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1997 Clinic Violence Survey Report



The Feminist Majority conducted the first National Clinic Violence Survey in 1993 in the wake of the murder of Dr. David Gunn and the dramatic escalation in the intensity of violence at clinics which we had begun to see in late 1992 and early 1993. In 1994, another doctor was murdered as well as a volunteer clinic escort and two clinic receptionists. Death threats and stalking reached all-time highs. In response to this siege of the nation's women's health clinics, the pro-choice community mobilized heavily, winning passage of the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) by Congress, working with clinics to heighten security, and working with law enforcement at all levels to ensure vigorous enforcement of FACE and state and local laws.

Throughout the five years of our National Clinic Violence Survey, an unacceptable number of clinics have continued to experience violence. The number of clinics experiencing severe violence, however, has gone from a high of one half of clinics in 1993 to one fourth in 1997. Anti-abortion violence peaked in 1994, with 51.9% of all clinics reporting severe violence. By 1995, this number had dropped to 38.9%, and, by 1996, the level was 27.6%. In its fifth year, the survey reports the lowest number of clinics experiencing severe violence -- 24.8% of clinics in 1997.

Disturbingly, the proportion of the most besieged clinics increased slightly in 1997, for the first time since 1994. The pattern is clear. Anti-abortion violence is becoming more concentrated among a small number of clinics, with a segment of clinics subjected to multiple types of severe violence day-in and day-out. Personnel at these clinics are routinely being threatened, their children stalked, their pets murdered, and their property damaged.

Anti-abortion extremists are waging a national campaign of attrition. This strategy targets one set of clinics and health care workers today. Then, after these clinics perish or the health care workers quit, extremists move on to target another set of clinics. Anti-abortion violence has caused some clinics to close and some clinic staff to quit. Again, the efforts of pro-choice organizations and law enforcement have begun to minimize this outcome. In 1993, 1 in 5 clinics had staff members resign because of clinic violence. Staff quit levels were cut to 1 in 10 in 1994 and 1995, and dropped even further to about 1 in 25 in 1996. We are concerned to see even a slight increase in staff leaving clinics in 1997. Our data have shown consistently that good law enforcement response to clinic violence is key to the retention of clinic staff.

As a result of vigilance on the part of feminist advocates, abortion providers, and law enforcement, anti-abortion violence has significantly diminished in the five-year period of 1993-1997, with an increasing number of clinics reporting no violence. The percentage of clinics experiencing no violence, harassment, or intimidation has doubled over the past four years. In 1997, almost two-thirds of clinics reported no violence; only one third of clinics in 1994 were free from violence.

Tougher penalties resulting from FACE and the increased involvement of federal law enforcement officials as a result of FACE have played an important role in reducing threats to the lives of clinic workers. Death threats which were reported by 24.8% of clinics in 1994 were reported by only 5% in 1997. Similarly, in 1994, 17.8% said clinic workers and/or their family members were being stalked by anti-abortion extremists. The percentage of clinics which report stalking also declined to 5% in 1997.

The annual surveys have shown year after year that law enforcement response is absolutely crucial to the reduction of violence. For several years, our survey has reported on the statistically significant correlation between law enforcement response and most types of violence. Law enforcement response is particularly important at the local level. Our data show, and it makes empirical sense, that clinics interact more with local law enforcement than with federal or state authorities. Since 1995, we have seen improvements in all levels of law enforcement.

Over the past five years, the survey has documented shifts in anti-abortion strategies of violence, harassment, and intimidation. The most significant shift has been away from blockades and invasions at clinics and towards violent attacks and threats directed at abortion providers. Blockades and invasions have continued to decline, largely in response to passage of FACE as well as effective pro-choice strategies of outnumbering protesters and working with law enforcement to keep clinics open. Between 1993 and 1994 -- a period in which 6 physicians and clinic workers were murdered -- the survey verified the dramatic increase in death threats and stalking, which often have been the precursors to shootings.

Arsons, arson threats, bombings, and bomb threats represent an enduring threat to clinics. In fact, in the wake of the series of anti-abortion bombings in 1997, bomb threats have become one of the most prevalent anti-abortion strategies. In 1997, bomb threats and vandalism were the most common types of violence reported by clinics. The 1997 survey for the first time since 1995 found increases in arson threats, bomb threats, arson, and gunfire. And, these numbers do not even include the clinics bombed or those experiencing arson last year who were unable to participate in the survey.

As stated earlier, FACE has made a major difference in reducing clinic violence. The number of clinics which report FACE violations is an important index of violence at clinics. Even though FACE had been in effect for only five months in 1994 when our second annual clinic was conducted, 16.6% of clinics contacted federal officials about FACE violations that year. The number of clinics reporting FACE violations climbed to 20% in 1995, with one out of five clinics reporting FACE violations to federal officials. Between 1995 and 1996, the number of FACE reports plummeted to 7.7%. In 1997, FACE reports again increased to 12.7% of clinics.

FACE enforcement has shown marked improvement over the law's three years. Federal officials have responded to clinic reports of FACE violations more aggressively and have become less likely to automatically shift responsibility for dealing with clinic violence to local authorities. Still, a number of possible FACE violations continue without investigation, prosecution, or penalty.

As we conclude our fifth annual National Clinic Violence Survey, we are heartened by the continued decreases in violence, which can be attributed in large part to improved law enforcement, increased security at clinics, and our work and that of our abortion rights colleagues. At the same time, the results of the 1997 survey are in some respects a rude awakening. Increases in the proportion of clinics experiencing multiple types of violence, increases in clinic staff resignations, increases in several types of violence, and slight decreases in local law enforcement response -- along with the virtual standstill in the overall level of violence -- are a clarion call to the pro-choice community, clinics, and law enforcement that in 1998 we must redouble our efforts to end this reign of domestic terrorism at clinics.