Columnist Carrie Baker: We need courageous leaders who stand up to anti-abortion extremists


Published: 08-23-2023 6:07 PM

Many in the community are perplexed about why Easthampton political leaders claiming to support reproductive rights recently blocked an ordinance to support reproductive and gender-affirming health care access. After a three-hour public hearing on July 5, a two-thirds majority of the Easthampton City Council passed an ordinance to ensure safe and fair access to legally protected reproductive and gender-affirming health care services. The next morning, Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle sided with anti-abortion advocates and vetoed the ordinance.

Over 20 reproductive and trans rights groups supported overriding Mayor LaChapelle’s veto. At an Aug. 2 hearing, the council considered a motion to do so. Many spoke in favor of the override. Only one spoke in opposition: Easthampton City Democratic Committee Chair Jackie Brousseau Pereira. Pereira had not participated in any of the extensive public discussions of the ordinance over the previous year or communicated with advocates for the measure. Despite overwhelming support for the override, Council President Homar Gomez flipped his vote, siding with two other male councilors to uphold the veto.

How can we explain the behavior of Democratic leaders who profess to support reproductive rights but vote against reproductive and gender-affirming health care access?

I interviewed Mayor LaChapelle last February for a story on accountability measures for crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs). I asked why she opposed an earlier version of the Easthampton ordinance. She told me she had received threatening letters from anti-abortion extremists across the country, including one soaked in blood. She gave other reasons for opposing the ordinance, but none resonated with statements and analysis of the leading reproductive health care organizations that support the ordinance. In fact, LaChapelle showed no desire to collaborate on modifying the ordinance to address her concerns. At the end of the day, were LaChapelle, Gomez and Pereira intimidated by anti-abortion extremists?

I attended the ordinance hearing on July 5 and was shocked by the threats and intimidation coming from the anti-abortion side. They called people supporting abortion rights killers and promised frivolous lawsuits. This behavior is part of a long-standing pattern of anti-abortion violence and intimidation against reproductive health advocates.

For over four decades, reproductive health providers and advocates have been under attack by anti-abortion extremists. The so-called “pro-life” movement has engaged in unrelenting violence at women’s health clinics since 1977, including 11 murders, 42 bombings, 200 arsons, 531 assaults, 492 clinic invasions, 375 burglaries, and thousands of other crimes directed at patients, providers and volunteers. Just last week, a Planned Parenthood clinic in El Centro, California that had faced anti-abortion opposition was burned to ground. These numbers do not include violence and intimidation directed toward politicians, like the bloody letter sent to Mayor LaChapelle.

University of Kentucky professor Carol Mason, author of “Killing for Life,” has documented deep ties between the January 6 insurrectionists and anti-abortion extremists. “The same violent brew of paramilitary warriors, white supremacists, and Christian militants that we saw descending on the Capitol building merged to oppose abortion with lethal force decades ago,” said Mason.

Two recent reports reveal that anti-abortion violence has increased significantly since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The National Abortion Federation’s 2022 Violence and Disruption Report documents a rise in violence against abortion clinics over the last year, including invasions with burglary (up 231%), stalking (229% up) and arson (up 100%). The Feminist Majority Foundation’s 2022 National Clinic Violence Survey reports 69% of responding clinics experienced daily or weekly disruptive protests targeting their facility and almost a third of clinics surveyed (31%) experienced one or more types of severe violence and threats of violence in 2022. The violence reported in 2022 was the second highest in over two and a half decades.

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Anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs) are deeply connected to the proliferation of violence against reproductive health care facilities. Over two-thirds (67.4%) of abortion clinics report CPCs located near their facility. These anti-abortion centers not only confuse and deceive patients, they act as staging grounds and surveillance sites for anti-abortion protesters.

Legal harassment by anti-abortion groups is also increasing. Right wing law firms that specialize in aggressively representing anti-abortion extremists are threatening lawsuits around the country, and working to intimidate municipal leaders out of protecting clinics and the communities they serve. This happened in Easthampton. The Catholic Diocese sent a lawyer to threaten legal action at the July 5 ordinance hearing and lawyers from First Liberty Institute in Plano, Texas, and Massachusetts Family Institute sent a legal threat letter to the City Council.

Our political leaders must stand up to the intimidation tactics of the anti-abortion movement. They must not cower when faced with blood-soaked letters, condemnations to damnation or threats of frivolous lawsuits. If we cave in to their tactics, we embolden them. Now more than ever before, we need courageous leaders who will stand up to anti-abortion bullies.

Carrie N. Baker is a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College and a regular contributor to Ms. Magazine.