Anti-abortion extremist Michael John Harris pled guilty on Wednesday to threatening to kill staff, patients, and doctors at two Minnesota reproductive health clinics.
Harris admitted to making threats via telephone to the clinics in order to intimidate people wishing to obtain or provide reproductive health services. He faces a maximum prison sentence of one year for each count.
Harris made the threats in May of 2014. In his first call, he threatened to kill the person on the receiving end of the call with his bare hands and then cut off that person’s head with a band saw. In a call to the second clinic, Harris terrorized clinic staff by threatening to kill the person who answered the phone and warning he would travel to the clinic and shoot everyone inside.
Asserting Harris’ threat constituted “a serious attack on an important right guaranteed by law,” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division promised the Department would “continue to vigorously prosecute those who seek to interfere with access to reproductive health care.”
“Threatening the lives of health care workers is not a legitimate means of voicing dissent,” added U.S. Attorney Andrew M. Luger of the District of Minnesota. “Today’s guilty plea serves as an important reminder that our disagreements cannot devolve into violent threats.”
Unfortunately, harassment and threats of violence against abortion providers is nothing new. In 2015, the Feminist Majority Foundation released the results of a nationwide clinic violence survey that found the percentage of abortion clinics experiencing violence and intimidation nearly doubled between 2010 and 2014, increasing from 26.6 percent to 51.9 percent.
Threats and intimidation of abortion providers has also escalated in the wake of the release of deceptive, highly-edited videos, created by the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress, which falsely accused Planned Parenthood of illegally selling fetal tissue.
In November, anti-abortion extremist Robert Lewis Dear shot and killed three people at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic and injured nine others. According to news accounts, after his arrest, Dear told law enforcement, ‘no more baby parts,’ widely believed to be a reference to the videos. Then in December, another anti-abortion extremist was indicted for threatening to kill an executive of the biotech firm that was featured in the videos.
Even though the videos have now been thoroughly debunked, a House Select Investigative Panel – formed after the release of the videos to investigate abortion providers – is continuing its investigation. The Panel held its first hearing just this week, and Chairwoman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) has subpoenaed healthcare providers, research institutions, and others, in an attempt to force them to disclose the names of doctors, medical students, and other personnel, a move that Ranking Member Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) notes could “put people’s lives at risk,” given the escalation of violence.
“Despite numerous U.S. House and state investigations finding no wrongdoing on the part of Planned Parenthood regarding claims of highly misleading videos, the majority of the House Select Investigative Panel is continuing its one-sided hearings and investigation against abortion providers,” said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal. “Meanwhile, the House Panel has ignored the activities of anti-abortion extremists who use violence, harassment, and intimidation to terrorize patients who use, and doctors, staff, and clinic escorts who are providing, full comprehensive reproductive health care.”
The Feminist Majority Foundation has called on the House Panel to either redirect its investigation to anti-abortion violence, harassment, and intimidation, or to disband.