, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania said: "I absolutely believe it's the anti-choice extremists who are taking advantage of our national crisis." As of OCT-17, four letters had been given preliminary field tests and had been found to be hoaxes. 5

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Resolution to clinic violence:

Since there appears to be no possibility of compromise on abortion access, the conflict among pro-life, anti-abortion, and pro-choice groups in the U.S. will probably continue into the foreseeable future. This will inspire anti-abortion radicals to continue attacks on people and facilities.

It is to be noted that the essentially all pro-life groups are opposed to violence. Most anti-abortion groups that advocate violence tend to be small, often one-person organizations. Perpetrators of violent crimes often work independently. The U.S. Justice Department has investigated attacks on clinics and has determined that no conspiracy is involved.

The American Life League has written a "Pro-life Proclamation Against Violence" which was endorsed by 31 other pro-life groups by 1999-MAR-13. 6 Neither Rescue League nor Operation Rescue had signed the proclamation.

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California leads nation in violence:

A report prepared by the Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California (PPAC) and quoted in a 2003 California Senate report showed that abortion clinics in that state were torched and bombed more than in any other state: 30 incidences out of 224 crimes nationwide. Most of the clinics in the state who responded reported threats, vandalism, assaults, blockades and other crimes from 1995 to 2000. 30% reported that their personnel was "stalked, harassed, threatened and otherwise targeted at their homes or in other places away from clinics and medical offices." Other states with large numbers of attacks are: Florida with 19, Texas with 14, New York with nine. 7

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Anti-Abortion Violence Movement," Office of International Criminal Justice of the University of Illinois at Chicago at:
  2. National Abortion Federation maintains extensive clinic violence statistics at:
  3. Partial data for 2004, as of 2004-SEP-16.
  4. Naral Fatchseets: "Clinic violence, intimidation and terrorism," at:
  5. Marie McCullough, "Anthrax letters to clinics hoaxes, early tests show," Philadelphia Inquirer, 2001-OCT-17 at:
  6. The text of the Pro-life Proclamation Against Violence is at: The list of agencies that support this proclamation is at:
  7. "Senate Committee on Insurance: AB 996," 2003-MAY-12, at:
  8. Feminist Majority Foundation and New Media Publishing, Inc collects and publishes data on the levels of violence at abortion clinics. See:

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Copyright © 1998 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Last update: 2009-JUN-05
Author: B.A. Robinson


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