The Case for an Anti-Abortion Violence Registry

Over the past fifteen years, federal legislation has required state governments to track convicted sex offenders and -- for better or for worse -- many states have followed up with restrictions on the places where these offenders may live and work. In light of the epidemic of anti-abortion violence that has targeted reproductive health care providers over the past three decades (including 41 bombings and 173 arson attacks since 1977), Congress should create a similar registry for individuals convicted of politically-motivated felonies that target abortion clinics or abortion providers. The narrow purpose of such legislation would be to prevent a small cadre of highly-dangerous individuals, all of whom have previously demonstrated a disregard for both public safely and civil discourse, from approaching either reproductive health clinics or their employees. Much as we do not permit convicted pedophiles to teach kindergarten or convicted hijackers to board airplanes, common sense dictates that individuals who have been imprisoned for plotting violence against abortion clinics should never again be permitted anywhere near such facilities.

The vast majority of abortion opponents in the United States have always embraced non-violence. However, this is not necessarily the case with a small subset of hardcore anti-abortion activists who spend their days -- and often earn their livings -- organizing protests outside reproductive health clinics. The American public was reminded of the rather chilling attitudes and backgrounds of some of these extremists in the aftermath of the recent assassination of Kansas physician George Tiller, allegedly by "pro-life" activist Scott Roeder. As was widely reported in the media, Operation Rescue's senior policy analyst, Cheryl Sullenger, kept Roeder apprised of Dr. Tiller's whereabouts -- an accusation she first denied and later admitted -- and her phone number was found on the dashboard of his car. Sullenger was quoted in the press as stating, "He would call and say, 'When does court start? When's the next hearing?' I was polite enough to give him the information. I had no reason not to. Who knew? Who knew, you know what I mean?" Yet far less attention was paid to the details of Cheryl Sullenger's previous conviction for conspiring to blow up a California abortion clinic and her prior three-year prison sentence for supplying the explosive powder for that bomb. At the time of her guilty plea, Sullenger, who federal prosecutors described as being in the "upper echelons of culpability," had the audacity to tell the judge that she was "trying to save lives." Such a woman has no business coming within shouting distance of an abortion clinic ever again.

Sullenger is not alone. Increasingly, individuals convicted of violence against abortion clinics during the 1980s and 1990s are reaching the ends of their prison sentences -- and many, far from pursuing other causes upon release, appear to be reinserting themselves into the hardcore anti-abortion movement. Unfortunately, keeping tabs on these often unrepentant and dangerous individuals is highly challenging, and the case of Sullenger demonstrates that organizations like Operation Rescue cannot be trusted to turn them away. One promising solution would be sentences that included, as a condition for parole or release, lifetime bans upon loitering around or approaching abortion clinics. However, a national registry might prove far more manageable than the ad hoc imposition of such restrictions. Needless to say, these bans should be narrowly focused in order to allay First Amendment concerns. Those convicted of anti-abortion violence would still be permitted to engage in most forms of meaningful and peaceful civil dissent: writing to their legislators, protesting on the National Mall, even serving as high-ranking officials in such organizations as Operation Rescue. They would simply not be allowed near clinics. (A judicial bypass provision could be incorporated if a registered individual ever sought an abortion for herself or to accompany her teenage daughter.) In addition, much as local parents are currently informed when a convicted sex offender moves into the neighborhood, local abortion providers ought to be notified when such an anti-abortion convict settles in their community.

I have always believed that protests outside abortion clinics, rather than embodying our nation's powerful tradition of free speech and vigorous debate, actually undermine that legacy. While shouting at female patients during their most vulnerable moments may be a Constitutionally protected right, doing so does not contribute to a robust marketplace of ideas. Nor does the legality of such demonstrations make them any less distasteful. Civil society would benefit greatly if anti-abortion activists took their protests to state capitals or to the steps of the United States Supreme Court instead. (I would find it equally distasteful if pro-choice activists chose to commemorate Roe v. Wade outside St. Patrick's Cathedral on Easter Sunday, but--at least to my knowledge -- such displays rarely occur.) While anti-abortion activists have a right to protest outside clinics, at least from beyond a safe buffer zone, that right is not absolute. Nor should it be. Attempting to kill or maim the occupants of a health facility, or to burn these caregivers out of business, should be more than enough grounds to permanently forfeit any right to protest nearby. Of course, the number of individuals required to register would likely be small. That is no reason not to act. Targeting an abortion clinic is not merely a crime against a particular facility, after all, or even against supporters of abortion rights, but is an act of terrorism that threatens our very democracy. Not even violent sex offenders can do that.

I am hopeful that, after reflection, both political supporters and opponents of abortion rights would embrace such a registry. Doing so would lend convincing credence to the anti-abortion movement's claims to nonviolence and would prevent dangerous ex-felons from infiltrating its ranks. Keeping these violent zealots away from abortion clinics will not resolve our ongoing public debate over abortion. However, such a registry might improve the tenor of the public discourse. If nothing else, it will help reassure vulnerable women entering abortion clinics, and the physicians caring for them, that none of the protesters outside the building has ever attempted to kill or injure someone like them before.