Abortion clinics regroup, rebuild after violent attacks: 'There's more work to be done'
As a detective led her through the charred remains of the clinic, Julie Burkhart was heartbroken. Everything was black and melted. The smell was overwhelming. Fire and smoke damage had engulfed the building from the basement to the attic.
“I knew then that we were going to have a long road ahead,” said Burkhart, president of Wellspring Health Access in Casper, Wyoming.
Burkhart’s team had been preparing to open the first clinic offering abortion care in Casper. But after an arson last May, its June 14 opening date was pushed back at least a year. Almost 10 months later, Casper police and FBI agents arrested a suspect Tuesday as the team prepares for its new opening day in a few weeks. That suspect, Lorna Roxanne Green, 22, of Casper, was expected to make her first court appearance Thursday morning and faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.
Burkhart said she is "relieved that a suspect has finally been arrested," adding the arson "created a ripple of apprehension and fear across the Casper community."
For abortion clinics that have recently faced violent incidents, providers say healing can be a long process as staffs grapple with the trauma and ripple effects clinic shutdowns have on communities. But with community support and a focus on their missions, they’re trudging on.
Increasing violence, threats against clinics
The FBI in January asked for the public's help in investigating a spate of unsolved attacks against reproductive health facilities nationwide.
Meanwhile, in 2021, abortion providers saw a 600% increase in stalking, a 129% increase in invasions and a 128% increase in assaults and battery compared to the year before, according to a report released in May 2022 by the National Abortion Federation, the U.S. professional association of abortion providers. Assaults rose from 15 in 2018 to 123 in 2021, the report said.
Since 1977, when the NAF began collecting this data, the organization has reported 11 murders, 42 bombings, 196 arsons and 491 assaults targeting patients, providers and volunteers at abortion clinics. The NAF is expected to publish new data on violence against clinics in the coming months.
“For those of us who provide abortion care, the threat of violence has always been part of our work,” said Dr. Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri. “But lately, we're really seeing increases in a variety of different acts of violence, whether that is direct assaults, arsons, threats, stalking. And the behavior is becoming more threatening and aggressive.”
Katherine Spillar, executive director of Feminist Majority Foundation, said she has seen more violent incidents and threats of violence since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, including people blocking access to clinics, invasions of clinics, arsons, stalking, gunfire, bomb threats and death threats.
“It's a coordinated strategy to drive clinics out of existence,” Spillar said.
Attacks on abortion clinics cause ‘devastating’ trauma
Beyond the physical damage, Burkhart said the arson at the Casper clinic was “incredibly traumatic” for the team. It was also re-traumatizing for her. In 2009, her former boss, Dr. George Tiller, was fatally shot by an anti-abortion extremist as he attended service at his church.
In the wake of Tiller’s murder, Burkhart founded the Trust Women Foundation in Wichita, which seeks to open abortion clinics in underserved communities.
March 10 also marked the 30th commemoration of the death of Dr. David Gunn, an abortion provider who was killed by an anti-abortion protester in 1993. Legislators, including Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, introduced a bicameral congressional resolution this month to designate the day Abortion Provider Appreciation Day in honor of Gunn.
In January, a man was arrested after he threw what appeared to be a homemade Molotov cocktail through the window of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Peoria, Illinois. The building caught fire, causing over $1 million in damage, said Jennifer Welch, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Illinois.
No one was injured. But when Welch got to the clinic the next day, there was smoke, fire and water damage throughout the building.
“I was astounded and frightened,” she said.
McNicholas said she has also seen “new, more threatening tactics” from anti-abortion protesters, who’ve shown up with ladders, cut ties to fencing, used bull horns and filled schedules with fake patients to cause longer wait times. Clinics in the area have responded recently by putting up green screens and netting to separate patients from protesters. After Roe v. Wade was overturned, McNicholas also worked with security personnel to reassess her home by checking cameras and lighting around her house.
Community support heals trauma
A GoFundMe page was created to help raise funds for Wellspring to open. Burkhart said Wellspring’s staff has taken time to do safety training, talk through the trauma and check in with one another.
“My philosophy has always been that, even when facing these very traumatic and serious events, there are solutions,” she said. “It's OK to step back, regroup, understand how this is affecting everyone and then make plans to pave a way forward.”
The Wellspring team read news interviews with community members “who were appalled by the arson,” Burkhart said. They got phone calls, emails and notes of support. A GoFundMe page was created to help raise funds for Wellspring to open.
In Peoria, community members hosted a rally outside the clinic to show their support. The clinic also received handwritten thank-you notes, flowers and cookies.
“It's always nice when you've faced an uphill battle, to hear that people are out there cheering for you,” Burkhart said.
Another way communities have shown support to their abortion clinics is by volunteering as clinic escorts, who meet patients outside, help them navigate around anti-abortion protesters and get to their appointments more easily. McNicholas said they make patients feel safer and are “sometimes some of the most critical components of a patient's healthcare experience.”
After the arson in Peoria, Patti Pace-Halpin, a clinic escort at Planned Parenthood Illinois, said she hoped their presence would help patients and staff feel safer.
Still, more is needed.
“We need more funding. We need law enforcement to more aggressively deal with these threats and incidents of violence,” said Spillar from the Feminist Majority Foundation. “There’s more work to be done.”
Contact Christine Fernando at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Abortion clinics regroup, rebuild after attacks in Wyoming, Illinois