Group Whose Anti-Abortion Ad Amy Barrett Signed Accused of Promoting Harassment of Doctors

Stephanie Kirchgaessner / Guardian UK
Group Whose Anti-Abortion Ad Amy Barrett Signed Accused of Promoting Harassment of Doctors The supreme court justice Amy Coney Barrett in October. Barrett signed a newspaper ad that called Roe v. Wade 'barbaric' in 2006. (photo: Michael Reynolds/EPA)

In one case, a doctor whose name was published by Indiana group was warned by FBI of kidnapping threat against her daughter

An Indiana group whose anti-abortion campaign was endorsed in a signed advertisement by Amy Coney Barrett before she became a supreme court justice, keeps a published list of abortion providers and their place of work on its website, in what some experts say is an invitation to harass and intimidate the doctors and their staff.

In one case, court records show, a doctor whose name was published by the group, which is called Right to Life Michiana, was warned by the FBI of a kidnapping threat that had been made online against her daughter.

The threat prompted the doctor to temporarily stop providing abortion services at the Whole Woman’s Health Care clinic in South Bend, which is also named on the Michiana group’s website. The doctor said in the court document that the clinic regularly attracts large gatherings of protesters, who she feared could identify her.

Barrett signed a two-page advertisement in 2006, while she was working as a professor at Notre Dame, that stated that those who signed “oppose abortion on demand and defend the right to life from fertilization to natural death”. The second page of the ad called Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion, “barbaric”.

The advertisement, which was published in the South Bend Tribune and signed by hundreds of people, was sponsored by a group called St Joseph County Right to Life, which merged with another anti-abortion group in 2020 and is now called Right to Life Michiana.

The supreme court is expected to rule this year on challenges to Roe v Wade that many court experts expect will gut the rights of women in the US to obtain legal abortions. In arguments before the court, Barrett – who has said her personal views do not affect her legal judgment – argued that passage of safe haven laws, which allow parents to relinquish their newborns at hospitals or other designated centers without the threat of legal consequences, had in effect given women options outside of abortion for those who did not want to become parents.

During her 2020 confirmation hearing, Barrett said she had signed the advertisement as a private citizen, while she was making her way out of church, and had not recalled signing it until it became public following a report in the Guardian.

“It was consistent with the views of my church,” she said, in response to senators’ questions about the statement. She later added: “I do see as distinct my personal, moral, religious views and my task of applying the law as a judge.”

An examination by the Guardian of Right to Life Michiana, which publishes the same advertisement denouncing Roe v Wade as “barbaric” every year, reveals that the group does more than publish statements in newspapers: it urges supporters to “take action” against what it calls a “local abortion threat”.

In one section of the website, which is titled Local Abortion Threat: The Abortionist, the group lists the names and educational background of six doctors that it claims perform abortions at the Whole Woman’s Health Clinic in South Bend.

Among them is a doctor – who the Guardian is declining to name – who testified in 2021, in a case involving abortion restrictions in Indiana, that she started traveling to South Bend once a month – beginning in 2020 – in order to perform first trimester abortions at the South Bend clinic. She stopped making the trip – a 2.5-hour car trip each way from her home – after she was alerted by Planned Parenthood, who had been alerted by the FBI, that a kidnapping threat had been made against her daughter online.

“I felt it would be best for me to limit my travel and exposure during that time,” the doctor said in testimony. “I was concerned that there may be people who would be able to identify me during that travel, as well as it’s a very small clinic without any privacy for the people who are driving in and out, and so therefore, people could directly see me.”

Jackie Appleman, the executive director of Right to Life Michiana, said in response to questions from the Guardian that the information on its website was “publicly available information”.

“Right to Life Michiana does not condone or encourage harm, threats or harassment towards anyone, including abortion doctors, abortion business employees and escorts. We encourage pro-choice groups to also accept our nonviolent approach when it comes to the unborn,” she said.

The group has also previously stated that it supports the criminalization of doctors who perform abortions and the criminalization of procedures that routinely occur in the in vitro fertilization process, including the discarding of frozen embryos or selective reduction of embryos.

The publication of doctors’ names – and in some other cases, their home addresses – is a well-known tactic used by anti-abortion groups.

The practice gained attention in the 1990s and early 2000s because of a legal battle over a website called the Nuremberg Files, which was supported by radical abortion opponents and published the names, photos, home addresses and licence plate numbers of abortion providers. In some cases, spouses and children were also identified. Doctors who had been murdered had a line crossed through their names.

One of the most high-profile cases of violence against abortion providers surrounded the case of George Tiller, who was one of the few doctors who performed late-term abortions when he was killed while attending church in 2009.

Sharon Lau, the midwest advocacy director for Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, and serves as its security specialist, said Michiana Right to Life regularly protested at the group’s South Bend clinic, approaching patients and blocking its driveway.

Asked about the naming of doctors on the Michiana website, Lau said: “It is clearly something that is threatening, so we take it seriously and we know that these types of things have consequences. The language is saying, ‘these people are a threat’. Which spurs people to action. We saw that with Dr Tiller.”

WWHA has been frustrated in part, she said, by what appeared to be a reluctance by local prosecutors to charge protesters who it said were violating trespassing rules.

“The law is not enforced. We know that if you enforce the fairly minor crimes, it can prevent escalation, so we’ve tried to impress that on them,” Lau said.

Melissa Fowler, program director at the National Abortion Federation, said anti-abortion protesters have been emboldened by the recent passage of abortion bans in Texas and Mississippi, and that the group had documented an increase in aggressiveness, including protesters taking advantage of “open carry” laws to stand near health clinics with visible weapons.

Mira Shah, a doctor who travels in order to performs abortions in underserved communities, including in South Bend, who is listed on the Michiana website, said such groups aimed to instill fear in medical professionals and try to get them to stop doing their work.

“It can honestly be scary,” Dr Shah said. “I am really careful and do what I need to do to stay safe. We’re trying to care for our patients and do the best we can do.”

Amy Coney Barrett’s chambers at the supreme court was forwarded questions by the Guardian but did not respond to a request for comment.

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