New study reports on attacks against US abortion clinics

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Crime and violence against abortion clinics are no longer in the headlines, but that doesn't mean they no longer happen. A new study reports on the ongoing vandalism and harassment that are part of the job for those who work in many abortion clinics across the United States.

The study is the first to assess the impact of state laws protecting abortion rights and abortion providers on crimes against clinics, staff and patients. Surprisingly, the researchers found that state legislation designed to protect abortion clinics has had no effect on anti-abortion violence.

William Pridemore, associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Indiana University Bloomington, and Associate Professor Joshua Freilich of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York are co-authors of a report on the study's results. The report has been accepted for publication in the journal Law and Human Behavior.

During a wave of anti-abortion violence in the early 1990s, several states enacted legislation protecting abortion clinics, staff and patients. Some experts predicted that these laws would provide a deterrent effect, resulting in fewer anti-abortion crimes. Others predicted a backlash from radical members of the anti-abortion movement, leading to more crimes in states with protective legislation.

"We tested these competing hypotheses and found no support for either one," Pridemore said. "In other words, states with laws protecting abortion clinics and reproductive rights are no more or less likely than other states to have higher or lower levels of victimization against abortion clinics, staff or patients."

He pointed out that there are still valid reasons to have such laws. "For example, state laws protecting abortion clinics and reproductive rights provide constitutional support for a woman's right to choose and retributive justice for those who employ violence or intimidation to discourage the exercise of this right," he said.

Statistical analysis of survey forms returned by 361 abortion clinics in 48 states revealed that 7 percent and 9 percent of the clinics (or their medical or support staff) were the targets of major or minor violence, respectively, and that 7 percent had major vandalism, 27 percent had minor vandalism and 44 percent experienced harassment. Because of this continual threat, some providers have stopped performing abortions, Pridemore said.

To assure anonymity, identifying data on specific clinics were removed before the information was given to the researchers. "We had data from six clinics in Indiana," Pridemore said. "Among these six, two reported acts of minor violence, two reported acts of minor vandalism and five reported being the targets of harassment."

Abortion is one of the most contentious social issues in the United States, but little research has been done on the illicit aspects of anti-abortion politics such as crime and violence, he said. The new study is part of a larger ongoing project on the formation, evolution, culture and various illegal acts of far-right groups and related social movements.

The execution of Paul Hill in September 2003 made newspaper headlines across the United States. Hill received the death penalty for what he deemed "justifiable homicide": the shooting deaths in 1994 of a Florida doctor who performed abortions and the man who drove the doctor to the clinic.

"Hill's crime occurred at the height of a wave of violent attacks against abortion clinics and staff and of concerted efforts throughout the nation by anti-abortionists to harass and intimidate clinic staff and patients," Pridemore said.

Various responses at the federal level soon followed, including the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act and the Madsen v. Women's Health Inc. decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of clinics to establish buffer zones to protect staff and patients from harassment. In some states this federal response was accompanied by laws that criminalized violence, vandalism, intimidation and other forms of harassment of abortion clinics, staff and patients.

"Those who claim a deterrent effect for state legislation point to the decrease in violence and harassment following federal actions in 1994 and state legislation throughout the country," Pridemore said. "Others argue that those carrying out violent attacks against clinics represent the radical wing of the anti-abortion movement that is more concerned about their cause than about breaking laws. Not only are they unlikely to be deterred, but they may respond to these statutes with continued or increased violence and harassment, since they perceive they are losing a battle that to them is about life and death itself."

The study analyzed data from the Feminist Majority Foundation's 2000 National Clinic Violence Survey Report. For the survey, carried out at the end of 2000, FMF mailed forms to 798 abortion providers in all 50 states. The response rate was 45 percent. The 2000 report was used because the survey was done in the same year as the decennial census, allowing better measures of other state characteristics in the same year as the victimization data. All of the FMF reports can be seen at http://www.feminist.org/rrights/clinicsurvey.html.

"While organizations such as the National Abortion Federation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also collect information on crimes against clinics, the FMF annual survey provides the most extensive information on victimization and intimidation of abortion clinics and staff of any source in the nation and is the most comprehensive publicly available data set on this topic," Pridemore said.

The reported victimizations involved many forms of violence, harassment and intimidation, including physical violence, bombing, arson, death threats, bomb threats, facility invasion, burglary, break-ins, broken windows, glue in locks, nails in driveways, graffiti, clinic blockades, stalking of staff or physicians, home picketing, posting of "wanted" posters and harassment via the Internet.

Abortion-related crime and violence have a broad array of consequences, Pridemore said. In addition to direct harm to victims and physical damage to clinics, these politically motivated crimes intentionally create a climate of fear that affects abortion providers across the nation.

Because of the resulting physical threat and emotional toll, some providers have stopped performing abortions, reducing the availability of the option of abortion for many women. Eighty-seven percent of U.S. counties, representing more than one-third of the female population aged 15-44, have no abortion providers, and 31 percent of the nation's metropolitan areas do not have a provider, Pridemore said.

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William Pridemore can be reached at 812-856-2220 and wpridemo@indiana.edu. Joshua Freilich can be reached at 212-237-8668 and jfreilic@jjay.cuny.edu. For assistance in reaching either person, contact Hal Kibbey at 812-855-0074 and hkibbey@indiana.edu.


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