Right-wing media shouldn't downplay recent anti-abortion threats by white supremacists


Citation Ceci Freed / Media Matters

Violence against abortion providers is an ongoing and increasingly severe problem in the United States, against the backdrop of right-wing media’s continued use of sensationalized misinformation about abortion. In the past year, a number of threats against abortion clinics by white supremacists have made headlines, with these anti-abortion extremists also using sensationalized language about abortion. As white supremacists co-opt extreme anti-abortion rhetoric, right-wing media should be cautious not to downplay -- once again -- the danger of these threats.

Anti-abortion violence, harassment, and intimidation are continuous threats in the United States and have only intensified as abortion opponents feel emboldened by the current anti-choice political climate. Since 1990, 11 people have died as a result of extremist anti-abortion violence, and innumerable others have endured relentless threats and harassment while providing or accessing abortion care. In May 2019, the National Abortion Federation (NAF) released a report that analyzed violence, intimidation, and harassment of abortion providers from the previous year. According to the report, NAF abortion providers and clinics encountered: 21,252 incidents of hate emails and internet harassment, 1,135 incidents of trespassing, and 1,388 harassing calls or hate mail in 2018. Abortion providers also told NAF that they experienced 57 threats of harm or death threats and 15 cases of assault and battery.

Despite these sobering statistics, right-wing media has consistently downplayed the severity of anti-abortion violence and threats against abortion providers. In 2015, an anti-abortion extremist opened fire at the Colorado Springs' Planned Parenthood clinic, killing three and injuring nine more. The Colorado Springs shooter reportedly offered the phrase “no more baby parts” as an explanation for his actions. His comment seemingly referred to an oft-repeated right-wing media talking point based on deceptive undercover videos from the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress. The New Republic reported on the admitted shooter’s penchant for right-wing media such as Fox News and Infowars, explaining how these outlets shaped his paranoid and conspiratorial views about abortion and Planned Parenthood and how that may have influenced his actions. But rather than take note of these apparent influences, right-wing media outlets disputed the seriousness of the attack, dismissing violence against abortion providers as “rare” or minimizing the shooter as a lone wolf or outlier. 

Similarly, right-wing media downplayed their actions after the 2009 murder of Dr. George Tiller by anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder, who assassinated Tiller while the doctor was attending church. Before the attack, former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly repeatedly verbally harassed Tiller on-air, referring to the doctor as “Tiller the baby killer” and, at one point, physically threatening the abortion provider. Following Tiller's murder, O'Reilly insisted he had only “reported accurately” on Tiller and denied that he ever referred to Tiller as “Dr. Killer.”

Beyond downplaying extremist anti-abortion violence, right-wing media has amplified sensationalized anti-abortion rhetoric and misinformation. In 2019, Fox News aggressively pushed the malicious lie that Democratic support for abortion access amounted to “infanticide.” A Media Matters study of how abortion is discussed on prime-time cable news programs explained how the network fueled the right-wing media talking point by relentlessly echoing this inaccurate claim. President Donald Trump has also repeatedly invoked this sensationalized rhetoric and anti-abortion misinformation in his campaign rallies and political events, declaring that “virtually every top Democrat also now supports late-term abortion, ripping babies straight from the mother’s womb right up until the moment of birth.” The idea that abortions are performed “until the moment of birth” is fallacious no matter how many times right-wing media and Trump attempt to claim otherwise.

Equally concerning is the increasing prevalence of white supremacists' threats against abortion providers and the way these extremists use sensationalized anti-abortion language. In January, 18-year-old Samuel James Gulick flung a Molotov cocktail at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Delaware, causing damage to the building. Gulick was also filmed spray-painting the Latin phrase “Deus Vult” onto the clinic. “Deus Vult,” meaning “God wills it,” is a call to arms and maxim from the Crusades and has become synonymous with white supremacists. It was used by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, during August 2017's “Unite the Right” rally and in the manifesto of the reported gunman of the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shootings in 2019.

In addition to white supremacist rhetoric, as BuzzFeed News explained, Gulick’s social media accounts promoted extreme anti-abortion views:

In one post from September, Gulick posted a drawing titled “The Consequences of Roe v. Wade?” with the claim that “60 million lives have been destroyed since 1973.”

“The Nazis said killing millions of Jews was a national health issue. Democrats are using the same excuse to kill American children,” Gulick wrote. “When will we start shooting? Its about time we kill these genocidal demons.”

In August, another 18-year-old was arrested after posting online about wanting to commit mass shootings, explicitly targeting Planned Parenthood. Like Gulick, Justin Olsen romanticized the Crusades and made various anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion, racist, and xenophobic remarks under the user name “ArmyofChrist” on the image sharing app iFunny. After his arrest, Buzzfeed News examined how iFunny has shifted into a cesspool for white nationalism. iFunny was also used by another anti-abortion extremist, Farhan Sheikh, who was arrested in August after threatening on the site to “slaughter and murder any doctor, patient, or visitor” at an abortion clinic near his home. According to The Washington Post, Sheikh “allegedly admitted he had shared a post on the platform about shooting an abortion clinic and had been subscribed to Olsen’s ‘ArmyOfChrist’ account.”

Anti-abortion groups and individuals recently gathered to participate in the March for Life -- an annual anti-abortion rally in Washington, D.C., to protest the Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade. White nationalists have previously blended with the anti-abortion movement during such events. In January, white nationalist group Patriot Front participated in Chicago’s March for Life rally, seemingly without objection from anti-choice leaders, though the group was rejected by organizers during the 2018 March. The hate group was created from the breakup of another white nationalist group, Vanguard America, following the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

Right-wing media has already inspired harassment and violence against abortion providers by perpetuating harmful and sensationalized rhetoric about abortion. The surge of white nationalists not just employing anti-abortion rhetoric, but allegedly planning or even engaging in attacks against abortion clinics, makes it extremely important for right-wing media outlets to think critically about their role in promoting sensationalized and extreme misinformation on abortion.