In the aftermath of the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, thousands of people across the country have turned out on the streets to protest the rollback of reproductive rights. Some, like the group Jane’s Revenge, have pursued more confrontational tactics, including arson and vandalism. These two approaches have little in common; few pro-choice groups have acknowledged Jane’s Revenge, much less endorsed its tactics. But treating confrontational abortion protest tactics as terrorism – as over 100 Representatives have called for – would have grave repercussions for the entire pro-choice movement.
Abortion activism already takes place in an atmosphere of suspicion. The June National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin identified “individuals who advocate both for and against abortion” as a rising threat – an echo of FBI and DHS Strategic Intelligence Assessments that have identified “Abortion-Related Violent Extremism” as a leading threat to American safety, right up there with sovereign citizen militias and violent white supremacists. Despite naming abortion-related violent extremism as a major threat, the 2021 report struggles to find any incidents underpinning the claim. It names only one abortion-related incident during the entire period from 2015 to 2019: the 2015 mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado. The Abortion-Related Violent Extremism category exists as a legacy of attacks on abortion clinics from the 1970s onward by pro-life activists, actions which included at least 11 murders, 194 arson attacks, and 42 bombings of abortion clinics, but does not reflect current reality. The recent vandalism by Jane’s Revenge activists hardly holds a candle to the much bloodier history of pro-life activism, and, as the dearth of recent incidents indicates, neither should number among top national security concerns. Yet under this framework, protests in favor of reproductive rights could be treated as terrorism.
The definition of domestic terrorism is so broad as to be made fluid, subject to distortion to fit the political appetite of the moment. The FBI has contorted the concept of terrorism beyond its commonsense definition to include actions dangerous to “critical infrastructure or key resources” so long as the intent is to intimidate or coerce a government or civilian population. When this definition was adopted, the ACLU pointed out that protests involving trespassing on military bases to obstruct bombing exercises could be classified as terrorism. The fear proved founded – over two decades of use, this definition of terrorism has come to encompass destruction of private property related to pipeline protests and animal rights. Starting in the 2006, animal rights activists who destroyed factory farm property were subject to terrorism charges under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. Recently, Jessica Reznicek, a Water Protector who burned holes in the Dakota Access Pipeline was handed a terrorism enhancement that extended her sentence by five years. Between the misprioritization of ecoterrorism as a top issue (despite a lack of casualties), the wholly fictitious creation of “Black identity extremists,” and the uneven application of the label of domestic terrorism, it’s clear the FBI can’t be trusted to avoid miscategorizing abortion activism as terrorism.
There’s a very real danger inherent in the way law enforcement and politicians are expanding the definition of terrorism to capture the disruptive nature of protest and civil disobedience. Labeling everyday crimes as terrorism magnifies their importance, casting a shadow over the entire movement. The label discredits and delegitimizes protest across a wide spectrum of tactics, sapping the power of political dissent. Designation of protest-related crimes as terrorism doesn’t provide safety, especially when done in a politicized manner divorced from consideration of the actual magnitude of the threat. Crimes such as vandalism and property destruction can be prosecuted under existing statutes without the need for terrorism labels. Rather than protecting Americans, terrorism designations are invoked to surveil, prosecute, and stigmatize activists.
The calls to label pro-abortion activism as terrorism take place in a broader climate of legislation that hobbles protest. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, last month, a motorist swerved around several cars stopped at a red light to drive into a crowd of pro-choice protesters. Iowa is one of several states that granted tacit approval to anti-protest vigilantes through its enactment of a bill limiting civil liability for drivers who injure someone engaged in a protest. Bills in other states have sought to delegitimize protest in the public sphere by redefining riots, expanding criminal penalties for protest-related offenses, and similarly empowering vigilantes.
The Dobbs protests are happening at a time when protest is under siege, both from calls to label a broad variety of tactics as terrorism and from state-level anti-protest bills. These actions are not neutral. Tarring protests as violence-prone and illegitimate corrodes core principles of democratic discourse. Protest needs to be protected, and abortion protests shouldn’t become a pretext for enhanced surveillance, profiling, and prosecution in the name of order and national security.