On May 31, 2009, an anti-abortion extremist murdered abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, who had been harassed and targeted by anti-choice groups and right-wing media for years. On May 31, 2018, Infowars reporter Owen Shroyer announced that he would be hosting and livestreaming a protest outside a Texas Planned Parenthood location.
During the May 31 segment of Genesis Communication Network’s The Alex Jones Show, Shroyer announced that Infowars would “launch a protest here in Austin at Planned Parenthood” the next day in response to his frustration that the NRA and Infowars were “being blamed for anytime there’s a shooting” while Planned Parenthood wasn’t blamed for being part of “a death cult.” Shroyer noted that in addition to organizing the protest, he would also be livestreaming the event to various channels. Toward the end of the segment, host Alex Jones and Shroyer started mocking the people they think will show up to the protest, calling them satanists and claiming they'll say things like “We are slaves, we are dying,” “I love abortion,” and “I want to kill kids.”
Back in reality, anti-abortion violence and harassment are both very real and very serious threats to those who publicly provide, write about, or even discuss abortion. Since 1993, 11 people have died as a result of anti-abortion violence, and numerous providers, patients, and their families have been injured; as recent data from the National Abortion Federation (NAF) demonstrates, this trend shows little sign of abating. NAF found that in 2017, “trespassing more than tripled, death threats/threats of harm nearly doubled, and incidents of obstruction rose from 580 in 2016 to more than 1,700 in 2017.” There was also a continued “increase in targeted hate mail/harassing phone calls, and clinic invasions,” as well as “the first attempted bombing in many years.”
According to NAF’s 2016 report, rates of anti-abortion clinic protests were already at the highest levels seen since the organization began tracking incidents in 1977. And in 2018, there have already been numerous reports of violence or threats against clinics, with incidents reported in Illinois, New Jersey, Utah, Texas, Pennsylvania, California, Washington, Massachusetts, and more. In North Carolina, abortion provider Calla Hales has documented the frequent anti-abortion protests and harassment directed at her clinic -- including attacks on her personally.
Nevertheless, right-wing media have frequently fostered or encouraged anti-abortion harassment -- sometimes directly targeting abortion providers by name. Before being ousted from Fox News after public reports that he sexually harassed multiple colleagues, Bill O’Reilly spent years not only spreading misinformation about abortion, but also openly bullying abortion providers like Tiller. Prior to Tiller’s death, O’Reilly called the doctor “Tiller the baby killer” and insisted there was a “special place in hell” for him. After a deadly shooting attack at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic in 2015, O’Reilly defended his previous attacks on Tiller, claiming that his comments were accurate.
Even without O’Reilly, Fox News programming is still rife with anti-abortion misinformation and demonization of abortion providers. In just one example, after Fox News’ The Five briefly moved to a prime-time slot, co-host Greg Gutfeld took a page out of O’Reilly’s playbook and called for anti-abortion violence. During the April 2017 segment, Gutfeld compared abortion to slavery and argued that “if you are pro-life and you believe it is murder, you should be willing to fight” and “start a war” to stop abortions from being performed.
Beyond Fox News, wider right-wing programming has also contributed to an atmosphere that fosters anti-abortion violence and harassment. In 2016, after Robert Dear allegedly opened fire in a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood center (killing three and injuring at least nine more), The New Republic reported on Dear’s penchant for right-wing media such as Fox News and Infowars -- noting in particular how these outlets contributed to Dear’s paranoid, conspiratorial views on abortion and Planned Parenthood. According to The New Republic:
In fact, as I learned from hours of speaking with Dear, the narratives he learned from Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones and Bill O’Reilly and countless far-right web sites meshed perfectly with his paranoid delusions, misogynist beliefs, and violent fantasies. The right-wing media didn’t just tell him what he wanted to hear. They brought authority and detail to a world he was convinced was tormenting him. They were his shelter and his inspiration, his only real community.
Fox News had launched in October 1996, a little more than a year after the Oklahoma City bombing, and O’Reilly was one of its biggest on-air talents. “Fox gives voice to people who can’t get on other networks,” O’Reilly later told a reporter. “When was the last time you saw pro-life people unless they shot somebody?” Like Limbaugh, O’Reilly devoted lots of air time to denouncing abortions, and those who provided them.
That the conspiracy theory site Infowars would follow this playbook for stoking anti-abortion harassment is of little surprise.