(CN) – Abortion rights advocates reported Monday that death threats against providers and patients nearly doubled in 2017, a surge they attributed to emboldenment from the current political climate.
In addition to threats of violence, up to 62 from 33 in 2016, the incidents of trespassing and obstruction at clinics approximately tripled. The numbers were announced this morning by the National Abortion Federation, which has been compiling statistics such incidents for 40 years.
“When there is a lot of inflammatory rhetoric and it starts escalating, you do see an increase not only in threats and hate speech but in violence that takes place against abortion providers,” National Abortion Federation CEO and president Vicki Saporta said in a phone interview Monday.
One clinic received this threat in a phone call: “I will kill to stop these atrocities. I will blow you up if I have to, burn the clinic down. I will do whatever is necessary. I swear to God I will. After that you are in God’s hands and He will do His thing.”
Urging politicians and other public leaders to moderate their language, Saporta recalled the 2015 shooting at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, were three were killed and nine wounded, in the aftermath of misleading videos about Planned Parenthood’s activities.
“People need to be held responsible for inflammatory rhetoric and actual calls to action,” Saporta said.
In contrast to the devastation of the 2015 shooting, Monday’s report described activity that pushed boundaries, and was in many cases illegal, but geared more generally at causing fear and discomfort among clinic staff and patients.
At one Cleveland clinic, for example, vandals caused more than $32,000 in damage. Other clinics have had their addresses and phone numbers changed online.
“There were again no acts of extreme violence, with no murders or attempted murders,” the report said. “While we recorded a decrease in burglary, vandalism and general online hate speech, we also recorded a significant increase in activities aimed at disrupting services, intimidating providers and patients, and preventing women from obtaining the health care they need.”
The foundation counted more than 78,000 instances of picketing, which meant that people seeking abortions had to pass protesters on their way into clinics.
Saporta said the relatively low-grade violence detailed in the report, during the first year of a conservative new administration, reflects a trend.
“Anti-abortion extremists, when they believe they have legislative and judicial recourse, don’t tend to engage in extreme forms of violence,” she said. “The murders that have taken place have all taken place under pro-choice administrations. It’s a terrible kind of trade-off to contemplate, but we’ve documented that pattern of violent activity.”
Since 1977, Saporta’s group has counted 11 murders, 26 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 187 arsons and thousands of incidents of criminal activities directed at abortion providers.
President Donald Trump’s first year in office may not have seen extreme incidents of violence aimed at abortion clinics, but states like Mississippi, Kentucky and Indiana all saw their legislatures adopt restrictions on the procedures. One of the harshest laws was passed in Iowa, which bans the procedure as early as six weeks.
Trump himself has flip-flopped on abortion throughout his public life, but famously said on the campaign trail in a 2016 that women who have the procedure should face “some sort of punishment.” Backing off later Trump said only the providers should be punished. In 1999, he had told “Meet the Press” that he was “very pro-choice.”
This past January meanwhile at a March for Life rally, the president announced the creation of a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which would protect health care workers who don’t want to treat women seeking abortions or transgender patients.
It’s not just politicians who have taken loud stances on abortion — in late March, left-leaning publication The Atlantic drew harsh criticism for hiring conservative writer Kevin Williamson, who tweeted in 2014 that women should be hanged for having abortions. After a few weeks of uproar, Williamson — who stuck to his view — was fired.
NAF works with an outside security firm to track the threats. The report is mostly limited to the experiences of their members, which care for about half the women who seek abortions in the U.S., and only includes reported incidents, meaning actual statistics might be much higher.
Anti-abortion group March for Life issued a short emailed on the report Monday.
“The March for Life envisions a world where every human life is valued and protected from violence. That is why we work toward building a culture of life that recognizes the inherent dignity of every person, born and unborn,” said president Jeanne Mancini.
Anti-abortion organizations Americans United for Life and Feminists for Life did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday; neither did Planned Parenthood or NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Gallup reported that in 2017 that 46 percent of Americans called themselves “pro-life,” while 49 percent said they were “pro-choice.”