National Review writer’s distortion invites harassment of an abortion clinic director

National Review writer’s distortion invites harassment of an abortion clinic director

››› ››› JULIE TULBERT

As abortion clinic director Calla Hales highlighted the numerous potential legal inconsistencies of an anti-abortion bill making its way through the North Carolina legislature, National Review writer Alexandra DeSanctis selectively pulled a tweet from Hales’ Twitter thread to wrongly claim the clinic director didn’t believe infants were legal persons until 30 days after birth. This willful misrepresentation sparked harassment of Hales by right-wing and anti-abortion media -- once again demonstrating the dangerous consequences of incendiary anti-abortion rhetoric.


Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Abortion clinic director Calla Hales tweeted about the so-called “born alive” bill making its way through the North Carolina legislature

On April 10, abortion clinic director Calla Hales tweeted about a North Carolina anti-abortion bill. Calla Hales, the director of A Preferred Women’s Health Center -- which has two abortion clinics in North Carolina and two in Georgia -- tweeted about a bill moving through the North Carolina legislature that would make it a felony for providers not to provide care for infants supposedly “born alive” after an abortion. Just like the currently proposed federal version of this bill, the concept of abortions being performed “after birth” is not based in any medical practice or standard of care, and such procedures are already outlawed under existing homicide codes. As Hales explained on Twitter, “the wording” of the North Carolina bill “makes it seem like this is a common outcome, when it’s truly a false narrative about abortions performed later in pregnancy.” Instead, she said, “The NC version of this bill, SB 359, is worded in such a way that it clearly seeks to vilify abortion providers and aims to criminalize them.” Hales went on to explain how the bill could be exploited by anti-choice politicians if enacted and how it would compound the damage done by existing anti-choice laws in North Carolina. [Twitter, 4/10/19, 4/10/19, 4/10/19; A Preferred Women’s Health Center, accessed 4/15/19; WRAL, 4/10/19; Media Matters, 3/5/19]

Expanding on her Twitter thread, Hales wrote an op-ed for Rewire.News drawing attention to the North Carolina bill. On April 12, Hales wrote about the implications of the North Carolina bill for Rewire.News, saying, “While it should be apparent, it is still necessary to point out that any intentional action to end the life of an infant is already illegal. This is covered by federal and state infanticide laws.” Instead, Hales continued, these so-called “born alive” bills are “entirely based on propaganda. It is highly unlikely for an abortion to result in a live birth.” Hales also pointed out “the clear hypocrisy of these bills,” which “emphasize that any ‘live’ birth must be subject to lifesaving measures. This entirely disregards the input of both the physician and the parents involved in any birth situation.” Hales wrote that such legislation “would revoke the option for a parent to sign a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ order to limit their infant’s distress, specifically in cases of possible debilitating fetal defects.” Hales concluded, “To put it bluntly: These bills are blatant attempts for legislators to control how and when physicians provide care.” [Rewire.News, 4/12/19]

National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis selectively engaged with Hales’ thread about the bill, choosing to take a comment out of context to advance an anti-abortion narrative

On April 11, National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis shared one of Hales’ tweets to make false claims about Hales’ positions. Alexandra DeSanctis, a staff writer at National Review, quote tweeted one of Hales’ tweets about the North Carolina bill -- and put an inaccurate spin on Hales’ words for her followers. Hales’ tweet highlighted some of the potentially unconsidered legal implications of the bill. For example, as Hales explained, while the bill states a “born alive” infant “is a legal person for all purposes,” that definition appeared to be in conflict with Hales’ “understanding that an infant younger than 30 days cannot be added to a will in NC.” DeSanctis shared only this part of Hales’ thread, adding an inaccurate frame: “Oh, here’s a @NARALNC board member opposing a born-alive bill in North Carolina and claiming that an infant can’t be a legal person because you can’t add them to a will until they’re 30 days old.” [Twitter, 4/10/19, 4/11/19]

Following DeSanctis’ inaccurate characterization of her tweet, Hales had to lock her account because of harassment she was receiving. After DeSanctis’ tweet, Hales wrote on Twitter that she was temporarily locking her account due to outrage and harassment sparked by DeSanctis. DeSanctis responded by tweeting screenshots of Hales’ comments and an image of her then-locked Twitter page. In her op-ed for Rewire.News, Hales further explained her decision to lock her account, writing:

Yesterday morning, I tweeted that there are inheritance laws that put limits on how old a newborn must be to inherit, pointing out another potential inconsistency to the idea of a newborn having full legal rights. By the afternoon, I had to lock my account to private in order to avoid the threats and harassment I was getting after a conservative journalist wrongfully claimed that I’d suggested babies younger than 30 days old were not legal persons. [Twitter, 4/11/19, 4/11/19; Rewire.News, 4/12/19]

Following DeSanctis’ misrepresentation of her tweet, Hales received harassment on numerous social media platforms and in right-wing outlets

After DeSanctis’ selectively quoted and falsely framed her tweet, Hales suffered harassment across social media platforms and in a number of right-wing outlets:

  • North Carolina Republican state Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger posted a screenshot of Hales’ tweet on Facebook and repeated DeSanctis’ inaccurate framing, stating that, “a board member for the North Carolina branch of NARAL, a pro-choice organization, just argued against the bill because the infant can’t be added to a will until 30 days old.” Berger also wrote, “It's not possible to describe how disheartening it is to read those words and realize that we can’t even agree on a bill to ban infanticide.” [North Carolina General Assembly, accessed 4/15/19; Facebook, 4/11/19]

  • Anti-abortion outlet LifeNews.com published an article with the title “Abortion Clinic Director Says Newborn Baby Less Than 30 Days Old Not a ‘Legal Person.’” In the article, LifeNews.com’s Steven Ertelt wrote, “Hales doesn’t believe that newborn babies immediately after birth are legal persons,” but that her “comments, while horrific, are not surprising given that abortion activist[s] are consistently opposing legislation to protect babies who survive abortions.” The article also received significant engagement on LifeNews.com’s Facebook page -- garnering more than a thousand comments and shares. [LifeNews.com, 4/12/19; Facebook, 4/12/19]
  • LifeNews.com also spread the mischaracterization of Hales’ tweet on Twitter. Notably, when other users called out LifeNews.com for harassing Hales, the account claimed that people simply “can’t handle” the criticism. [Twitter, 4/12/19, 4/12/19]

  • TheBlaze also published a story premised on DeSanctis’ inaccurate framing, complete with a picture of a newborn infant leading the article. The piece claimed Hales “questioned why the survivors of botched abortions should be considered legal persons under state law” and further alleged that she had “mocked” the bill by pointing out its potential legal inconsistencies. TheBlaze founder Glenn Beck also posted the story on his Facebook page -- sharing it with his 2.6 million followers -- with the caption “Jeez.” [TheBlaze, 4/12/19; Facebook, 4/12/19]

  • Anti-abortion group Americans United for Life shared TheBlaze's article on the organization’s Twitter and Facebook pages with the caption “HEARTLESS.” [Twitter, 4/12/19; Facebook, 4/12/19]
  • RedState wrote an article with the headline, “SICK: NC Abortion Provider Tweets Vile Excuse For Why Infants Should Not Be Considered Legal Persons At Birth.” [RedState, 4/12/19]
  • Live Action News, the media platform of the anti-abortion group Live Action, said Hales’ tweet was “fitting of the days of slavery,” and retorted, “Before 1920 women couldn’t vote, so were they legally people? In 1870, non-white men and former slaves were given the right to vote but were blocked from doing so until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. At what point did they suddenly become people?” [Live Action, 4/13/19]

The harassment sparked by DeSanctis’ tweet is yet another example of how right-wing media contribute to and create conditions for violence and harassment against abortion clinic workers and providers

This isn’t the first time Hales has experienced harassment from right-wing media and anti-choice extremists. In June 2017, Hales told Cosmopolitan that a date raped her after she told him that she worked at an abortion clinic. In the following weeks, the protesters outside a Raleigh, NC, clinic -- where she worked at the time -- began yelling personal details about Hales and “echoing words said to her during the assault.” Hales started feeling “increasingly fearful, paranoid, and alone,” so she relocated to work at the Charlotte, NC, clinic. Hales said she didn’t press charges because, in part, she feared “retribution on my parents, my friends, my business, and my staff.” Following the release of the Cosmopolitan article, Hales again faced targeted harassment not just from protesters outside the clinic, but from anti-abortion and right-wing media outlets as well. Pregnancy Help News, LifeNews.com, The Federalist, and Fox News’ website all ran articles attacking Hales, accusing her of letting a rapist walk free to “trash pro-life people.” In Rewire.News’ documentary Care In Chaos, Hales further detailed the particularly vitriolic harassment she faced at the Charlotte clinic, as well as the lack of response she received from the local police. [Cosmopolitan, 6/26/17; Bustle, 6/5/17; Pregnancy Help News, 6/28/17; LifeNews.com, 6/29/17; The Federalist, 7/3/17; Fox News, 7/3/17; Rewire.News, 7/11/17]

In 2018, abortion provider Leah Torres had to relocate following a right-wing and anti-abortion media harassment campaign. Following a tweet that was similarly misinterpreted by right-wing media, abortion provider Dr. Leah Torres faced a harassment campaign online and from right-wing media in 2018. The “massive campaign of mob harassment,” including “death threats against her,” resulted in Torres having “to leave Utah to find work” elsewhere. [The Deseret News, 3/14/19]

Attacks on abortion clinics and providers have led to 11 deaths since 1993. Right-wing media still regularly echoed extreme anti-abortion rhetoric. In 1993, anti-abortion extremist Michael Griffin assassinated Dr. David Gunn outside his clinic in the first known murder of an abortion doctor in the United States. Since then, anti-abortion sentiment has contributed to at least 10 other deaths, numerous injuries to providers and patients, and threats against their families. In 2009, anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder murdered abortion provider Dr. George Tiller while Tiller was attending church. Before Tiller's assassination -- and prior to Bill O’Reilly’s ouster from Fox News due to numerous sexual harassment allegations -- O’Reilly openly bullied Tiller on his program. According to Rolling Stone, “O’Reilly had waged an unflagging war against Tiller that did just about everything short of urging his followers to murder him.” In 2015, Robert Dear opened fire in a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic, killing three and injuring at least nine more. After the attack, Dear reportedly said the phrase “no more baby parts” as an explanation, likely referring to an oft-repeated right-wing media talking point based on deceptive 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, saying it shaped his paranoid and conspiratorial views about abortion and Planned Parenthood and may have influenced his actions. [The New York Times, 11/29/15; Media Matters, 12/2/15; Rolling Stone, 4/19/17; The New Republic, 12/15/16]

Abortion clinics and providers have faced increasing threats in recent years, including trespassing, death threats, and targeted hate mail. In a 2018 report on harassment of abortion providers during the previous year, the National Abortion Federation found that “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” in 2017, as well as “the first attempted bombing in many years.” In 2018, there were documented incidents of violence or threats against clinics reported in Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, Washington, Massachusetts, Iowa and more. [National Abortion Federation, accessed 4/15/19; Chicago Tribune, 2/7/18; NJ.com, 2/24/18; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 3/22/18; KSBW-TV, 9/7/18; Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, 4/18/18; The Salem News, 4/18/18; Iowa City Press-Citizen, 9/24/18]

2019 has seen a dangerous escalation of incendiary anti-abortion rhetoric after numerous right-wing media outlets claimed that Democrats are promoting “abortion up to birth” or “infanticide.” After Virginia and New York attempted to protect abortion access later in pregnancy, right-wing media and conservative lawmakers responded by inaccurately claiming that Democrats were pushing for abortion to be legal “up to birth” or even after. Despite those claims having no basis in the reality of either medical care or abortion procedures, it has become a central tenet of Republicans’ and President Donald Trump’s messaging strategy for the 2020 campaign. Here are some of the incidents of anti-abortion violence and harassment already reported in 2019:

  • In January, following comments from state Del. Kathy Tran (D) about the Virginia measure -- which ultimately failed -- Tran and the Democratic Party of Virginia “were forced to take security precautions … after anti-abortion activists began sending a flurry of death threats and racist messages.”
  • In February, The Virginian-Pilot reported that a man in Virginia was “charged with threatening to assault a U.S. official” after he allegedly threatened “to punch and shoot U.S. Sen. Mark Warner [D-VA] because of his stances on issues like abortion.”
  • On March 4, a man was charged with "using explosive material" for trying to burn down an empty Planned Parenthood clinic in Missouri. The Associated Press noted that "evidence gathered in the investigation ... indicates the suspect believes he is on a mission to protect the unborn."
  • In February, a Texas teenager was arrested for “making a terroristic threat” after allegedly threatening “on Twitter to ‘commit jihad’ on an abortion clinic.”
  •  In April, the U.S. Department of Justice revealed that a woman in St. Louis had plead guilty to ”transmitting a threatening communication over the internet for posting on Twitter threatening to ‘blow up’ Planned Parenthood facilities and injure Planned Parenthood staff.” [Media Matters, 1/31/19, 2/4/19, 2/5/19, 2/28/19, 3/5/19, 3/19/19; The Washington Post, 1/30/19; ThinkProgress, 2/1/19; The Virginian-Pilot, 2/27/19; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 3/4/19; The Associated Press, 4/15/19; The Dallas Morning News, 2/26/19; U.S. Department of Justice, 4/9/19]
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