AP, NYT Help Anti-Abortion Protesters Market A “New Face” That Downplays Threat Of Violence

The Associated Press and The New York Times deceptively highlighted 77-year-old Eleanor McCullen as the “new face” of anti-abortion activists, thereby downplaying the threat of violence that women continue to face when seeking medical care at women's health clinics. 

This week, the Supreme Court will consider a challenge to a 2007 Massachusetts statute that creates “buffer zones” around reproductive health centers to ensure the safety of patients and staff from anti-abortion protests, which have a history of turning violent. In the past, Massachusetts' buffer zone law has been repeatedly upheld as constitutional by the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Associated Press' (AP) January 13 coverage of the case highlighted plaintiff Eleanor McCullen as “the new face of a decades-old fight” between anti-abortion protesters and health clinics and paid special attention “her pleasant demeanor and grandmotherly mien.” A New York Times profile of McCullen similarly framed anti-abortion protesters as harmless, noting that McMullen “is 77, and she said she posed no threat”: 

“I am 5 feet 1 inch tall,” she said in a sworn statement filed in the case. “My body type can be described as 'plump.' I am a mother and grandmother.”

The only other protester featured by the Times is the similarly unimposing 81-year-old Mary O'Donnell, who “said she found the line baffling.”

Both outlets briefly noted that Massachusetts buffer zone law was approved in response to, in the Times' words, “an ugly history of harassment and violence at abortion including a shooting rampage at two facilities in 1994,” but neither provided any mention of the ongoing need for such protections or cited any discussion of the violence women seeking medical care at have faced at hands of anti-abortion activists in the past 20 years.

In fact, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has called anti-abortion violence “America's [f]orgotten [t]errorism,” emphasizing that content-neutral buffer zones are necessary because patients and doctors of health facilities that offer abortion services remain targets of violent attacks “from murders to arsons to bombings.” According to ADL:

Anti-abortion violence has actually remained a consistent, if secondary, source of domestic terrorism and violence, manifesting itself most often in assaults and vandalism, with occasional arsons, bombings, drive-by shootings, and assassination attempts. As one anti-abortion extremist, while serving a prison sentence for anti-abortion arsons, put it in 2010: “Abortionists are killed because they are serial murderers of innocent children who must be stopped, and they will continue to be stopped.”

In addition to the Green Bay firebombing, some other recent examples of anti-abortion violence include:

  • Madison, Wisconsin, March 2012: A federal grand jury indicted Ralph Lang, 63, on charges of attempting to intimidate by force people participating in a program receiving federal financial assistance, as well as using or carrying a firearm in relation to the alleged crime. According to police, Lang travelled to Madison to threaten to kill people at a local Planned Parenthood clinic; he was arrested after allegedly firing his gun in a motel room while practicing drawing it.
  • Pensacola, Florida, February 2012: A federal grand jury indicted Bobby Joe Rogers, 41, of Pensacola, Florida, for the alleged arson of a women's health clinic in Pensacola the previous month. Rogers allegedly used a Molotov cocktail (a type of incendiary device) to set the fire.
  • Madera, California, January 2012: A federal court sentenced Donny Eugene Mower, 38, to five years in prison for having thrown a Molotov cocktail at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Madera in 2010, leaving behind a note that read, in part, “Let's see if you can burn just as well as your victims.”
  • McKinney, Texas, July 2011: A Molotov cocktail was thrown at a Planned Parenthood clinic in north Texas.
  • Greensboro, North Carolina, March 2011: Justin Carl Moose, 26, received a 30-month federal prison sentence after pleading guilty to distributing information pertaining to the manufacturing and use of an explosive. Moose, who claimed to be part of the radical anti-abortion group Army of God, had described himself as an “extremist radical fundamentalist” who wanted to fight abortion “by any means necessary and at any cost.” He had provided bomb-making instructions to an undercover FBI informant whom he thought was going to bomb an abortion clinic.
  • Wichita, Kansas, April 2010: A federal court sentenced anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder to life in prison on first degree murder and aggravated assault charges for the June 2009 assassination of a Wichita physician who performed abortion procedures.
  • Plano, Texas, April 2010: FBI agents arrested Erlydon Lo, 27, on charges that he threatened to use deadly force against a women's clinic in Dallas. Lo had filed a document threatening to appear at the facility the next day that said, in part, “if I must use deadly force to defend the innocent life of another human being, I will.”
  • St. Paul, Minnesota, May 2009: Matthew Lee Derosia, 33, received a sentence of time serviced and five years of probation for purposely driving his truck earlier that year into the front of a St. Paul Planned Parenthood clinic on the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade.

The AP and New York Times' misleading characterizations of abortion protesters provide an inaccurate picture of the danger women have historically faced in seeking care at womens' health clinics. As the LA Times noted on December 2, 2013, "[t]hough there are many civil, reasonable anti-abortion protesters in the world, history shows that some have turned the perimeters of reproductive health clinics into battlegrounds, using intimidation and sometimes violence."