The FBI is expanding its focus on domestic terrorism, and that includes pro-choice violence—even though such violence is so vanishingly rare, it’s all but nonexistent.
In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray disclosed that the bureau has recently “changed our terminology as part of a broader reorganization of the way in which we categorize our domestic terrorism efforts.” It’s part of a much-heralded reinvigoration of the bureau’s domestic terrorism focus after a rising tide of mostly white-supremacist terrorism.
Among four broad categories of domestic terrorism that the FBI confronts, Wray said, is “abortion violent extremism.”
But Wray wasn’t only talking about the pro-life extremism that murders abortion providers in their churches, he hastened to add, but “people on either side of that issue who commit violence on behalf of different views on that topic.”
His questioner, Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), was puzzled at Wray’s seeming equivalence: “People on either side of that issue don’t commit violence.” In fact, the FBI pointed The Daily Beast to just one episode of pro-choice-inspired terrorism—one that did not involve an actual act of violence, but rather a threat in an online comments section.
“The FBI pointed The Daily Beast to just one episode of pro-choice-inspired terrorism – one that did not involve an actual act of violence, but rather a threat in an online comments section.”
But Wray persisted: “Well, we’ve actually had a variety of kinds of violence under that, believe it or not. But at the end of the day.” Bass asked, “Really, that blow up buildings and threaten doctors?” Rather than responding, Wray moved on to detailing the FBI’s next domestic-terrorism category, one about “animal rights and environmental extremism.”
Wray’s comments weren’t the first instance of the bureau promoting the idea of pro-choice violence as a real threat.
In 2017, the FBI distributed a brief “Abortion Extremism Reference Guide” at a counterterrorism training for local law enforcement, listing “pro-choice extremists” as a group of domestic terrorists. The document, first reported by Jezebel, claimed that these extremists “believe it is their moral duty to protect those who provide or receive abortion services”—though even this document noted that only one “pro-choice extremist” had ever been prosecuted. Additionally, an earlier FBI training document obtained by the ACLU in 2012 referenced pro-choice violence but did not “provide a single example of violence against abortion opponents,” the ACLU wrote.
“Abortion violent extremism” of any sort accounts for a only small percentage of FBI domestic terrorism cases. Wray on Wednesday that the “top threat” of domestic terrorism comes from what he called “racially/ethnically motivated violent extremists.” Out of approximately 850 current cases that a senior FBI official cited in congressional testimony last May, about half concern anti-government extremism and another 40 percent concern racist terrorism. That leaves around 85 cases of violence motivated by animal rights, ecological degradation, abortion and miscellaneous cases. An FBI spokesperson confirmed the total caseload and the breakdown are still current.
But abortion extremism doesn’t have an “either side.” The primary case of pro-choice violent extremism that the FBI pointed The Daily Beast toward—the same one cited in the 2017 FBI document—is the 2012 conviction of Theodore Schulman, who had a long history of threatening anti-abortion activists.
Schulman’s ultimate downfall was the result of posting a threat in the comments section of religious conservative outlet First Things: “if Roeder is acquitted, someone will respond by killing” Princeton’s Robert George and Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life, he wrote. That itself spoke to the discrepancy in violence between the two sides. “Roeder” was a reference to Scott Roeder, who murdered abortion provider George Tiller in the foyer of a Wichita church in 2009.
Other instances of anti-abortion violence include a trio of bombings at Florida abortion clinics in 1985, a string of arson attacks on a Washington clinic in 1983, and a 2015 shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood that killed three. Between 1993 and today, anti-abortion activists murdered 11 people and attempted to kill another 26, according to the National Abortion Federation.
“Anti-choice violence as we know it is constant, pervasive, and escalating dramatically, and it threatens the civil liberties as well as the lives of our patents, our members, our society,” NAF President Katherine Ragsdale told The Daily Beast.
Wray’s comments, she added, are a “danger to public perception.”
“It tars everyone with the same brush when in fact pro-choice folks simply are not doing this,” she said.
The Daily Beast has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI to document the extent of its focus on alleged pro-choice violent extremism.
“The bureau seems to be grasping a tiny number of unrelated incidents that are not part of any organized effort to falsely imply that such a ‘domestic terrorist’ movement exists.”
— former FBI special agent Mike German
Mila Johns, a domestic terrorism researcher affiliated with the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, said violence was “very much lopsided in the other direction,” the anti-abortion side, and called Wray’s equivalence “a very political statement.”
The database, which tracks terrorist attacks across the world since 1970, records about 300 incidents related to anti-abortion violence and none for pro-choice violence. However, an Austin woman in 2016 was charged with throwing a crude Molotov cocktail at anti-abortion protesters. And last year, an 85-year old anti-abortion protester in San Francisco was knocked to the ground after he attempted jamming the bicycle spokes of a man who appears to have stolen a pro-life group’s banner.
Troy Newman, the president of Operation Rescue—a radical anti-abortion group that moved its headquarters to Wichita, Kansas, specifically to target Dr. Tiller—said his movement has been on the receiving end of threats. He estimated he had made between 20 and 50 complaints to federal law enforcement over the last two decades, for everything from anthrax scares to online intimidation. Wichita resident Christopher Thompson, he noted, was sentenced to 12 months in jail last year for making menacing calls to Operation Rescue’s office and employees.
But when asked about specific instances of pro-choice violence, Newman cited only the murder of James Pouillon, an Operation Save America activist who was shot while protesting abortion outside a high school in 2009. (The judge in that case said the killer’s motivations were not tied to abortion.) Newman declined to give examples of abortion-rights violence of the scale and magnitude of that enacted by the anti-abortion movement. “You got your scorecard and I got mine,” he said. “All of them are terrible.”
The FBI’s position is that pro-choice activists and groups not concerned with violence don’t need to worry about the new domestic terrorism categorization. “We don’t investigate ideology or rhetoric or anything of that sort,” Wray testified.
An FBI spokesperson declined to comment, but pointed to comments from the bureau’s former assistant director for counterterrorism, Mike McGarrity, from last June. “It is important to remember that in line with our mission to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States, no FBI investigation can be opened solely on the basis of First Amendment-protected activity,” McGarrity testified to a House panel in June. “Rather, domestic terrorism investigations on individuals are opened on the basis of information concerning the occurrence or threat of violent criminal actions by the individual in furtherance of an ideology.”
However, prior episodes during the 18-year-old war on terror show the FBI does not always hold a rigid distinction between ideology that isn’t to be investigated and violence that is. In 2011, its counterterrorism training at Quantico included instructional material that held Islam was an ideology, rather than a religion, with violence baked into its doctrines. The point of the training was to portray Islam itself as a threat to national security—which, for an investigative entity with broad domestic powers, was ominous enough for the Obama administration to order the training materials removed.
Michael German, a former FBI special agent who investigated domestic terrorism, said the FBI was not only engaging in a false equivalence but “the manufacturing of an imaginary violent movement,” reminiscent of its now-discarded “black identity extremism” category.
The bureau “seems to be grasping a tiny number of unrelated incidents that are not part of any organized effort to falsely imply that such a ‘domestic terrorist’ movement exists,” said German, now with the Brennan Center for Justice. “This is a misleading analysis of dubious purpose, apparently to satisfy some political constituency, which is not what an objective law enforcement agency should be doing.”
But for some in the reproductive rights space, the threat posed by anti-abortion violence is enough that they are willing to accept dubious FBI categorization to ensure it gets investigated.
“Those of us in this movement have lost friends and family,” Ragsdale said. “By all means, investigate the escalating violence.”
“And if politics requires you to have a category that says pro-choice violence, go right ahead,” she added. “I’d be interested to see if anything ever pops up.”