How to Deter Anti-Abortion Terrorism - Pacific Standard

How to Deter Anti-Abortion Terrorism

Unfortunately, America has three decades' worth of experience with clinic violence, so we know what works.
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A member of the Colorado Springs sheriff's department secures the scene during last week's tragedy near a Planned Parenthood facility. (Photo: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

A member of the Colorado Springs sheriff's department secures the scene during last week's tragedy near a Planned Parenthood facility. (Photo: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

On Friday, a gunman killed two civilians and one police officer at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. The shooting renewed attention to domestic terrorism targeting abortion and reproductive health clinics, as news media reported the shooter said, "No more baby parts" while being arrested. (Officials are still investigating the gunman's motive.)

A good number of clinics—nearly one in five, in 2014—report being targeted for bombing, arson, doctor stalking, and other forms of severe violence every year. Luckily, decades of research has taught us quite a bit about such terrorism, and history shows what may have helped prompt historical declines in the anti-abortion movement's deadliest activity.

Here are five things we know from research into clinic shooters, bombers, and arsonists, including how to deter them:

1. CLINIC VIOLENCE COULD HAPPEN ANYWHERE

One study, based on data from 2000, tried to determine what characteristics in a given state made its clinics more likely to be targets of violence. Did it matter whether women in the state were more empowered? What about whether the state was more religious than average?

None of the characteristics researchers studied helped explain acts of major violence, including bombing, arson, and death threats. Our takeaway: This could happen anywhere.

2. VIOLENCE PREVENTS ONLY A SMALL NUMBER OF ABORTIONS, AND INCREASES THE "TIME, MONEY, AND PSYCHIC COSTS OF OBTAINING AN ABORTION"

That's according to a 2009 study, which found that, after an attack on a clinic, births increased by one percent in the surrounding area. In this case, it seems violence doesn't work for the terrorists' aims.

3. DEADLY ANTI-ABORTION TERRORISM HAS BEEN A PROBLEM IN AMERICA FOR A LONG TIME, AND IT USED TO BE MUCH WORSE

In 1988, the RAND Corporation published a study identifying anti-abortion terrorism as "a relatively new phenomenon"—but a potent one. In 1984 and 1985, anti-abortion extremists accounted for nearly half of all domestic terrorism acts in the United States. In the 1990s, there was a spate of killings of doctors who provided abortions. But after that, the murders generally stopped, with the exception of the murder of George Tiller in 2009.

4. STRONG, PUBLIC PUNISHMENT MAY HELP DETER ANTI-ABORTION TERRORISTS

What stopped the anti-abortion terrorists? In an op-ed in the Washington Post, American culture and political researcher Jon Shields credits the killers' imprisonment and the scattering of their supporters.

The 1988 RAND study cites similar factors for a historical dip—to 28 percent—in the proportion of American domestic terrorism motivated by anti-abortion beliefs:

The decline in the number of attacks against abortion clinics in 1986 may be related to the arrests and highly publicized trials and convictions of anti-abortion activists in Pensacola, Florida, and the Washington, D.C., area. ... The decline of attacks on abortion clinics may also have been influenced by a public plea made to [clinic bomber Dennis] Malvasi by New York's Cardinal John O'Connor, who termed the bombings 'completely contradictory to the fundamental teachings of our Catholic faith.'

5. LEGAL PROTECTIONS HELPED TOO

In the midst of the murder of physicians in the '90s, President Bill Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which made it a federal crime to use force, the threat of force, or physical obstruction to prevent people from getting services from a reproductive-health clinic. A U.S. Government Accountability Office analysis, published in 1998, found that, in the years after the act, clinics reported experiencing less violence.

Americans of all stripes should never want a shooting like the one in Colorado Springs to happen again—nor should they advocate for acts of non-deadly vandalism against clinics, like break-ins or off-hours arson. Rather, we need to keep condemning, and punishing, these homegrown terrorists.

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