A Volatile Time For Clinics That Provide Abortions

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Protests and blockades of clinics that perform abortions are up dramatically around the nation, including Colorado, the first state in the union to pass a law legalizing abortion more than fifty years ago.  

Nearly six years after Colorado legalized abortion, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade and the procedure became legal across the country. Soon after, the National Abortion Federation started compiling statistics on what it calls “violence and disruption” against abortion providers. Vicki Saporta, the group’s president, said last year they saw some alarming numbers.

She said they have seen “trespassing more than triple, death threats and threats of harm nearly double, and incidents of obstruction rose from 580 in 2016 to more than 1700 in 2017.”

The group gets this data from its member clinics, which care for about half of the women who choose abortion each year in the United States.  

“So most likely the activity is even greater than what we report because we only report on a specific segment of abortion providers,” Saporta said.

Additional data is from law enforcement records.  Saporta said there is some nuance to the numbers: while picketing, trespassing and verbal threats have increased there haven’t been any recent incidents of “extreme violence.”

“Meaning no murders or attempted murders, arsons, or bombings,” Saporta said.

She said this extreme violence mostly happens under presidents who support abortion rights. “That is when anti-abortion extremists are most desperate,” she said, “and believe they need to take the law into their own hands.”

Right now she thinks they’re seeing mostly lower level crimes because abortion rights opponents feel they have allies at top levels of the government.

Matt Niedzielski, President of Pikes Peak Citizens for Life
Credit Ali Budner / 91.5 KRCC
Matt Niedzielski, President of Pikes Peak Citizens for Life

Matt Niedzielski is President of Pikes Peak Citizens for Life in Colorado Springs. He believes the reason we have the president that we have could be because the anti-abortion movement has been getting stronger.

By day Niedzielski is a software analyst but he says he’s been active in the anti-abortion movement for 30 years. He said he and members of his group will stand outside of clinics to pray and try to persuade women not to go in for the abortion.

“We actually believe we're reducing violence,” said Niedzielski. “And so in a real sense what's marked in this report as being an increase in disruption is actually a decrease in violence. So we see that as a good thing. We'd love to see that number go even higher.”

But Niedzielski doesn’t condone direct violence or threats. He said it’s not good that anybody is getting a death threat, and he believes there has been violence in both directions, though he said he has never received a death threat himself.

The FBI doesn’t specifically track threats or violence against abortion opponents. However since 1994 it has documented crimes against reproductive health care providers including those who perform abortions.  

Dr. Warren Hern, Founder of the Boulder Abortion Clinic
Credit Ali Budner / 91.5 KRCC
Dr. Warren Hern, Founder of the Boulder Abortion Clinic

Dr. Warren Hern is an example. He’s been receiving death threats since he started performing abortions decades ago.

He said he started sleeping with a rifle by his bed because he thought somebody would try to kill him. “The anti-abortion people made it very clear that they wanted to kill me,” he said.

Hern will be 80 years old this month. He wears square wire-rimmed glasses and plain green scrubs. He’s the founder and main doctor at the Boulder Abortion Clinic.

The clinic is brightly lit inside, filled with plants and framed wildlife photographs. It’s about as calm and comfortable as a place can be that’s surrounded by several layers of bulletproof glass.

One time, he says, someone did shoot a gun right into his clinic. “One of the bullets just barely missed a member of my staff,” said Hern, “and I had just walked through the room."

Hern’s been performing abortions under nine different presidents. But he says today the political climate is particularly bad.

“The anti-abortion fanatics control all three branches of the federal government,” he said. “Particularly the Presidency and the Congress. And they're working on more complete control of the U.S. Supreme Court.”

He agrees this could explain the recent downtick in bombings and murder attempts on abortion providers. Still, he said he never relaxes.  

“The anti-abortion movement has made it very clear that they will accept any level of violence to impose their views on the rest of us,” Hern said. “They will stop at nothing including assassination. And just because it hasn't happened for a while doesn't mean it can't happen today or tomorrow or this afternoon.”

For his part, Matt Niedzielski rejects being characterized as a fanatic or an extremist.

He said the anti-abortion movement has been against violence all the time. “That's not to say,” he said, “that there aren't certain people that through passions one way or another end up falling into something.”

Since Roe v Wade there’ve been a number bombings and arson attacks of clinics that perform abortions. Eleven people have been murdered, the most recent in 2015.  Three people were shot and killed at the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs. The shooter was recently declared unfit to stand trial again as he remains mentally incompetent.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.