Skip to main content Accessibility

The Violent History of the Anti-Abortion Movement

The overturning of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide in 1973, was the work of a movement laboring for decades. Though this victory for the anti-abortion movement was won in the courts, the judiciary represents only one of the U.S. institutions that’s being targeted by the widespread movement: in addition to public street demonstrations, anti-abortion activists are going after legislative bodies, churches, schools and media outlets in their plans to outlaw and even criminalize abortion.

One of the anti-abortion movement’s most effective weapons has been terror. While many anti-abortion activists and leaders paint themselves as respectable Christians, their movement is one with a deep history of militancy and violence. Since 1977, when the National Abortion Federation (NAF) first began gathering statistics on anti-abortion violence, anti-abortion activists have committed 11 murders, 42 bombings, 200 acts of arson and 531 assaults, all of which were directed at patients and those working in abortion care.[1]

The anti-abortion movement has brought vast harm to care providers and their families, who have endured threats and acts of violence for decades. Knowledge of this history is crucial in the post-Roe world, where – galvanized by their recent successes – the anti-abortion movement has once again ramped up its violence and is looking to revive old techniques used during the height of the movement’s militancy, including “rescues” in which activists block entrances to medical buildings, harass patients and aggressively invade clinics. This portion of Anti-Abortion Extremism: Inside the Movement Dismantling Our Reproductive Rights uses archival sources to tell the stories of abortion doctors, clinic workers and patients from the 1980s to today, all of whom have been on the receiving end of the anti-abortion movement’s long history of violence and threats and whose access to care has been impeded in life-altering ways.

The militant wing of the anti-abortion movement – with its ties to the white power movement and embrace of violence – is still in operation and impacting lives today. According to NAF, 2022, the most recent year for which statistics are available, saw a major increase in acts of violence in states that are protective of abortion rights. The campaign seems likely to continue as right-wing politicians, state legislators and far-right activists carry on their efforts to suppress and outlaw crucial medical care, criminalize those who seek abortion care and condemn reproductive justice advocates.

The Post-Roe Anti-Abortion Movement

After Roe, the number of anti-abortion groups exploded, coming largely out of organizations connected to the Catholic Church.[2] While the largest part of the anti-abortion movement confined its efforts to lobbying and education, a confrontational, direct-action arm – made up of many men and women who had been active in more mainstream groups – formed to intervene at clinics themselves. The limited success the movement achieved in the legal realm, combined with the inflammatory rhetoric spewed by its leaders, helped to galvanize the militant wing toward direct action, violence and, ultimately, murder.

The 1980s saw a huge wave of clinic bombings, and by the middle of the decade, according to historian Karissa Haugeberg, anti-abortion activists “had deployed coercive, intimidating, or violent tactics at nearly every abortion clinic in the United States.”[3] The violence peaked in 1984, when attackers set fire to or bombed 29 clinics.[4] Those who committed acts of violence often framed their actions as a means of honoring their religious convictions. Kaye Wiggins, who helped bomb three clinics that year in Pensacola, Florida, said she did so “as a gift to Jesus on his birthday.”[5] Some well-known anti-abortionists appeared to endorse acts of violence. At a 1985 convention hosted by Joseph Scheidler, president of the Pro-Life Action League in Chicago, attendees wore pins that included an image of explosives and were greeted outside by a sign that read “WELCOME CONVENTIONEERS, HAVE A BLAST!”[6]

Promotion block to next essay: The Landscape of Today's Anti-Abortion Movement.

Activists adopted other strategies that often put them in direct confrontation with clinic workers. Across the country, anti-abortionists found ways to enter clinics, destroy equipment and impede the work of health care providers. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for example, 15 people – 10 women and five men – forced their way past a clinic receptionist, locked themselves into exam rooms, chained themselves to a sink basin and destroyed more than $2,700 in equipment before being dragged out by police.[7] Their actions were typical of clinic invasions that activists carried out around the country, which were not only disruptive but presented a real threat to patients. In 1989 at a Forestville, Maryland clinic, activists trapped two women inside, as well at least two others outside in cars, for a number of hours. According to a contemporaneous report from NOW Legal Defense Fund, the women were in the middle of a two-day abortion procedure, and the forced delay meant that some were left to bleed heavily without medical intervention as protesters besieged and attempted to overturn their cars.[8] Other anti-abortion activists took to creating elaborate media spectacles, including Scheidler’s Chicago-based group, which stole more than 4,000 specimens of fetal remains from a pathology lab and threatened to identify the women who had had the abortions and then send them the remains. In another incident, he orchestrated a highly sensational funeral Mass and burial using aborted fetuses.[9]

Collage of images showing protesters staging sit-ins or being arrested by police.
In photos from July 18, 1988, Operation Rescue supporters demonstrate outside of abortion clinics during the group’s “Siege of Atlanta” held during the Democratic National Convention. (Credit: American Photo Archive/Alamy)

The Rescue Movement

By the late 1980s, the direct-action wing of the anti-abortion movement converged around one of the tactics outlined in Scheidler’s 1985 book Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion: so-called “rescues” in which activists blockaded clinics. Though most early “rescuers” were women, it was men who took over the spotlight.[10] The most well-known leader was Randall Terry, a protégé of Scheidler and former used-car salesman.[11] His organization, Operation Rescue, held their first action in 1987, but rose to national prominence the following year when they launched a “Siege of Atlanta” during the Democratic National Convention. Participants were required to sign a card pledging to remain non-violent, even as leaders invoked famously bloody struggles such as abolition in the U.S. and anti-Nazi resistance in World War II-era Europe.[12] Terry used Christian broadcasting network to draw people into the city, where they would obstruct access to clinics – often laying down to carpet the ground with their bodies – while “sidewalk counselors” exhorted women not to have abortions.[13] In all, about 1,300 people were arrested during the five months of protest, which they followed with similar actions in New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and elsewhere.[14] The following year, they held a “National Day of Rescue,” protesting at 45 clinics across the country.[15] Rescuers, Terry argued, were acting “in obedience to God’s Word.”[16]

One of Operation Rescue’s largest protests came in 1991, when the group launched a 42-day siege they called the “Summer of Mercy” in Wichita, Kansas, that resulted in 2,600 arrests and culminated in a 25,000-person rally featuring religious right leader Pat Robertson.[17] Protesters – some carrying Bibles – taunted and intimidated clinic providers, workers and patients, and especially focused their efforts on the clinic of Dr. George Tiller, who was one of only a handful of physicians in the country who provided later-term abortions.[18] The organization also expanded their efforts to train people to participate in rescues, and in 1993 hosted training camps around the country called “IMPACT,” for Institute of Mobilized Prophetic Activated Christian Training. IMPACT trainees did not limit their actions to clinics. “There have been more than 20 incidents of home protesting – not limited to quiet picketing on public right of way – at the homes of staff and physicians since IMPACT began. Some of these incidents include terrorizing the children of clinic workers,” the president of Florida’s Aware Woman Center for Choice wrote in a letter to the town’s mayor.[19]

Person in doctor's robes walks past groups of law enforcement officials near a gated area.
In a photo from 1992, Dr. George Tiller walks outside of his abortion clinic in Wichita, Kansas, after four people locked themselves to the entrance of the clinic’s gates. Tiller was fatally shot on May 31, 2009, during services at a Wichita church. (Credit: Richard Hernandez/Wichita Eagle/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Operation Rescue succeeded in creating media spectacles and filling local jails (by the 1990s, more than 60,000 people had been arrested at the group’s demonstrations), but it was less successful when it came to actually stopping abortions.[20] Clinics quickly learned how to prepare for rescues with help from fellow providers and organizations like the National Abortion Federation (NAF), which frequently sent out memos providing guidelines for dealing with rescue actions. Clinics made sure patients still received care: people seeking abortions were often simply rescheduled, either to received care later in the day, at a later date, or the same day at another clinic.[21]

By the mid-’90s, Operation Rescue became hamstrung in many other ways. Multiple civil suits, including one brought by the National Organization for Women, left the group deeply in debt, reportedly forcing Terry to close its national headquarters and lay off its staff.[22]

Prosecutors in some jurisdictions began seeking harsher sentences for clinic invaders and, in 1994, the Supreme Court decided that clinics could sue rescuers under Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) laws – a development that allowed plaintiffs to triple what they sought in monetary damages. The same year, President Bill Clinton, after much pressure from abortion advocates, signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which made it a federal crime to physically obstruct or use violence or the threat of violence to prevent someone from obtaining reproductive health care services.[23] Only a month later, the Supreme Court decided clinics could legally create buffer zones outside clinics to keep protesters from blocking access.

Escalating Violence

As Operation Rescue began to falter, abortion proponents worried about the direction the anti-abortion movement would take. “The sense I’m getting, or perhaps fearing,” abortion activist Peg Johnston wrote to a provider at a Florida clinic, “is that without the strong discipline of Randy Terry and the national organization that the more un-strung, but ‘principled’ loonies will take ‘individual’ action; some, if not most of this, will be violent.”[24] Johnston’s insights were prescient. While her 1990 letter noted that “there does seem to be a slight increase in serious terrorism,” those acts of violence rose steeply by 1993. Bomb threats, harassing phone calls and hate mail doubled compared to the previous year, while death threats against providers increased nearly 10 times over.[25]

“They had marched around clinics. They had done some harassment of patients. But it hadn’t changed anything,” sociologist Dallas Blanchard, who studied the anti-abortion movement, told a reporter at the time. “As groups get less and less successful, they tend to get smaller. And the smaller they are, the more likely they are to commit violence.”[26]

The increased militancy of the anti-abortion movement mirrored changes in the white power movement, which by the early 1990s had become revolutionary in its aims and embraced paramilitarism. The two movements deeply overlapped; their activists were often one and the same. White power activists – who often characterized abortion as “race suicide” – participated in anti-abortion activism. Klansmen and neo-Nazi skinheads appeared at clinic protests, or, in the case of former Klansman John Burt, started their own anti-abortion groups.[27] Gun activist Larry Pratt, who attended a notorious 1992 meeting in Estes Park, Colorado, where 160 neo-Nazis, Christian Identity adherents and other racists met to develop strategies to broaden their movement’s appeal, became one of the most crucial fundraisers for Operation Rescue when the organization began to face mounting legal trouble. Anti-abortion activists also increasingly adopted the antigovernment stance of white power militias. Both groups interpreted the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff and 1993 Waco siege as evidence of the tyrannical nature of the federal government. Anti-abortion activist Paul de Parrie described Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno as the “New World Enforcement boss and consummate pro-abort” attorney general, who authorized not only the actions at Waco, but “authorizes the storming of the womb compound.”[28]

The most militant anti-abortion activists often seemed to come out of the rescue movement, where they had ample occasion to network with likeminded people. In 1988, for example, a number of anti-abortion extremists – who had or would go on to commit acts of violence, including murder and attempted murder – were housed together in Atlanta’s Key Road Detention Facility after participating in Operations Rescue’s “siege” on that city in 1988. There they had the opportunity to spell out their preferred tactics for harassing and harming clinics and their employees, resulting in a document called the Army of God Manual. Anti-abortion activists had previously claimed they were affiliated with the Army of God (AOG), including three people who kidnapped an Illinois abortion provider and his wife in 1982. The manual marked a clear commitment to using violence to end abortion, which would go on to define the movement in the 1990s and 2000s. It encouraged activists to blow up clinics, contained directions for building ammonium nitrate bombs, and instructed them to torture providers and destroy their ability to provide medical procedures “by removing their hands, or at least their thumbs below the second digit.”[29]

The AOG manual also signaled the shift away from organized protest and toward “leaderless resistance,” a strategy also embraced by the white power movement and militias. Rather than a hierarchical organization with defined leaders who give orders to members, individuals acting under the model of leaderless resistance act on their own or as part of a small cell. While they may not communicate directly, members are held together by their commitment to shared goals and strategies. As activists contemplated the reality of RICO charges, the model made legal sense: “Since there won’t be any direct orders given, no one can prove conspiracy,” anti-abortionist Paul Hill explained in 1994, not long before he would go on to kill two people at a clinic.[30] Unlike most other extremist organizations using this model, the AOG did define a leader: “God is the General and Commander-in-Chief,” their manual explained. “The soldiers, however, do not usually communicate with one another. Very few have ever met each other. And when they do, each is usually unaware of the other soldier’s status. That is why the Feds will never stop this Army. Never.”[31]

The year 1993 marked a dark turning point in the anti-abortion movement. On March 10, Michael F. Griffin, a member of the group Rescue America, murdered physician David Gunn outside of a clinic where he performed abortions in Pensacola, Florida. It was one of several clinics to which Gunn traveled to provide abortions in the rural South.[32] In a press release issued the day of the murder, Rescue America’s national director, Don Treshman, said that while Gunn’s murder was “unfortunate, the fact is that a number of mothers would have been put at risk today and over a dozen babies would have died at his hands.” The release also noted that Griffin had a wife and two young children and asked that donations be made to the family to help them weather “this crisis.”[33]

The press release was typical of the rhetoric of direct-action groups like Rescue America – violence, while “unfortunate,” was ultimately defensible. Other activists went even further, publicly endorsing murder as a legitimate tactic for the anti-abortion movement. In June 1993, Paul Hill released a statement – signed by 32 people, including three priests and three ministers – in Life Advocate magazine declaring their belief in “the justice of taking all godly action necessary to defend innocent human life including the use of force.” “We assert,” it continued, “that if Michael Griffin did in fact kill David Gunn, his use of lethal force was justifiable provided it was carried out for the purpose of defending the lives of unborn children.”[34] Roughly two months later, one of the signers, Shelley Shannon, attempted to murder Dr. Tiller outside of his Wichita clinic, shooting him in both arms (it was during an investigation into Shannon’s crime that law enforcement first found the AOG manual, which was buried in her backyard).[35] In July of the next year, Hill murdered Dr. John Britton and his bodyguard, James Barrett, outside the Ladies Center clinic in Pensacola.

While some anti-abortion groups, including the National Conference for Catholic Bishops (which, as of 2001, is now known as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), swiftly criticized the violence that had gripped the movement, other groups and individuals saw such acts as an opportunity for debate. In the religious-right magazine First Things, for example, commentators, theologians and scholars participated in a December 1994 feature titled “Killing Abortionists: A Symposium.” While each writer ultimately found a reason to reject Hill’s notion that lethal force was justified against abortion providers, at least one suggested his crime was no worse than the ones they believed were committed by Dr. Gunn.[36] All, through their participation, at least endorsed the idea that there was a debate to be had about the merits of using murder to oppose abortion. The mainstream media also did its part to spread and normalize the views of anti-abortion extremists. Activists like Michael Bray, who spent nearly four years in prison for his role in the bombing of 10 abortion clinics in the 1980s, were welcomed onto national news channels like CNN and ABC to articulate their ideas to audiences of millions.

Clinics Under Siege

After the anti-abortion movement crossed the threshold to murder, the death threats doctors received, which reportedly reached at least 78 in 1993 in the U.S. and Canada, induced even greater anxiety.[37] Physicians frequently received hate mail from anti-abortion activists, ranging from pleas to stop their work to threats – some veiled and some outright. “Your life, your journey, will soon end Dr. Whitney,” read one letter received by a Florida abortion provider.[38] Some hate mail was deeply antisemitic, characterizing abortion providers as Jewish and suggesting that, as part of a broader conspiracy to undermine and control society, Jewish people were responsible for the existence and normalization of abortion. “No wonder the people of the world hate Jews. Sick k***s like you even murder babies for money Long Live Hitler,” read a note sent to a Pittsburgh clinic.[39]

Another common harassment tactic was to find and publicize personal information about doctors in the form of “Wanted” posters. Other times, they would send letters to a doctor’s neighbors, telling them, “There is a KILLER in your neighborhood.” These letters and posters often contained a doctor’s photograph, address, license plate number and workplace and, sometimes, even the address and license plate information for their partner or spouse. Later, this kind of information would be placed online, most notoriously on the “Nuremberg Files” website that included the names of roughly 200 abortion providers – listing them in gray if they were injured by the anti-abortion movement and struck through if they had been killed.[40]

Some physicians began taking greater measures to protect themselves. Medical newsletters featured stories of doctors outfitting themselves with bullet-resistant vests and carrying firearms.[41] Physicians worried about their safety in their homes and communities, especially as federal protections created more serious penalties for obstructing the operations of clinics. Many physicians experienced protesters outside their homes, as well as being followed and stalked around their communities. Some providers decided the threats were simply too great to endure, including one Alabama doctor. “Dr. David Gunn didn’t have a pregnant wife to lose,” read a note he found on his car. The doctor, whose wife was pregnant, quit the next day after having only worked at the clinic for a month.[42]

Clinics themselves operated under what one journalist described as a “siege mentality.”[43] Picketers were a near-constant presence. Protesters would also tie up the clinics’ phone lines – running up their phone bills and making it difficult for actual patients to make appointments. Clinics had systems in place to document the threatening phone calls and bomb threats they received, which could, at times, be relentless. Choices Women’s Medical Center in New York City received threats three days in a row in the summer of 1994, including a call in which a clinic worker was told, “I have a gun and I will hunt your doctors next week” and, the next day, “You have 15 minutes to get out of the building—there’s a bomb.”[44] The terror of attacks at other clinics was often magnified by the increased threats that could come in their aftermath. Not long after two clinic receptionists were killed and five others injured by a gunman in a Brookline, Massachusetts, clinic on December 30, 1994, a man called Choice Women’s Medical Center in New York City to threaten, “This place will not last a long time.”[45] Other forms of violence included butyric acid attacks, in which anti-abortion activists would place the foul-smelling and nausea-inducing substance around or inside a clinic, and letters sent to clinics and doctors that alleged they contained anthrax.[46]

Violence was widespread: according to the Feminist Majority Foundation, more than 50% of clinics experienced severe violence and/or threats of violence in 1993 and 1994.[47] While local police were often called upon to respond to threats or attacks, many clinics reported that the attention their clinics received was inadequate. Frustration could also extend to federal law enforcement. Though Attorney General Janet Reno ordered U.S. Marshalls to consult with clinics in the aftermath of the 1994 murders in Florida, six months later the National Coalition of Abortion Providers estimated that “more than half the clinics we represent have not been contacted by federal marshals! And, in those cases where they did show up, it was generally for a 5 minute [sic] meeting to drop off a ‘security kit.’”[48] Clinics largely bore the burden of security on their own. They circulated manuals, like “Abortion Center Survival: A Partial Guide,” and installed physical security measures. Some clinics had armed security guards at their entrance, security systems that utilized alarms and/or surveillance cameras, panic buttons, metal detectors and bulletproof glass.[49]

People outside a building that has a burned awning, broken window and other damage from bomb explosion.
On Jan. 29, 1998, a bomb exploded outside the New Woman All Women Health Care clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, killing an off-duty police officer and a nurse. Pictured, agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms search the ground outside the clinic. (Credit: Associated Press/Caroline Baird)

Despite these measures, the violence continued. In 1998, Eric Rudolph bombed a Birmingham, Alabama, clinic, killing an off-duty police officer and badly injuring a clinic worker. Rudolph’s opposition to abortion, just like many of his likeminded activists, was part of a larger racist and antisemitic ideology in which he cast himself as a Christian soldier.[50] Later in the same year as Rudolph’s bombing, James Kopp killed Dr. Barnett Slepian when he fired a single bullet through the doctor’s kitchen window in Amherst, New York. In 2009, George Tiller, who years before was shot by an anti-abortion activist and whose clinic had been firebombed, was murdered in his church by Scott Roeder. In the years before his death, the Fox News program The O’Reilly Factor had reportedly referenced Tiller on 29 episodes from 2005 to 2009, according to Salon, often referring to him as “Tiller the baby killer.”[51] In a 2015 shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Robert Dear Jr. killed three people and injured several others.

Targeting Patients: Threats, Misinformation, and Crisis Pregnancy Centers

While anti-abortion activists hoped to inspire fear and shame in patients to prevent them from choosing to terminate their pregnancies, research shows their efforts were generally ineffective. In a 2011 study, economists Mireille Jacobson and Heather Royer found that clinic violence reduced abortions in the targeted area by 8% to 9%, and the impact continues for several years. However, those declines were largely offset by increases in abortion in nearby areas. People traveled to have abortions elsewhere rather than choosing to forgo the procedure, in the vast majority of cases.[52]

That said, the anti-abortion movement impacted patients in other serious ways that are more difficult to quantify, including the spread of misinformation. Picketers often handed patients flyers outside of clinics, which spread fearmongering propaganda about the supposed danger of abortion. In addition to vastly exaggerating the potential complications associated with the procedure, anti-abortion propaganda warned that fertility and future pregnancies would be imperiled – a suggestion that has no basis in medical reality. One flyer, handed out in 1989, told teenagers that their outcomes for wanted future pregnancies “appear to be even worse than among women in general.”[53]

Promotion block to Anti-Abortion Extremism page.

In the early 1990s, multiple Florida anti-abortion groups decided, in the words of one called Operation Goliath, “[to take] this literature distribution one step further.” That meant taking down the license plates of people entering Aware Woman Clinic in Melbourne, Florida, and using them to track down their names and addresses.[54] According to Aware Woman’s log of anti-abortion activity, the group likely sent out letters that were crafted to appear as if they came from the clinic itself. In other instances, patients received calls from people alleging to be from Aware Woman Clinic, but the callers told them harmful misinformation.[55] Other women received letters from a group called Women’s Legal Action Coalition asking about their experiences at the clinic, and inquiring whether they were “one of the 20,000 [sic] women that have been damaged either physically or emotionally or both by abortion at the Aware Woman Clinic.” The “damage” listed in the letter spanned from the expected side effects (cramping and headaches) to others that were terrifying and specious (suicidal tendencies, hallucinations, the inability to get pregnant again).[56] As likely planned, many of these letters ended up in the hands of parents or others close to women who had likely been to the clinic – outing medical decisions they had made privately. While Operation Goliath claimed in a press release that their tactics were meant to be “a very low key, non-threatening way to provide women with information,” the clear aim was to intimidate and shame women who had or were considering abortions.[57]

One of the most influential sites of anti-abortion activism and misinformation are crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) – essentially bogus abortion clinics that exist to dissuade women from choosing to terminate their pregnancies. The first CPCs were started in the 1960s and expanded rapidly in the aftermath of the Roe decision thanks in large part to the Pearson Foundation, a St. Louis-based organization that supplied trainings, pamphlets and a 1984 manual laying out how to mislead women called How to Start and Operate Your Own Pro-Life Outreach Crisis Pregnancy Center.[58] There were an estimated 2,000 bogus clinics by 1991, and 3,200 by 2009.[59] As advised in the Pearson manual, most are designed to look like a typical medical clinic, though they do not usually employ medical professionals or offer professional medical services. They are also misleadingly advertised. In 1991, a congressional report on CPCs showed that most represented themselves as clinics, often alongside actual abortion clinics, as a way of tricking women wanting to end their pregnancies into visiting their office. They even set up their offices close to legitimate abortion clinics and often picked similar names to confuse patients. Women came to CPCs for the free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds they offered, only to find themselves on the receiving end of an anti-abortion diatribe.

The 1991 congressional report on CPCs found that anti-abortion centers were making every effort to manipulate women and girls into entering their offices and to stop them from choosing abortion. CPC “counselors” then forced women who had come to the clinic to watch a long slideshow with accompanying narration that told them completely fabricated statistics about abortions and suggested the procedure was a leading cause of sterility, deformed children and death. One slide depicted a woman under a white sheet and told viewers she died when a suction machine used in abortion “blew pressure into her body, causing her uterus to explode.”[60] In some instances, women were made to feel as if they could not leave the clinic until they agreed not to have an abortion, or to come back for another “counseling” visit.[61]

One goal of anti-abortion centers was to manipulate women and girls into delaying having abortions in the hope they would progress so far into their pregnancies they would not be able to legally terminate. In one case, a CPC repeatedly lied to a woman, telling her she was not pregnant but should return weeks later to test again. When she did decide to visit a legitimate clinic after becoming suspicious of the CPC, she learned she was 19 weeks pregnant.[62] In other case, a 16-year-old girl visited a bogus clinic where a woman placed a stethoscope on her abdomen and declared that she was 19 weeks pregnant. Later, when she went to a Planned Parenthood, she found out she was actually only 11 weeks pregnant.[63] Others who asserted their interest in having an abortion were, according to testimony from the Texas attorney general, “subjected to various forms of intense emotional abuse.”[64]

CPCs, which today are estimated to total 2,500 to 4,000, remain one of the most active sites of the anti-abortion movement.[65] They vastly outnumber legitimate clinics – and the difference will likely increase as abortion clinics face repression and CPCs gain funding.

The anti-abortion movement looks different than it did at the height of its violence. Its face is no longer that of a violent activist, but members of the religious right who have pursued policy changes through the courts and the country’s statehouses, or women who work at CPCs and claim to offer compassionate care for those struggling with a difficult decision. But, after the Dobbs ruling, the anti-abortion movement is also stronger and more successful than ever and, in some cases, is endorsing increasingly extreme ways to pursue their aims, including using the death penalty to punish people who have abortions. Clinics still face extreme harassment and violence, which has increased in states that continue to offer abortion access. Today, much of the violence from anti-abortion movement often comes from the state itself, in the form of ambiguous and punishing laws that hamstring doctors, leave women to suffer, and take away a person’s bodily autonomy. Arguably, the anti-abortion movement is now the most militant it has ever been.

Illustration at top by Cristiana Couceiro.

[1] National Abortion Federation, “2022 Violence and Disruption Statistics,” 2023.

[2] Karissa Haugeberg, Women Against Abortion: Inside the Largest Moral Reform Movement of the Twentieth Century (University of Illinois Press, 2017), 12.

[3] Haugeberg, Women Against Abortion, 85.

[4] Frederick Clarkson, “Anti-Abortion Movement Marches on After Two Decades of Arson Bombs and Murder,, September 15, 1998,

[5] Sara Diamond, Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right (South End Press, 1989), 93.

[6] Susan Faludi, “Abortion Obsession: For Operation Rescue’s Randall Terry, shutting down clinics is only the beginning,” Mother Jones, November 1989, 61. 

[7] Police report, Women’s Health Services Inc., May 10, 1985, box 2, Claire Keyes papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[8] Rene Sanchez and Kathy Ann Waterman, “Abortion Factions Clash at MD. Clinic as Tension Rises,” Washington Post, November 19, 1989,; NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, “Protecting Access to Health Care for Women: A Guide to Legal Strategies to Prohibit Violence and Interference at Clinics,” n.d., 2, Merle Hoffman papers, Box 22, Duke University.

[9] Angie Leventis Lourgos, “Abortion opponents hold memorial at fetal burial sites amid battle over how these remains should be treated: ‘They are not trash, they are people,’” Chicago Tribune, September 20, 2019,

[10] Haugeberg, Women Against Abortion, 80.

[11] Faludi, “Abortion Obsession,” 24, 61

[12] Mark Allan Steiner, The Rhetoric of Operation Rescue: Projecting the Christian Pro-Life Message (T&T Clark International, 2006), 8.

[13] Faludi, “Abortion Obsession,” 62.

[14] The Association of Religion Data Archives, Pro-Life and Rescue Movement – Timeline,; Haugeberg, Women Against Abortion,106; “Update,” National Abortion Federation, Fall 1988, pg. 143, Box 1, Renee Chelian Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[15] Haugeberg, Women Against Abortion, 95.

[16] Steiner, The Rhetoric of Operation Rescue, 8.

[17] David Maraniss, “Lessons of a Summer of Abortion Protests,” Washington Post, August 26, 1991,

[18]David Maraniss, “Lessons of a Summer of Abortion Protests,” Washington Post, August 26, 1991,

[19] Aware Woman Center for Choice to Mayor Joseph Mullins, 11 March 1993, Box 1, Charlotte Taft Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[20] Haugeberg, Women Against Abortion, 105.

[21] Memo to NAF Institutional Members from Alice L. Kirkman, Public Affairs Director, “RE: ‘Operation Rescue’ Guidelines/National ‘Day of Rescue,’ 23 September 1988, National Abortion Federation, Box 1, Renee Chelian Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[22] Randall Terry to supporters, 15 October 1990, Box 2, Renee Chelian Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[23] Steiner, The Rhetoric of Operation Rescue, 10.

[24] Peg Johnston to Patricia Baird Windle, 5 February 1990, Box 2, Renee Chelian Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[25] Haugeberg, Women Against Abortion, 117.

[26] Jennifer Gonnerman. “The Terrorist Campaign Against Abortion,” The Village Voice, New York, November 10, 1998,

[27] Carol Mason, Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-Life Choices (Cornell University Press, 2002), 33; Haugeberg, Women Against Abortion, 92.

[28] Sandi DuBowski, “Storming Wombs and Waco: How the Anti-Abortion and Militia Movements Converge,” Front Lines Research, Volume 2, no. 2, 1997.

[29] Haugeberg, Women Against Abortion, 107-109.

[30] Mason, Killing for Life, 56.

[31] Jennifer Gonnerman. “The Terrorist Campaign Against Abortion,” The Village Voice, New York, November 10, 1998,

[32] Sara Rimer, “The Clinic Gunman and the Victim: Abortion Fight Reflected in 2 Lives,” The New York Times, March 14, 1993,

[33] Press release from Rescue America, March 10, 1993, Renee Chelian papers, Duke, Box 2.

[34] “The Signers,”, September 15, 1998,

[35] Jennifer Gonnerman, “The Terrorist Campaign Against Abortion,” The Village Voice, New York, November 10, 1998,

[36] Various authors, “Killing Abortionists: A Symposium,“ First Things, December 1994, and “Mr. Hill did not engage in killing as his office work. He was moved to an awful, rare act, and he focused his lethal assault on a person who was about to engage directly, and deliberately, in the destruction of an innocent life. Unless we dismantle moral reasoning altogether, or remove the gradations that are critical to moral judgment, it should be evident that these two acts of killing cannot stand on the same moral plane,” Hadley Arkes wrote.

[37] “NAF Violence and Disruption Statistics: Incidents of Violence & Disruption Against Abortion Providers in the U.S. & Canada,” Annapolis Junction, MD: National Abortion Federation, 2007,

[38] “A friend in Melbourne” to Dr. Whitney, 2 May 1994, Box 1, Folder 4, Charlotte Taft Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[39] Hate mail, Box 2, Claire Keyes Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[40] “Nuremburg Files: Alleged Abortionists and Their Accomplices.” Accessed archived website from July 9, 2010.

[41] Larry Schuster, “A Few ‘Careful’ Doctors Wear The Ultimate in Defensive Medicine: Bullet-Resistant Vests and Loaded Sidearms,” Internal Medicine News and Cardiology News, April 15, 1993; Box 1, Folder 4, Charlotte Taft Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[42] “Abortions: Still Legal but Less Available,” Washington Post, January 30-February 5, 1995, Box 20, Merle Hoffman Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[43] Deborah McQuaid, “Cleveland Abortion Clinic Workers Operate Under Siege Mentality,” Erie Times-News, October 29, 1999, Box 1, Folder 5, Charlotte Taft Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[44] Internal memo, August, and “Check list when you receive a bomb threat,” August 1, 1994, Box 21, Merle Hoffman Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[45] “Events of 12/30/1994” memo, Box 20, Merle Hoffman Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[46] “NAF Violence and Disruption Statistics: Incidents of Violence & Disruption Against Abortion Providers in the U.S. & Canada,” Annapolis Junction, MD: National Abortion Federation, 2007, .

[47] “2022 National Clinic Violence Survey,” Washington, D.C.: Feminist Majority Foundation, 2022,

[48] National Coalition of Abortion Providers memo, January 12, 1995, Box 20, Merle Hoffman Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[49] Memo to Debbie of Intercity Agency from Choices Women’s Medical Center, RE: Security, January 11, 1995, Box 20, Merle Hoffman Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[50] Pete Simi, “Cycles of right-wing terror in the US,” in Right-Wing Radicalism Today: Perspectives from Europe and the US, ed. Sabine von Mering, Timothy Wyman McCarty (Routledge: 2013), 145-146.

[51] Brian Stelter, “Doctor’s Killer Is Not Alone in the Blame, Some Say,” The New York Times, June 1, 2009,

[52] Mirielle Jacobson and Heather Royer. “Aftershocks: The Impact of Clinic Violence on Abortion Services,” in American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 3, (American Economic Association: 2011), 189–223,

[53] “3 THINGS EVERY WOMAN SHOULD KNOW BEFORE HAVING AN ABORTION,” 1989, Box 1, Renee Chelian Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[54] “For immediate release: Pro-life group announces new tactic,” Operation Goliath, 1992, Box 2, Renee Chelian Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[55] “Anti Harassment Activity Since July 1, 1991,” Box 2, Renee Chelian Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[56] Letter from Women’s Legal Action Coalition to Candis McPherson, January 16, 1992, Box 2, Renee Chelian Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[57] “For immediate release: Pro-life group announces new tactic,” Operation Goliath, 1992, Box 2, Renee Chelian Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[58] Dawn Stacey, “The Pregnancy Center Movement: History of Crisis Pregnancy Centers,” Mother Jones,

[59] U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Small Business, Consumer Protection and Patient Safety Issues Involving Bogus Abortion Clinics, 102nd Congress, 1st session, 1991, 65; Haugeberg, Women Against Abortion, 9.

[60] U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Small Business, Consumer Protection, 240.

[61] Ibid., 211-213.

[62] Ibid., 148.

[63] Ibid., 222.

[64] Ibid., 164.

[65] Melissa N. Montoya, Colleen Judge-Golden and Jonas Swartz, “The Problems with Crisis Pregnancy Centers: Reviewing the Literature and Identifying New Directions for Future Research,” International Journal of Women’s Health 14 (2022),