December 7, 2015

Has Hateful Rhetoric Led to an Epidemic of Violence Against Abortion Providers?

Planned Parenthood volunteers help bring the f...
Planned Parenthood volunteers help bring the fight for health insurance reform to the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We are all familiar with the hateful anti-abortion rhetoric that comes from many Christian extremists. We have been hearing it from them for at least a few decades now, and it is a source of concern. It makes sense that persons who truly believe that abortion is genocide, for example, might support a variety of extreme acts, including violence, to end the perceived genocide.

Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of U.S. Christians, including Christian extremists, who consider abortion to be a form of genocide or murder do not commit acts of violence against abortion providers (or anyone else). If exposure to anti-abortion rhetoric led to violence against abortion providers, wouldn't we have to expect that there would be far more of it than there is?

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, recently wrote a post at Freethought Now in which she asserted,
The anti-abortionists and politicians who’ve repeatedly defamed Planned Parenthood for years, ratcheting up the attack in recent months, have blood on their hands. There’s no question their incendiary rhetoric has escalated the threats and attacks against abortion clinics.
As a liberal who supports Planned Parenthood, I am naturally sympathetic to her viewpoint. As a freethinker and a skeptic, this tells me that I must be particularly careful. I need to critically evaluate her claim and the evidence for and against it rather than just blindly accepting it because it feels true or is consistent with my views.

The link she included in support of her claim that "incendiary rhetoric" has led to an escalation in "threats and attacks" against clinics takes us to an article by Nina Liss-Schultz for Mother Jones. Let's take a look at the data Ms. Liss-Schultz pulled together for her article. Before we do, here is a concise summary of the claim both Liss-Schultz and Gaylor appear to be making:
Since the release of the Center for Medical Progress' videos that purport to show Planned Parenthood selling fetal issue, harassment, threats, and attacks against abortion providers, their staff, and facilities have surged dramatically across the country, according to new numbers from the National Abortion Federation.
The article quotes Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, as saying, "Since the series of highly edited, misleading anti-abortion videos was released in July, we have seen an unprecedented increase in hate speech and threats against abortion providers." The article also notes that the escalation is supported by data from the FBI.

Now that we are clear on what is being claimed, what does the evidence tell us? According to Liss-Schultz's article, we are provided with the following evidence of escalation since the Planned Parenthood videos were released in July:
  • An anonymous reader at Fox Nation's website posted a comment offering to pay for the murder of a specific physician who provides abortion services for Planned Parenthood.
  • Another physician who provides abortion services for Planned Parenthood came home to a protest at her home and found flyers depicting her as a murderer.
  • The National Abortion Federation reported a ninefold increase of "harassment, threats of violence, and attacks against clinics" from June to July, an increase which continued into August.
While the first two pieces of evidence are of limited utility, the third seems to have some promise. A ninefold increase is certainly large enough to command some attention.
In the four months following the release of the videos, there have been at least four suspected arsons that targeted abortion clinics, compared with just one in all of 2014 and none in 2013. There have been at least five cases of vandalism since August. In comparison, there were 12 total cases of clinic vandalism in all of 2014 and just five cases in 2013, according to federation figures.
The thing about claims like this is that if the rate of "threats and attacks" (recall that Gaylor's assertion was that the rhetoric escalated "threats and attacks") was at or near zero prior to July, we can get to a ninefold increase fairly easily without anything approaching epidemic rates of violence. It will be even easier if we lump harassment, threats, property damage, and actual violence together.

From the above quote, we learn that since the July release of the Planned Parenthood videos, the claimed precipitant for this significant escalation, the following has taken place:
  • There have been four suspected arsons targeting abortion clinics (compared with one in 2014 and none in 2013).
  • There have been five cases of clinic vandalism (compared with 12 on all of 2014 and 5 in all of 2013).
Does this sound like sufficient evidence of the claim that the Planned Parenthood videos and other hateful rhetoric are leading to what the Mother Jones article characterizes as an "ugly surge in violence and threats" against abortion clinics? Even if we decide that vandalism now counts as "violence," this seems weak.

Of course, the best evidence of all would have to be the recent murders of three people at the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, right?
The deaths of three people at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood on Friday were the first slayings linked to an abortion clinic in six years.
No murders for six years, the Planned Parenthood videos are released, and we have murders. Coincidence? Maybe. Compelling evidence of a causal relationship? Hardly. One violent attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic is a tragedy, not a trend.

There's no question that the staff who work at clinics that provide abortion services (or are perceived as providing these services even if they do not actually do so) are doing something admirable that requires considerable courage. They face unimaginable crap on a daily basis, and there are a number of Christian extremists out there who would like to see harm come to them. Reproductive rights for women must be maintained, and that means that abortion must remain legal, safe, and accessible. We cannot tolerate specific threats of violence, property damage, or actual violence against these providers and their clinics.

At the same time, I think we need to be skeptical of claims that hateful rhetoric is fueling an epidemic of violence against abortion clinics. The evidence supporting such claims is not particularly compelling. Those of us who aspire to believe things that are true and not to believe things unlikely to be true are advised to exercise some caution here.

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