Lawmakers debate violence against abortion clinics, anti-abortion pregnancy centers
ST LOUIS, MO – MAY 28: The exterior of a Planned Parenthood Reproductive Health Services Center is seen on May 28, 2019 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Republicans at a U.S. House hearing aired frustration with the Department of Justice this week for what they contended is a lack of enforcement of a Clinton-era law that protects access to reproductive health care at anti-abortion pregnancy centers and abortion clinics.
GOP lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee expressed anger the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. attorneys don’t bring more charges against people who vandalize, graffiti, or burn down anti-abortion facilities, often known as crisis pregnancy centers.
Democrats on the GOP-controlled subcommittee that held the hearing contended health care clinics that provide abortion services face the greater danger and that U.S. lawmakers should condemn acts of violence regardless of whether they are aimed at anti-abortion pregnancy centers or abortion facilities.
“Violence, threats and intimidation tactics should have no place in our political discourse, including in our nation’s ongoing debate over abortion access,” said Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, the ranking member on the panel.
“We must condemn all political violence and threats of violence, whatever the beliefs or motivations of those who engage in it and regardless of who the target may be,” she added.
Scanlon chided her GOP colleagues during the hearing for focusing their questions and inviting witnesses based on their belief the Biden administration isn’t doing all it could to prosecute people who attack anti-abortion pregnancy centers under a federal law known as the FACE Act.
“By convening a hearing that inflames grievances and amplifies misinformation concerning the prevalence of violence against anti-abortion forces, this hearing does not advance our congressional duty to protect and preserve our democracy,” Scanlon said.
The FACE Act, which stands for Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances, was enacted in 1994 and made it a federal crime to injure, intimidate, or interfere with someone seeking access to reproductive health care services or someone performing reproductive health care services.
Damaging or destroying a facility because it provides reproductive health care services, including abortion, also became a federal crime.
The law defined reproductive health care services broadly, meaning today it protects abortion clinics, anti-abortion pregnancy centers and regular doctors’ offices where patients seek any form of reproductive health care.
The FACE Act passed Congress with bipartisan support and was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. While it protects access to all types of reproductive health care services, the bill was introduced following a wave of violence against abortion clinics and the murder of abortion providers in Florida and Kansas in 1993.
The Justice Department details recent violence against reproductive health care centers, including FACE Act violations, on its website, though it doesn’t differentiate between crimes against abortion clinics and anti-abortion pregnancy centers there.
Talcott Camp, chief legal and strategy officer at the National Abortion Federation, the professional association of abortion providers, testified during the hearing that “unquestionably” the vast majority of crimes are committed against reproductive health care clinics that provide abortions.
The National Abortion Federation’s latest report on crimes committed against reproductive health care facilities during 2022 notes that violence and disruption against abortion clinics drastically increased in states that kept access legal, following the Supreme Court’s decision last summer to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion.
From 2021 to 2022, death threats or threats of harm increased from 182 to 218, stalkings increased from 28 to 92, burglaries increased by 231% and four clinics experienced arson, she testified.
“Since 1977 there have been 11 murders, 26 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 200 arsons, 531 assaults, 492 clinic invasions, 375 burglaries and thousands of other criminal incidents targeting abortion patients, providers and volunteers,” Camp said.
New York Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler asked Camp if people living in states where abortion access has been protected should “be concerned that violence, threats and intimidation against abortion providers could effectively ban abortion in their state, regardless of what their state law provides.”
Camp testified that the Supreme Court’s ruling to end nationwide protection for abortion “emboldened anti-abortion extremists to go specially to clinics in states that protect abortion rights.”
During 2022, she testified, stalkings overall increased 230%, but they jumped up by 900% in states that have protected abortion rights.
Republicans focus on pregnancy centers
Louisiana Republican Rep. Mike Johnson, chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Limited Government, which held the hearing, contended the Justice Department should prosecute more people for crimes against anti-abortion pregnancy centers.
“The women that seek these services should be able to do so, obviously, without facing any danger,” Johnson said.
Since the Supreme Court’s decision to end the fundamental right to an abortion was reported by Politico in May 2022 following a leak of the draft opinion, Johnson said, there have been more than 100 attacks on crisis pregnancy centers and churches, which are also protected under the FACE Act.
Johnson didn’t offer a breakdown of those numbers, or whether local or state law enforcement had brought charges in the cases. But the Catholic News Agency’s tracker says 63 were against pregnancy centers.
Johnson said the incidents included vandalism, graffiti, arson and online harassment, including one case in Florida where the Department of Justice has secured indictments against four people for spray-painting threats.
Johnson said that wasn’t enough, calling it “a drop in the bucket.”
Mark Houck, an anti-abortion advocate who was charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania with a FACE Act violation for shoving a 72-year-old clinic volunteer escort but found not guilty, testified he believes he was persecuted.
Houck testified he didn’t want the volunteer, who helps patients get inside the building safely, standing near or talking to his 12-year-old son, whom Houck brought with him to the abortion clinic in Philadelphia.
That morning, Houck testified, he followed women leaving the clinic across the street while offering them “literature.”
“At that time, an escort in the building decided to run over, impede my progress and get in the way of me ministering and talking to the women who had left Planned Parenthood,” Houck said.
After returning to stand outside the health care clinic, Houck testified, the clinic volunteer escort “stood right next to my 12-year-old-boy, who was a little intimidated and scared by this.”
“He begins to talk to my son and badger my son and starts telling my son how evil his father is and how his father doesn’t want to help women,” Houck said, adding he then asked the clinic volunteer to “go back to where he normally stands.”
Houck said he then “escorted” the volunteer to another area in front of the clinic.
“I turned around to face my son and go back to pray. He turned around and began to badger my son again,” Houck testified. “At that point, I became a dad on the street concerned for my son. I did push the man. He did fall down.”
Houck and several Republican lawmakers on the subcommittee sharply criticized law enforcement officers for arresting Houck at his home, in front of his family, while holding weapons.
Houck said he believes they arrested him at his home, instead of allowing him to turn himself in, “to humiliate me, to scare my children and to instill fear in pro-life America.”
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