On the anniversary of the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, advocates for abortion access fear that an increase in anti-abortion violence will be met with limited enforcement by the Trump administration, which has shown unprecedented support for restricting abortion access.
Signed into law by President Bill Clinton on May 26, 1994, the FACE Act helps to curb violence against abortion providers, clinics, staff and patients. The FACE Act criminalizes the use of force, the threat of force, or physical obstruction to intimidate, harm, or prevent someone from obtaining or providing reproductive health services. The law was passed during a surge of violence against reproductive healthcare providers in the 1990’s that culminated in the murder of Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola, Florida on March 10, 1993.
Following Dr. Gunn’s death, Dr. George Tiller was shot on August 19, 1993 by Shelly Shannon, who has been called a “soldier” in the “Army of God,” an anti-abortion extremist group that claimed the killing of abortion providers as the only method to end abortion. The following July, Dr. John Bayard Britton and volunteer clinic escort Lt Col. James Barrett were murdered by anti-abortion extremist Paul Hill. On December 30, 1994 John Salvi shot and killed Planned Parenthood receptionist Shannon Lowney then drove to a second clinic, and killed receptionist Leanne Nichols in Brookeline, Massachusetts. He wounded five others before driving to Norfolk, Virginia where he opened fire on a third abortion clinic. In 1995, Dr. Hugh Short was shot through a window in his home by a sniper using a high-powered rifle.
Clinic bombings, assassination attempts, and brutal attacks continued throughout the 1990’s, until declining in the wake of the FACE Act. Then, on May 31, 2009, Dr. George Tiller, a longtime target of anti-abortion extremists, was killed by a single gunshot to his head as he was attending church services.
From 2014 to 2016, threats and violence against abortion providers skyrocketed, from impacting 19.7 percent of clinics in 2014 to 34.2 percent of clinics in 2016.
Anti-abortion extremists appear to be emboldened after the election of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. In April 2017, an abortion clinic in Northern Virginia was targeted with an explosion of fireworks in the building’s elevator as well as a note on the door that read “bomb,” forcing the facility to be evacuated twice in one day. At Kentucky’s last abortion clinic, ten anti-abortion extremists – led by Rusty Thomas of Operation Save America – were arrested for creating a human chain and blockading the front door, in defiance of the FACE Act.
Operation Save America targeted the Kentucky clinic as part of its campaign to demand state legislators close the last clinic in the state. This summer, Operation Save America and other anti-abortion extremists plan to descend on the Louisville, Kentucky clinic for a week of protests that could lead to more blockades.
As the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is tasked with enforcing the FACE Act. As a Senator, Sessions has repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to undermine the right to abortion through legislation, putting him well out of the mainstream, as evidenced by the support he received from anti-abortion extremist Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue. During his confirmation hearing, Sessions refused to disavow Newman’s endorsement. Many reproductive rights advocates have expressed grave concerns about his ability to separate personal ideology from legal obligations as Attorney General.
Because of the Trump administration’s anti-abortion actions – including Trump’s statement that there should be “some form of punishment” for women seeking abortion, Pence’s keynote speech at the March for Life, and the administration’s expansion of the Global Gag Rule – many feminists are concerned about future enforcement of the FACE Act.
As harassment, threats, and violence against abortion clinics increases, the FACE Act is needed now more than ever to hold lawbreakers accountable. Robust enforcement of the FACE Act helps to ensure every person can access reproductive health services safely.