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Nationwide, Severe Violence Affects One in Five Abortion Clinics: Survey Finds Lower Violence Where Law Enforcement is Strong

A potential anti-abortion assassin escapes from prison and becomes the subject of a nationwide investigation. Two vehicles emblazoned with anti-abortion posters are stopped for a traffic violation; local law enforcement officials discover an arsenal of weapons and cache of ammunition. These two incidents occurred within just one week in early 2001. Anti-abortion violence and harassment at women’s health clinics persists.

In the year 2000, one in five women’s health clinics reported one or more types of severe violence, a figure identical to 1999, suggesting that severe clinic violence has not abated but rather, reached a plateau at abortion clinics nationwide. As measured in the Feminist Majority Foundation’s eighth annual National Clinic Violence Survey, severe violence included blockades, invasions, bombings, arsons, chemical attacks, stalking, gunfire, physical assaults, and threats of death, bomb, or arson. The 20 percent figure in 2000 and 1999 represents a dramatic decline from 1994 when severe violence affected 52 percent of all clinics (Chart 1).

“Severe anti-abortion violence, in its many forms, remains an enduring problem,” declared Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, “While the anti-abortion extremists continue to wage their war of attrition against clinics, we recognize that the future of safe access to abortion remains a pressing question.”

The 2000 survey – which remains the most comprehensive study of its kind – included a sample of 361 total clinics from every state. The most commonly reported type of severe violence was a bomb threat, yet the percentage of clinics reporting bomb threats has dropped from 13 percent in 1999 to 7 percent in 2000. A subset of clinics continues to be targeted by stalking (6 percent), death threats (5 percent), and blockades (5 percent).

Violence, Leafleting, and Threatening Speech Frequently Occur Together

Clinics that experienced threatening speech (such as “Wanted” posters and internet harassment) and anti-abortion leafleting suffered nearly double the violence compared with clinics free from leafleting or threatening speech. Specifically, of those clinics that reported threatening speech or leafleting, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) also reported violence, harassment, and intimidation. Conversely, of those clinics that did not report threatening speech or leafleting, far fewer (38 percent) clinics reported violence.

Lower Violence Where Law Enforcement is Rated Best

As in 1999, a solid majority of clinics rated the law enforcement response to violence as excellent. Of those clinics that had contact with local law enforcement about clinic violence, 60 percent rated their response as excellent, a figure similar to 1999 when 65 percent of clinics also awarded excellent ratings to local law enforcement. Federal law enforcement officials saw an increase in their excellent ratings, from 60 percent in 1999 to 66 percent in 2000.

Importantly, excellent local law enforcement ratings were associated with less violence at clinics (Chart 2). Of those clinics that rated local law enforcement as excellent, 60 percent were free from violence and only 16 percent reported high violence. By contrast, nearly half (46 percent) of the clinics that rated local law enforcement as poor faced high violence, compared with 15 percent that reported no violence.

“Clinic violence has decreased dramatically in the past six years,” noted Smeal. “We know from our data that decreases in violence are closely connected with the law enforcement response and deterrent measures by clinics and the pro-choice community. The federal FACE Act, court decisions protecting clinic access, and pro-choice groups’ efforts—especially the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project—have made a tremendous difference. But with one in five clinics still reporting severe violence, the efforts of law enforcement and the pro-choice community

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