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Extremism in America is All Too Familiar

by Julie A. Burkhart

The alarming ferocity of the seditious rioters who attacked the U.S. Capitol continues to shock millions of Americans, and rightfully so. Sadly, this is not new or shocking for those of us who work in reproductive health care.

For those of us who work in this movement, the threat of violence--both at work and at home--hangs over us every day. It is always there, lurking behind the curtain, spread throughout social media. It compels us to alter our driving routes to work and school drop-offs and it influences how we welcome our patients at our clinics.

There is a straight line between the violent anti-choice extremists I have dealt with for more than 25 years and the right-wing extremists who refuse to believe in the legitimacy of President Biden’s election. In many cases, it’s not so much of a straight line as it is a direct overlap.

As Vice News recently reported, well-known anti-abortion extremists like Abby Johnson were elated to attend on January 6 and, in Johnson’s words, encouraged by “the most pro-life president of our country.” John Brockhoeft, who was convicted of firebombing a clinic in the 1980s, was also in D.C. that day. They were joined by plenty of lesser-known activists, including former West Virginia Delegate Derrick Evans, who had previously harassed a clinic escort to the point of receiving a restraining order.

When I began working in abortion care, back in the 1990’s, during the height of massive protests at clinics across the nation, we encountered many acts of violence and harassment at our clinic, including bricks and gunshots fired through our windows, severed air conditioning lines, invasion, bomb threats, and people chaining themselves to our doors. These events were frightening and meant to intimidate us into shutting our doors for good. However, we knew it was incumbent upon us to continue providing abortion care to our patients.

Small acts of intimidation lead to bigger acts of outright violence. To date, anti-choice extremists have murdered eleven people who worked in abortion care. My former boss, Dr. George Tiller, was murdered while attending a church service on a peaceful Sunday morning. Anti-choice extremist Cheryl Sullenger, who had harassed Dr. Tiller for years, and who was convicted of bomb making in the 1980’s, had an affiliation with the gunman who murdered Dr. Tiller. Most recently, she was suspended from social media due to her statements during the recent insurrection.    

While working to return abortion care to Wichita, Kansas, after Dr. Tiller’s clinic had been shuttered due to his assassination, I encountered protests in front of my house and in my neighborhood. The protestors held signs which read, “Prepare to meet thy God'' and “Where’s your church?” --a direct reference to where Dr. Tiller was murdered. Those protests in front of my house led to a seven-year court battle with the protest leader, a reverend who had made it his mission to threaten and intimidate me into giving up my work. He failed and in the end, he was held accountable. 

When anti-choice picketers spread lies about an occurrence at one of our Trust Women clinics, it culminated in quite descriptive threats to murder me. These acts, by those who do not agree with our constitutional rights, are meant to terrorize those of us who agree that people should have free will, to choose what is best for themselves and their families.  

I didn’t need the FBI or New York Times to tell me that among the rioters attacking the capitol was a dangerous mix of white supremacists and anti-abortion extremists. Their goals are essentially the same--to oppress a group of people by denying them their human rights and relegating them to second-class citizens. The “people” in question, of course, are women and people of color, who are continual targets of harassment.

Among the many shared tactics these extremists rely upon is inciting, threatening language that leads a select number of their ranks to commit acts of violence and destruction in the hopes of terrorizing the country. With each awful event, we almost always can trace a trail of escalating, incendiary language leading up to the violent acts.

This was evident as rioters on the Senate floor assured each other that “I think Cruz would want us to do this... So I think we’re good.”  Similarly, when Dr. Tiller was murdered, authorities found evidence that the assailant was following Operation Rescue’s rhetoric of “If you believe abortion is murder, act like it’s murder” as well as following the nightly extremist rhetoric on Fox News, such as the O’Reilly Show, which worked to incite those in the anti-choice movement, specifically against Dr. Tiller.

After January 6, every elected official, law enforcement officer and staffer in the U.S. Capitol feels less safe and has likely struggled to move forward under a heavy cloud of a very real threat of violence. Once you experience this type of violence up close, witness the unhinged anger and determination to inflict harm, and truly fear for your own life, you cannot go back to being surprised or shocked. You see everything through a lens of what could happen IF.

We are at a critical moment in our nation’s history where millions of people are learning more about the dangerous extremists among us, and the rhetoric that incites them to commit appalling acts of violence. Let’s challenge our elected leaders--and each other--to expose and hold accountable those who incite violence to advance their hateful agendas.