by Christian F. Nunes and Eleanor Smeal
Political violence as a tool for achieving political goals is on the rise, particularly when it comes to abortion. We’ve seen this before with S.B. 8 in Texas, a law that codifies vigilante anti-abortion extremism, and we’re seeing it again with the Mississippi abortion ban case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, now before the Supreme Court.
Mississippi argues that access to abortion is not a right, but a “controversy” for which individual states should be able to apply their own rules. But the evidence is clear that from the beginning, anti-abortion extremists have used violence as a deliberate strategy to reduce and eliminate abortion access.
These strategies don’t involve peaceful protesting, rather we’re seeing death threats, harassment and violence – often with racist undertones. The controversy here isn’t abortion, it’s the extremists harassing, stalking, threatening, and killing people, and making women walk the gauntlet to get into a clinic. THAT is the act of extremism. And that is what the highest court in our land must renounce.
A ruling against abortion rights in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization could undermine the bedrock principle that violence has no place in our political discourse, adding to the rising influence of those who proclaim that political violence works.
But as this case shows, it worked in Mississippi.
In the years following Roe, anti-abortion extremists waged a campaign that included stalking, intimidation, and violence against doctors who provided abortion care. As a result, Mississippi went from 14 clinics in 1981 to only 1 remaining clinic today—the Jackson Women’s Health Organization. There, anti-abortion extremists masquerade as clinic volunteers, wearing decoy “escort” vests and taking down license plates to further harass clients.
In a recent national clinic violence survey conducted by Feminist Majority Foundation, 52% of responding clinics experienced targeted threats and intimidation, including stalking, harassing, and more. According to the National Abortion Federation, violent incidents at abortion clinics more than doubled in just one year, from 521 incidents in 2016 to 1,081 in 2017. In 2019, the most recent year complete figures were published, there were 1,724 acts of violence at abortion clinics.
All told, from 1977 to 2019, acts of anti-abortion violence included at least 12 murders, 26 attempted murders, and at least 756 threats of harm or death, 620 stalking incidents, and four kidnappings. Crimes directed at clinic facilities have included at least 42 bombings, 189 arsons, 100 attempted bombings or arsons, and 662 bomb threats.
That’s why a historic coalition of women’s rights, civil rights, human rights, and reproductive justice groups, including the Feminist Majority Foundation and the National Organization for Women (NOW) Foundation, filed an amicus brief in this case that directly speaks to the rise in violence as a means of advancing a dangerous political agenda.
The Supreme Court must not ignore the history of violence and threats against abortion care providers and their patients. A verdict against abortion rights will be seen as a reward to the extremists who will use the ruling to justify their violent acts and undermine the rule of law.
It would be tantamount to granting permission to the worst elements of a vocal minority to do their worst—no questions asked.
Overturning Roe or limiting the constitutional right to abortion is not about women’s health. It’s about politicians seeking to deny women bodily autonomy and exert control over their future. The ease with which violent vigilantism is accepted as part of the “controversy” is cause for alarm—and decisive action.
The appearance of violence by a vocal minority feeds the fabricated controversy over abortion, regardless of longstanding public support. The bottom line is that abortion is a constitutional right, one in which states do not need to meddle. The Supreme Court must rule against the Mississippi abortion ban— and for the rule of law.
Christian F. Nunes is the president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and Eleanor Smeal is the co-founder and president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.