There is never a good time to talk about anti-abortion terrorism and violence statistics. Any conversation about the nature of threats to abortion providers will without fail inspire charges that I am ignoring or downplaying threats or violence against clinics and providers.
Sadly, the alternative is to watch the ascendancy of the narrative that there is a dangerous surge in abortion violence, with the always implied but rarely supported claim that this surge is due to dangerous rhetoric from pro-life individuals and organizations. In the last week, we’ve seen this from Mother Jones, Vox, and Salon.
Based on these articles, many people think that there is an epidemic of violence against abortion providers. It is difficult to argue against this because 1) the media coverage of attacks is so extensive that it seems to run against common sense to argue that they are rare 2) I wouldn’t want to discount the fear that stems from acts such as the Colorado shooting or the recent arsons. That is, after all, how terror works, and I’ve been very cautious to avoid being the person who downplays the danger of terrorism simply because it is rare (as President Obama did following the Paris attacks).
But the fact of the matter is that, based on data from the pro-choice National Abortion Federation (NAF), violence against abortion providers was substantially more common in the 1990s while the last 15 years have seen remarkably little violence. This seems absurd to say in light of the terrible shooting last week, but the data are unambiguous.
Note: For this review of the data, I’m looking specifically at the crimes that NAF says were classified as such by the law-enforcement agencies. These crimes are: murder, attempted murder, arson, attempted arson, and bombings. This is not to downplay the nature of other crimes such as vandalism, trespassing, or assault, but it is not clear whether NAF verifies these crimes with reports to law enforcement or they are hearsay reports. For this reason, I’m forced to focus on the verified criminal events.
A little bit of history is in order. While statistics for individual years are not available before 1994, every year from 1977 to 1993 there was an average of two bombings, eleven attempted or successful arson attacks, and five acid attacks. From 1994 to 2000, attacks were terrifyingly common, including six murders and 14 attempted murders in those six years, along with yearly bombings and arson attacks. Even acid attacks were still common. These attacks were frequently coordinated attacks involving the Army of God, a terrorist anti-abortion group.
I don’t know if there was an organized effort to reduce anti-abortion violence in law enforcement or within the pro-life community but, if there was, we can only conclude that it worked. Violence against clinics has dramatically dropped off. The number of incidents has declined from 15 per year in the 1990s to three per year for the last 15 years.
#share#No one disagrees with this data. But the conviction among so many is that anti-abortion violence is common and getting worse. The problem in questioning this kind of panic-inducing rhetoric is that we do not know how to quantify things like “rare” and “surge”?
The ironic thing about anti-abortion violence is that it is so infrequent that as few as two incidents can qualify as a “surge.” In 2013, abortion violence wasn’t “rare.” It was non-existent. The NAF recorded not a single incident of law-enforcement-verified violence in the country. In 2014, violence increased a tiny (almost immeasurable) percent, with a single incident of arson in the country. The current 2015 “surge” in abortion violence consists of the recent shooting along with two arsons and two attempted arsons.
It is the inclusion of arson in these statistics that gives me the most pause. In the past, we (as a country and culture) have shown substantially less concern about arson attacks that aren’t intended to maim or kill. Perhaps we should be more concerned about these kinds of arson, because they can certainly be used as a terror tactic and can be a major act of violence and disruption. But there are many instances of zero-injury arsons with other explicitly political terrorists, such as radical environmental groups, that fly completely under the media radar.
Arson is the main weapon of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), for instance. I can’t find formal statistics on ALF’s crimes, but a review of publicly reported ALF incidents shows that ALF attacks have been more common than anti-abortion violence in the past decade.
Furthermore, if we’re taking a hard line on arson as a terror tactic, it would be nice to see the Left finally give Obama some grief for his association with Bill Ayers, who has repeatedly excused his bombings, vandalism, and arson because they didn’t injure or kill anyone. Two weeks ago, I would have joined most liberals in shrugging off Ayers’s bombings exactly because they weren’t intended to maim or kill but to disrupt legal activity. However, in the many stories of the “escalation” of anti-abortion violence, writers have persuaded me that no-injury arson is dangerous, disruptive, and a tactic for inspiring fear, and that discounting arson as a terrifying tool in the terrorism toolkit would be a mistake. So I hope that we might rethink our comfort level with people and organizations who use these tactics.
Even including arson and attempted arson as terrorist events, if we compare anti-abortion violence to other forms of violence like hate crimes or police killings, abortion violence is so rare that it almost flies under the statistical radar. A single incident looks big because there are so few incidents.
#related#By way of comparison: If we called abortion violence “common” and “epidemic” then let’s compare it to anti-heterosexual hate crime, which I hope we can agree isn’t an epidemic. Yet, since 2001, there have been eight times more anti-straight hate crimes than all forms of abortion violence combined.
There are good reasons to say that this comparison is a poor one. For example, there are hundreds of millions of straight people and only about a thousand abortion and Planned Parenthood clinics (not every Planned Parenthood clinic performs surgical abortions), so even a few violent acts will translate into a much higher rate of violence. I despise those ridiculous “furniture is more dangerous than terrorism” articles that draw absurd comparisons between incomparable events, although I think it makes more sense to compare hate crimes and anti-abortion violence than to compare furniture injuries and terrorism. The ALF comparison is probably the most informative, even in the absence of formal statistics.
Don’t misunderstand me: Every act of anti-abortion violence is abhorrent. And I’m not in any way saying that arson as a weapon of terror is harmless. But let’s recognize that most pro-lifers not only loudly repudiate these kinds of actions, they also don’t engage in them with a frequency that allows us to call them anything except “rare.”
— Matt Shapiro blogs for The Paradox Project.