Violence Against Abortion Clinics Is on the Rise in Sanctuary States. Will Funders Meet the Need?

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In Michigan, an extremist tried to set fire to a clinic; in New York, another followed a patient all the way into a clinic’s elevator and pushed every button to delay the patient from getting care. Clinics and clinic staff in California have faced stalkers, invaders and arson.

These are just a few examples from the 2022 National Abortion Federation’s Violence & Disruption Statistics Report, which tells a troubling story: Now that Republican-held states are banning abortion for poor and middle-class people after the extremist Dobbs decision, people who are willing to go to virtually any length to stop patients from accessing abortion care are taking their violence to states where abortion rights are protected. 

The numbers, and the people those numbers represent, pose a challenge for funders whose missions include protecting abortion access. We’ve seen an influx of support for local abortion funds and for patients needing to travel to access care. But being able to get to a clinic won’t do patients much good if, when they arrive, that clinic is closed because of a security breach or worse. 

“Lots of individuals just assumed that, because hostile states banned care and clinics closed, this wouldn’t be an issue anymore,” said National Abortion Federation (NAF) Chief Program Officer Melissa Fowler. “They assumed people aren't going to be protesting or invading clinics in these very liberal states.” Instead, Fowler said, extremists are “following the same paths as patients” who travel to sanctuary states for the care they need. Fowler said that NAF is just starting to ramp up a fundraising program for individuals to support clinic security. 

NAF’s numbers are grim; doubly so in light of the fact that the Dobbs decision was handed down just halfway through 2022. Last year, assault and battery incidents targeting clinics in abortion sanctuary states increased by 29%. Stalking went up 913%, bomb threats by over 100%, and clinic obstruction increased by 538%. 

“We're seeing invasions and doctors being stalked in California, invasions in Oregon, and all the places where people think, ‘Oh, we're, we're good, everything is fine there,’” Fowler said, “and some of these clinics haven't experienced so many security threats before.” 

These increased threats are taking place at the worst possible time: while clinics in sanctuary states are simultaneously trying to boost their capacity to serve the flood of patients who are being forced to travel farther every day to access care. 

Making sure that patients who have to travel for care can do so has been an understandable focus, with everyone from faith groups and employers to the Pentagon moving money to get people in need to abortion sanctuary states. Individual donors have also been heavily on board; millions of dollars, including recurring donations, poured in from tens of thousands of individuals both after the Dobbs decision leaked and when it was formally released last year. 

Donors want to know that they’re making a real difference by providing direct patient assistance, Fowler said. But it’s harder to make a broader case to the public for supporting travel for patients and brick-and-mortar clinics if needs like security are not addressed. NAF’s fundraising program in support of clinic security has mostly relied on longtime funders dedicated to this issue. 

The organization’s Security and Safe Access Program is primarily funded by a handful of private foundations, which currently support roughly 95% of the program’s roughly $500,000 budget. Those funds support work that includes on-site security assessments at both clinics and in providers’ homes and security practice drills. 

That assistance is vitally important, but Fowler would also like to be able to move money directly to clinics to invest their own security. Ideally, Fowler would also like to take some of the security burden off of clinics entirely, with ideas including centralizing the collection and monitoring of security footage and providing tech support for security hardware and software. 

“A lot of clinics don't have the time and capacity or dedicated staff who can focus just on security because they're healthcare providers,” Fowler said. She estimated that NAF needs just over $2 million per year to implement new services and support for clinics.

The National Abortion Federation isn’t alone in recognizing that abortion providers need help keeping themselves and their patients safe. San Francisco, New York and New Jersey have provided either direct funding or loans to beef up clinic security in their areas. Local and state government efforts are both welcome and needed in this fight. But absent a sustained, coordinated effort by local, state and federal governments alike to crack down on violent anti-abortion extremists and protect clinics and patients, clinic security is an issue that’s crying out for a strong, public commitment from funders.