The fight over abortion rights has always been intense. The issue is deeply personal, and like lighter fluid to ideas that already spark controversy: women’s reproductive rights, contraception, science vs. religion. But in this political moment, words are like matches—and women and doctors are the ones most likely to get burned.
Careful semantics about abortion are as old as the debate about women’s reproductive rights. Back when Roe v. Wade was decided, anti-choice groups mobilized convincingly around pro-life. Since then the semantics have gotten more graphic, with words like “murder” and “infantacide” becoming the norm, while politicized and medically inaccurate words like “late-term abortion” continue to infiltrate the debate. But lately the rhetoric around abortion has gotten particularly inflammatory. President Trump, at a rally in El Paso, TX earlier this month, falsely implied that babies could be “ripped from their mother’s womb, right up until the moment of birth.”
These words matter, experts say. “Absolutely sensational rhetoric like the kind that we see being thrown around on social media, and also by the President, definitely contributes toward an inaccurate portrayal of what abortion is, who the people are who provide abortions, and who the people are that get abortions,” says Jennifer Conti, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn in California, fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, and host of The V Word podcast.
Spreading misinformation is obviously a major issue. But the more pressing problem, according to those on the front lines of the debate: Rhetoric like this lays the groundwork for violence against patients and abortion providers.
“I’ve seen over and over and over again: as the rhetoric escalates, so does the violence,” says interim president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, the Very Reverend Katherine Ragsdale. She’s been on the frontlines of the fight for abortion rights for 35 years, long enough to see several rounds of “horrific rhetoric and activity”—and long enough to see friends killed in violence related to the movement.
It’s happening again now. “We’ve seen a huge spike in violence and disruption at our clinics since the 2016 election,” she says, citing a 2017 report by the National Abortion Federation. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence.” Case in point: death threats and threats of harm reported by abortion clinics across the country nearly doubled between 2016 and 2017 and incidences of trespassing nearly tripled, according to the report. Most concerning: The first attempted bombing of an abortion clinic in years was reported in Illinois in 2017.
The numbers of protesters (which can take a serious toll on providers and patients) are swelling, too. “It’s intimidation,” says Diane Horvath, M.D., medical director of Whole Women’s Health Clinic in Baltimore. Her clinic often sees anti-choice advocates lurking outside. “It’s very menacing to have people peek into your windows and to have staff worry about who they are going to see when we go outside,” she says. “That’s the whole point: to create this climate of fear.”
It’s not just providers who face threats from inflammatory rhetoric—those seeking medical care also get burned.
Calla Hales, a clinic director who oversees two abortion clinics in Georgia and two in North Carolina, sees so many protesters every day of the year that it’s become a new norm. But this year, something is different. “We definitely noticed a change in rhetoric and in hostility,” she says. Historically, religious groups attempting to intercept patients as they enter the clinic have tried to shame women with language like, “please mom, don’t kill your baby,” Hales says. But recently, things have gotten even more viscous. “We noticed very vulgar, descriptive, inflammatory language: ‘How could you stand to let someone snap their neck? How could you stand to let someone rip your baby apart?’ It’s very upsetting to patients, clearly,” she says.
There’s no indication that anti-choice rhetoric actually keeps women from getting care—abortions happen just as frequently in countries with the most-restrictive abortion laws as they do in countries with the least-restrictive laws, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute—but the shaming does take a toll.