If the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade in the coming weeks, it will mark the culmination of a decades-long, multimillion-dollar legal effort by the American conservative movement to end abortion rights and force many pregnant people to give birth.
It will also be the culmination of a multi-decade terror campaign.
From 1977 to 2020 in America, anti-abortion activists committed at least 11 murders, 26 attempted murders, 956 threats of harm or death, 624 stalking incidents and four kidnappings, according to data collected by the National Abortion Federation. They have bombed 42 abortion clinics, set 194 on fire, attempted to bomb or burn an additional 104 and made 667 bomb threats.
To be an abortion provider in the U.S. has meant going to work every morning under the threat of violence. And as Roe stands on the brink, some family members of people lost to this horrific violence are reliving their worst days. A recent leaked draft suggests that in all likelihood the abortion care their loved ones died practicing will soon disappear across much of the country.
Republicans and the wider anti-abortion movement have often condemned this terror but other times have signaled their tacit, or even explicit, support for it. According to David Cohen, author of “Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism,” the GOP has worked in “conjunction” with extreme anti-abortion activists for decades. “They can let the extremists engage in violence, harassment and threats to accomplish the same goal that the mainstream movement tries to accomplish through legislation and other policy changes,” Cohen said.
The GOP has sometimes flaunted its ties to its militant anti-abortion brethren, like when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) formed a “Pro-Lifers for Cruz” coalition as part of his presidential campaign in 2016 and named Troy Newman as a national co-chair.
Newman is the president of a radical anti-abortion group and the author of “Their Blood Cries Out,” a book that crafts a Christian justification for killing abortion providers. The book compared one specific abortion provider, Dr. George Tiller, to Adolf Hitler. Tiller was gunned down in 2009 by a man who owned a copy of “Their Blood Cries Out” and who had the phone number of Newman’s organization, Operation Rescue, on a Post-it note in his car. (Confronted with Newman’s history of extremism, Cruz doubled down on his involvement in the campaign.)
Tiller, Cohen noted to HuffPost, was also a frequent target of Fox News. Former host Bill O’Reilly regularly called the doctor a murderer during his prime-time show, once saying he was “operating a death mill.”
“It’s not a shock that someone sort of took that messaging to heart to try and stop George Tiller,” Cohen said, “because, after all, if you thought a mass murderer of children was living in your neighborhood, you would want to do things to stop that person. So to have someone on national news, on a regular basis, focusing a spotlight on George Tiller — Bill O’Reilly was complicit in his murder.”
Major conservative figures and politicians have repeatedly deployed extreme rhetoric about abortion or have lent credence to dangerous disinformation campaigns. In 2015, for example, Republicans promoted — and fundraised off — deceptively edited videos claiming to show Planned Parenthood officials selling “baby parts.” In December of that year, an anti-abortion extremist allegedly said “no more baby parts” while murdering three people at a clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
But what is the future of anti-abortion violence now that Roe v. Wade appears to be set to be overturned? Cohen isn’t quite sure. On one hand, the decision could embolden anti-abortion extremists, who will feel validated by the Supreme Court opinion and who then might focus their attention on clinics in the 24 states where abortions will still be legal and accessible — at least until Republicans can consolidate enough power in Washington to pass a blanket national abortion ban.
But on the other hand, Cohen said, violence is often committed by extremists when they are “frustrated that they’re not getting what they want through normal means, so they resort to extralegal means. So if the Supreme Court does what we think it’s going to do, there may be a period where they feel like, you know what, we won, and we’re winning, so we don’t need to resort to violence to get what we want.”
In the meantime, Cohen is concerned about what he sees as an emerging “both sides-ism” in the discourse around abortion rights.
After Politico obtained an initial draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito in early May — a “full-throated, unflinching repudiation of the 1973 decision which guaranteed federal constitutional protections of abortion rights,” the news site wrote — some abortion rights activists have resorted to radical measures.
A group called Jane’s Revenge has claimed credit for two arson attacks on the offices of conservative anti-abortion organizations. “If abortions aren’t safe, then you aren’t either,” read graffiti on the office of Wisconsin Family Action in Madison. “Jane was here,” read graffiti on an anti-abortion center in Buffalo, New York. (No one was harmed in either attack.)
Authorities also arrested an armed California man this week near the home of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The man allegedly wanted to kill Kavanaugh over his expected vote to overturn Roe.
“I think we’re going to start seeing the anti-abortion side and conservatives say ‘Well, look, pro-choice people are just as violent and just as extreme as anti-abortion extremists.’ And that’s just not true,” Cohen said. “You know, obviously, if we talk in five years and there’s been 11 murders of anti-abortion, politicians or activists or something, then we’d be close to being the same thing, but right now it’s not the same thing. Like we have a couple of freak people who’ve done some bad things, as opposed to the decades-long, extremist movement to target, harass, sometimes violently, abortion providers and those who work with them. The two are not the same thing. They should not be equated.”
As the anti-abortion movement nears a monumental victory, it bears repeating that violence has been an inextricable part of that movement. No one knows this more intimately than those who have lost loved ones to that violence and who are now bracing themselves to live in a post-Roe world — the very world their loved ones’ murderers dreamed would one day exist.
‘I Won’t Back Down’
Dr. David Gunn was the first U.S. abortion provider to be assassinated. On March 10, 1993, an anti-abortion protester named Michael F. Griffin shot Gunn three times at point-blank range outside a clinic in Pensacola, Florida. Griffin immediately turned himself over to police officers who were at the clinic to watch over a “pro-life” protest. “I’ve just shot Dr. Gunn,” he said. (A witness told The Washington Post that protesters at the clinic responded warmly to the murder. “It looked like they were just happy,” the witness said.)
Nearly 30 years later, Gunn’s son, David Gunn Jr., is steeling himself for Roe to be overturned.
“It’s disheartening for a whole host of reasons, you know, one, because of the sacrifice my dad made, and all the effort he put into making sure that people have access to abortion in the Deep South for years, and to think that, you know, any day now, that that could be taken away from everybody in my region anyway,” he told HuffPost over the phone from his home in Birmingham, Alabama. “It’s just tragic.”
Gunn Jr. was 22 years old when his dad was murdered. In the preceding year, he’d watched his father endure frequent threats and harassment as he traveled across the Bible Belt to provide abortions and other health care to people in Alabama, Georgia and the Florida panhandle, driving more than a thousand miles each week. Sometimes he took alternative routes, on lonely country roads, for fear he was being followed.
In a 2017 letter to the Florida parole board arguing that Griffin should not be released from prison, Gunn Jr. recalled his father standing up to the people who had targeted him and his family:
On January 22, 1993, roughly two months before his assassination, Dad pulled into work confronted by another angry mob. Today, he must have thought, I am going to protest back. Dad greeted protesters outside a clinic in Montgomery with an impromptu solo performance of Happy Birthday to You celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade. Next, he produced a large boom box, adjusted the volume to 11, and played Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” in their direction while he sang along. His protest generated some local press, his ongoing dedication to women’s health began to draw national attention, and the ire and desperation of his foes intensified.
In the months after his father died, Gunn Jr. remembered conservatives condemning the murder but all the words feeling “empty, hollow, and insincere.”
Where were their condemnations, after all, when abortion protesters put up “Wanted” posters with his dad’s face and daily schedule on them? Where were their condemnations when abortion protesters turned up outside the school where his younger sister was a student? “When they start taking an actual stance against what their constituents are doing … then I think I can take ’em sincere,” Gunn Jr. said.
Moreover, right-wing voices used extreme rhetoric all the time to dehumanize people like his dad.
“You can’t… consistently say that one subsection of the medical community are essentially in league with the devil,” Gunn Jr. said, “call them evil, vile baby-killing people, and not expect something tragic to happen. You know, it’s yelling ‘Fire!’ in a theater.”
If his dad were still alive to see Roe v. Wade overturned, Gunn Jr. said, he’d mostly be worried about his patients — especially poorer patients — who wouldn’t be able to get health care.
“The people who need care the most, as happens so often in our country, are going to be the ones who suffer and can’t get it, while the people who can afford it are going to be able to afford it,” Gunn Jr. said.
“It just goes to show,” he added, “that this really never was an argument about life or babies. It’s always been an argument of control. Because if they sincerely cared about life and babies, they wouldn’t want to force motherhood on people who aren’t economically or emotionally — or whatever reason, for that matter, it doesn’t really matter — weren’t ready to have a child.”
Gunn Jr. said he doesn’t have a ton of hope at the moment but knows he needs to follow his dad’s example and keep going.
“I hoped that by telling his story over and over again, that it would create enough public attention and outcry over it that other people wouldn’t have to deal with it again, and obviously that’s proven false over and over again. If anything, it’s just gotten worse since he died, not better, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t get up and you keep fighting, you know? You gotta fight, because they’re going to.”
In the months after his dad’s murder, Gunn Jr. became an activist, speaking at abortion rights rallies across the country and fielding multiple media requests. It felt like a way to honor his dad’s memory.
It’s how he ended up accepting an invitation a few days after his father’s death to go on “Donahue,” the national daytime talk show.
“Had I known that Paul Hill was slated to be the anti-abortion co-guest, I would have turned down the invitation, but the producer was shrewd to withhold details of his ideology and plan prior to the show’s taping,” Gunn Jr. later recalled in a blog post about the invitation. “You see, Paul Hill felt my father’s murder was ‘justifiable homicide.’”
Hill was a Presbyterian minister and militant anti-abortion activist who took the opportunity to tell Gunn Jr. to his face that his dad’s murder was comparable to killing a Nazi concentration camp doctor.
Later that year, Hill penned a letter, signed by 33 supporters, defending the murder of doctors who performed abortions. “We assert 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,” the letter stated.
The next year, Hill proved he meant what he’d written, opening fire outside a women’s health center — once again in Pensacola — and killing two people, Dr. John Bayard Britton and a clinic volunteer, James H. Barrett.
Catherine Britton-Fairbanks found out her stepfather — Britton, the man who raised her — had been murdered while watching the evening news from her then-home in Boulder, Colorado.
“They didn’t say his name or anything but just showed a white cloth lying on the ground in front of the clinic,” Britton-Fairbanks recalled to HuffPost. “So I ended up calling the Boulder Police to find out who it was that was murdered. And so then, I guess some advocates came to my door and confirmed that it was him that died.”
Britton-Fairbanks remembers being both shocked and not particularly surprised.
“I kind of suspected that someone would kill him, because there was an article in GQ a couple of months prior to the murder,” she said, referring to an article titled “The Abortionist,” which featured a photo of Britton in a white lab coat, a stethoscope slung around his neck and a .357 Magnum in his hand. “And I just had a premonition that he would get killed because he was just so out there and seemingly thinking that he was invincible. But that was not the case.”
Britton was a complicated figure in the pro-choice world. He thought abortion was morally wrong but nevertheless felt people had the legal right to have them. He was also the only doctor willing to replace Gunn in Pensacola in the year after his murder. “I won’t be bluffed by fanatics,” his friends recounted him saying at the time.
Britton traveled to the clinic wearing a homemade bulletproof vest. Hill shot him in the head with a 12-gauge shotgun. He also fatally shot Barrett, who was Britton’s volunteer bodyguard, and Barrett’s wife, who survived.
Later, after Hill was convicted and sentenced to death, Britton-Fairbanks spoke out against him being executed, causing a deluge of interview requests from CNN, BBC and the “Today” show. “It just didn’t make sense to me, no matter who it is,” she recalled. “I just don’t think the death penalty is something that we have a right to do.”
Hill was executed by lethal injection at Florida State Prison in 2003.
Britton-Fairbanks shares some of her late stepfather’s ambivalence about abortion but is nevertheless worried about Roe v. Wade being overturned.
“It’s kind of amazing that at this point in history that this would happen,” she said. “I would say that I’m not for abortion, and I’m not against. I just think it’s a woman’s right to choose what she does.”
She’s worried about what the court could do next.
“I suspect that they’ll be after trying to turn over other rights of women, and I guess the big thing that some folks are concerned about are the L…GBTQ — I can never remember the acronym — being overturned. There’s been some talk about that at the church that I go to, because there are a number of gay people there.”
The Violence Continued
The most important thing Meghan Lowney wants you to know about her sister, Shannon Lowney, who was 25 when she gunned down in 1994 inside a Massachusetts women’s health clinic, is how wonderful she was.
“My sister was an absolutely bright, sparkling, purposeful young woman,” Meghan said recently. “She was really somebody who always felt that her life was about making the world a better place, about a purpose greater than just her.”
Lowney graduated magna cum laude with a degree in history from Boston College. She learned Spanish in order to assist Spanish-speaking clients at Planned Parenthood, where she worked as a receptionist. (“I’m not even sure some of the Spanish-speaking clients knew they were calling Planned Parenthood,” one of her co-workers remembered, according to a Boston Globe report. “But they knew to ask for Shannon.”)
Shannon believed in the right to an abortion and routinely braved the gauntlet of protesters on her way to work. She moved to Maine for a little while, where she took a job counseling children about sexual abuse, but then returned to the Boston area, where she applied to a master’s program at the Boston University School of Social Work and resumed her job at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline.
She didn’t feel well on the morning of Dec. 30, 1994. “She was sick, and I told her to stay home, but it was just typical of her that she was afraid that somebody would call and not be able to get the help they need,” her boyfriend at the time, David Keene, later recalled in a PBS interview.
“I kissed her goodbye, and she ran across the street, and that’s the last last time I ever saw her.”
For her sister, Meghan, the sequence of events that day is hazy. Someone in the family heard a report on the car radio about a shooting at the clinic, so Meghan, who lived in Connecticut, rushed to her parents’ house in nearby Fairfield and started calling Boston-area hospitals to see if Shannon was a patient. Eventually police arrived at the door.
“You don’t want to open the door because you know that officer has bad news,” Meghan Lowney recalled.
The police told them that a man, later identified as John Salvi, had walked into the Planned Parenthood and opened fire, killing Lowney. He then walked to another nearby clinic, Preterm, and opened fire there, killing another receptionist, 38-year-old Leann Nichols.
Lowney and Nichols, according to reports at the time, had the sad distinction of being the first women assassinated by anti-abortion activists in the U.S.
The following weeks were a blur of memorials and media requests and funerals. Shannon’s 88-year-old grandfather died just hours after being told about her death. (“Perhaps the news of Shannon’s murder was just too much to bear,” Meghan speculated.)
Shannon was a pro-choice Catholic. The Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, Bernard Cardinal Law, was not pro-choice but did cancel an annual anti-abortion rally in the city after the murders, which he called “unconscionable violence,” adding that the shootings “must not be confused with the millions who advocate a pro-life position in peace.” (Law resigned in disgrace eight years later, after a Boston Globe investigation revealed that for decades he’d covered up widespread child sexual abuse committed by dozens of priests.)
All these years later, it saddens Meghan that her sister’s death, and Nichols’ death, weren’t the last acts of deadly anti-abortion terror.
“I regret that my sister’s murder and our loss of Shannon wasn’t enough to change hearts and minds, and that violence continued and that the pursuit of overturning Roe persisted,” she said.
Meghan hasn’t talked to the press in a long time about her sister’s murder, having developed some skepticism about how useful it was to do so. But when HuffPost contacted her recently, she said she felt like it was time to break her silence.
“What we’ve done isn’t enough,” she said of the battle to preserve a woman’s right to choose. “We’ve all, each of us, got to figure out a way to do more, to risk feeling uncomfortable in trying to be part of a solution, even when we don’t know what the solution is, and that is sometimes what is so uncomfortable about it.”
Still, for someone who lost a loved one to political violence, Meghan has faith in the power of dialogue and suspects the solution to what ails our politics isn’t more division.
“I think the answer isn’t more polarization and more, you know, pointing fingers or more feeling like that person is the ‘other,’ quote unquote, but the opposite: that we have to find ways when we don’t agree to listen and to understand and really try to connect with other people.”