One man was charged with threatening to “slaughter and murder” doctors and patients at an abortion clinic in Chicago. Another was arrested in connection with threats against Planned Parenthood and federal agents. A third vandalized a Planned Parenthood office in Pennsylvania, painting a Bible verse in red on a wall.
All this happened in the past month alone. It’s part of what doctors and reproductive rights groups say is a spike in harassment and threats against abortion providers. According to a report by the National Abortion Federation, for example, providers reported 21,252 incidents of online harassment in 2018, compared with 15,773 in 2017.
The rise in harassment coincides with a wave of anti-abortion laws and policies around the country. A number of states have passed near-total abortion bans in recent months, and Tennessee’s state legislature recently held hearings on a measure that would ban abortion as soon as a pregnancy can be detected. Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood on Monday exited the Title X federal funding program rather than comply with a Trump administration rule prohibiting program grantees from performing abortions.
Some doctors and abortion rights advocates see a link between harassment and anti-abortion rhetoric from politicians. For example, Angela Marchin, an OB-GYN in Denver who provides abortions, told Vox that she and her colleagues are seeing more online harassment with “language like ‘ripping babies from wombs just before their due date,’” a reference to a false claim made by President Trump and others that doctors routinely perform abortions while women are in labor.
“The ugly, hateful rhetoric we’re hearing across the country is being fueled by President Trump himself,” said Melanie Roussell Newman, senior vice president of communications and culture for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a statement to Vox.
For Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights advocates, threats and harassment against clinics are part of a larger landscape in which the president and state legislators are spreading misinformation about what abortion providers do, potentially putting them and their patients at risk.
Multiple high-profile threats have come to light this month alone
This summer has seen a spate of high-profile threats and other crimes against abortion providers. Earlier this month, a man broke into a Planned Parenthood health center in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he smashed several windows with bricks and spray-painted graffiti including a Bible verse, authorities told the Associated Press.
The break-in happened late at night, and no one was hurt, Planned Parenthood Keystone, the affiliate in charge of the center, told Vox in a statement. But the following day, “50 patients lost access to care,” the group said. The Wilkes-Barre center provides STI testing and contraception but does not perform surgical abortions.
Also in mid-August, an 18-year-old man named Justin Olsen was charged in connection with allegations of online threats. According to the FBI, Olsen had posted on the meme-sharing site iFunny, as well as on private servers, about mass shootings, harming federal officers, and “assault and/or targeting of Planned Parenthood.” iFunny, a Russian-owned site, is popular with teen boys and has become a “hub for white nationalism,” according to BuzzFeed News.
When arrested, Olsen claimed his posts were a joke, BuzzFeed reported. But authorities seized 15 rifles, 10 semiautomatic pistols, and 10,000 rounds of ammunition from his home.
Then on Monday, a 19-year-old man named Farhan Sheikh was charged in connection with allegations that he also posted threats against an abortion clinic on iFunny. “I will proceed to slaughter and murder any doctor, patient, or visitor i see in the area and I will not back down,” Sheikh posted, according to an FBI affidavit quoted by BuzzFeed. “Consider this a warning for anyone visiting.”
According to court documents, Sheikh also referenced Olsen, saying he had been arrested “for no reason except surpressing us and our freedoms.” Sheikh also insisted, according to the FBI, that his own post was not a joke and “i WILL carry out what i post.”
When federal agents interviewed him, however, Sheikh said the post had been a joke. He now faces up to five years in prison if convicted.
It’s part of a larger trend, and some say the Trump administration is partly to blame
The two men may have been “joking” or trolling when they posted threats on iFunny. But regardless of their intent, the incidents this month are part of a larger trend.
Threats and other harassment against abortion providers have been rising for several years, according to the National Abortion Federation. Providers reported 3,038 incidents of clinic obstruction, in which protesters block access to a clinic, in 2018, up from 1,704 in 2017 and 580 in 2016, according to the NAF’s latest report, published in May. The number of harassing phone calls reported rose from 869 in 2016 to 1,156 in 2017 to 1,388 in 2018.
The rise in harassment comes at a time when anti-abortion laws are sweeping the country, and the president is stepping up his opposition to abortion in public statements. In addition to near-total abortion bans in several states, recent months have seen the president and other members of the Republican Party claim that doctors perform abortions on women during labor, and that abortion providers are killing babies after they are born. Doctors, meanwhile, say that patients do not request abortions during labor and physicians do not provide them, and that there’s no basis for claims of doctors killing babies after they are born — this would, in any case, be murder, and no abortion provider supports it, nor do any abortion laws permit it.
Planned Parenthood announced on Monday that it would leave the Title X program, which provides family planning funding for underserved populations, rather than comply with a Trump administration rule barring grantees from performing or referring for abortions. As Paige Winfield Cunningham noted at the Washington Post, this is a win for Trump, who can now claim that he has successfully “defunded” Planned Parenthood, though the group still gets federal funding through Medicaid.
Some connect the rise in anti-clinic harassment with the stances of the Trump administration.
“It is no coincidence that when the president spends months demonizing abortion providers — when he personally accuses them of murder, when his administration pushes policies meant to punish abortion providers or deny the humanity of the LGBTQ community — that we see young extremists emboldened to publicly incite acts of violence against health care providers or spaces that serve as a safe haven for the LGBTQ community,” Newman, the Planned Parenthood senior vice president, told Vox.
Marchin, the Denver OB-GYN, who is also a fellow with the group Physicians for Reproductive Health, says she’s seen the president’s comments reflected in harassment she and others have received. She began experiencing online harassment earlier this year after she started commenting more publicly on her work providing abortions as well as her experience having the procedure, she told Vox.
And in recent months, “the combination of what people see on TV from our political leaders and the laws that are being introduced and passed in certain states have spread a lot of misinformation” about abortion, she said, and have “probably contributed to some of the language that people use in their harassment.”
In addition to references to “ripping babies from wombs,” she said she and her colleagues have been seeing “a lot of ‘you’re a murderer,’” as well as language around fetal heartbeats she believes is connected to recent state-level bans described by supporters as “heartbeat” laws.
To keep providers and patients safe, the clinics where Marchin works employ measures such as silent alarms, panic buttons, and bulletproof glass. Planned Parenthood Keystone said in its statement that it has “strong measures in place to ensure that our health centers are safe, supportive, environments for all people to receive the high-quality health care they need and deserve.”
The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act specifically prohibits threats or physical obstruction against abortion patients or providers, and similar laws exist at the state level.
But for Marchin, what’s most effective right now is what she calls a “grassroots safety measure”: talking to people about her personal experience and sharing accurate information about abortion.
“These are real women,” she said. “I’m a real person. I am not some demon or some very bad person for wanting to take care of my patients.”