Reports that Attorney General Eric Holder will stay on for at least some period of time into President Barack Obama’s second term are good news for women’s rights advocates. Under Attorney General Holder’s direction, the Department of Justice has gone from prosecuting, on average two Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) claims a year to at least eight. And if this last election cycle showed us anything, it’s that anti-choice radicals feel both empowered and threatened which is a dangerous combination for providers and women who need reproductive health care.
Passed and signed into law in 1994 FACE makes it a federal crime to intentionally use force, threaten to use force, obstruct, intimidate or interfere with anyone obtaining or providing reproductive health cares services. FACE also authorizes reproductive health care providers, the state attorney general and/or the Department of Justice to bring civil lawsuits to prevent these activities as well as monetary damages related to those activities. Penalties under FACE range from up to a year in prison and $100,000 fine for a first-time offender and civil fines upwards of $25,000. It’s a law with some teeth, but only has bite if it’s enforced.
The evidence bears this out. According to the National Abortion Federation (NAF) which tracks incidents of clinic violence, in 1994, 52 percent of clinics reported experiencing severe violence which was classified as blockades, invasions, bombings, arson, chemical attacks, stalking, physical violence, gunfire, bomb threats, death threats, and murder. That number declined to 20 percent in 1999 and 2000.
But as enforcement lagged, the incidents of clinic violence increased. In 2000 NAF reported a total of 215 reported incidents of clinic violence. That number spiked to 795 the following year with upticks again in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Yet the DOJ under President Bush prosecuted only two FACE cases a year. It’s hard to send a clearer message to women, providers, and those who would terrorize them than that.
Holder has been a consistent target of the radical right as DOJ has turned closer attention to domestic terrorism and hate crimes enforcement. And while DOJ under Holder is far from perfect, the difference between the Bush administration and the Obama administration when it comes to civil rights enforcement, particularly FACE enforcement is remarkable. In the last year alone, anti-choice harassers in Georgia, Louisiana, and Wisconsin became bolder as legislatures in those states passed increasingly hostile anti-choice measures and invoked increasingly violent rhetoric to describe their crusade against abortion rights. Those forces may have suffered some electoral defeat, but as Michigan and Ohio are proving out right now, the fight is far from over which means a strong advocate for reproductive justice is needed in now more than ever.