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Poll: Most Americans think attacks on abortion clinics are “domestic terrorism"

Even before the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting last week, most Americans believed that attacks on abortion clinics should be considered domestic terrorism.

Ultraviolet Domestic Terrorism Poll shared exclusively with Vox asked respondents about the "attacks against Planned Parenthood clinics in five states, including arson, destruction of property, and firebombing" that had happened since July. The poll predates the Colorado shooting and was conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP) and commissioned by Ultraviolet, a women's rights advocacy organization.

The survey found that 67 percent of Americans think those clinic attacks are domestic terrorism. More Democrats (77 percent) called the attacks domestic terrorism than either Republicans (54 percent) or independents (66 percent), but a majority of Republicans still said yes.

Why it matters if we call abortion clinic violence domestic terrorism

When the poll was conducted, the country was already experiencing a surge of increased violence and threats against abortion providers, following the release of doctored videos accusing Planned Parenthood of "selling baby parts."

"I do think the frequency in this short period of time has raised people's consciousness about the severity of the threat," said Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of Ultraviolet.

But abortion providers and clinics have been under siege for longer than that. Since 1976, there have been more than 200 arsons and bombings at clinics, 11 murders of abortion providers, and 26 attempted murders, according to the National Abortion Federation.

Pro-choice advocates have always seen these attacks as a form of domestic terrorism. They say it meets the FBI's definition to the letter: dangerous, illegal acts that "intimidate or coerce a civilian population."

That's why, two days before the Colorado Springs shooting, NARAL Pro-Choice America petitioned the Obama administration to have the Department of Justice categorize and investigate these kinds of attacks as domestic terrorism.

"These actions are intended to scare women away from seeking an abortion. It fit the bill even before the awful, awful incident Friday in Colorado," Sasha Bruce, NARAL's senior vice president for campaigns and strategy, told Vox earlier this week.

"They know they're terrorists, we know they're terrorists," David S. Cohen, a law professor at Drexel University and co-author of the book Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism, told Vox. "The worst of the worst, they know that's what they're doing. They're brazen."

Cohen pointed to Clayton Lee Waagner, who was convicted of sending fake anthrax letters to abortion providers and who said in court, "It's been clearly demonstrated that I am the anti-abortion extremist, a terrorist to the abortion industry. There's no question there that I terrorized these people any way I could."

But too often, advocates say, the media and law enforcement don't necessarily connect the dots with regard to attacks on abortion providers. The perpetrators may not all come from a single organized group, but they all share an extreme anti-abortion ideology and use the same tactics — arson, targeted vandalism, stalking doctors, shooting clinic workers. And some of them do come from organized groups, like Army of God or Operation Rescue.

How calling these attacks domestic terrorism could change things

Ultraviolet's poll also asked whether the FBI should investigate attacks on abortion providers, and 79 percent of respondents said yes. The FBI already does investigate these attacks, but some advocates want the FBI and DOJ to investigate and prosecute them specifically as domestic terrorism.

This would help ensure that "the government is calling it what it is, and not letting these incidents seem like they're isolated lone-gunman incidents," Bruce said. She added that it would make use of the government's resources and expertise on domestic terrorism, and ensure that terrorism charges could be added to other criminal charges. Thomas argued that having the DOJ investigate these incidents as domestic terrorism would "elevate the level of investigation" and help law enforcement agents see patterns in the attacks, especially across state lines.

There's some concern that publicly labeling clinic attacks as terrorism could scare patients, but on balance advocates think patients would feel safer knowing that the government is taking these acts seriously and investigating the systematic links between them, rather than responding after the fact.

While pro-choice advocates are united in the opinion that these attacks are domestic terrorism, there isn't a clear agreement on what should be done about it tactically. "The unit that specializes in the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, this is their expertise, they know what they're doing," Cohen, the Drexel law professor, said. National Abortion Federation president Vicki Saporta works closely with the DOJ to report threats and attacks, and she thinks it would be a bad idea to actually move these investigations into the domestic terrorism division and out of the FBI unit that currently specializes in investigating them.

"We have gotten attention from the civil rights division. The task force is there. They take the threats we’ve given them seriously; they conduct investigations," Saporta told Slate. "That said, I think more needs to be done. But I don’t think that we necessarily want to go to another division where they’re not familiar with our issues and cases and where we wouldn’t get as high a priority in terms of investigations and would be competing for scarce resources with all the other kinds of domestic terrorism threats that might be prioritized."

Cohen added that it's more important for the media and society to see these attacks for what they are — and that includes public acknowledgement from the government: "It would be wonderful for [Attorney General] Loretta Lynch and others in the Department of Justice to come out on the record calling this terrorism." He also said the government should "track" these attacks in the context of other domestic terrorism. "If the government is not thinking of this within the entire spectrum of terrorism, they may not see commonalities and overlaps with other terrorist organizations," Cohen said.

This is the bottom line for pro-choice advocates: However they do it, the government needs to publicly acknowledge these attacks as domestic terrorism.

"The effort is to get them to say something definitively in a public way," said Bruce. "Just knowing they are taking a serious look at these crimes over the summer as potential acts of domestic terrorism is what we want to hear from our government."