For nearly three decades since it became law under President Bill Clinton, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act hadn’t been used to prosecute even a single pro-abortion-rights protester for blocking access to a pro-life clinic. That is, until last month.
On Jan. 24, the Department of Justice indicted two Florida residents, 27-year-old Caleb Freestone and 23-year-old Amber Smith-Stewart, for conspiracy to prevent employees from entering and providing services at three pro-life centers in the Sunshine State. The indictment—following from the first two arrests of any kind in relation to the string of violent attacks against pro-life centers and people beginning last May—were for acts of vandalism targeting clinics between May and July last year. The crimes, like so many others of the same nature, took place shortly after the leak of a draft of the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court.
Earlier in January, the FBI issued a reward of $25,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for a series of violent attacks against pregnancy resource centers, faith-based organizations, as well as “reproductive-health clinics” (the FBI’s term) across the country. The agency identified nine targeted pro-life facilities and one building used by Planned Parenthood in California for the reward.
“It feels like they threw us a bone,” said Rev. Jim Harden, CEO of CompassCare, one of the pregnancy resource centers listed for the reward. CompassCare has three clinics in western New York. Last June, its Buffalo clinic was hit with firebombs and vandalism. The attack resulted in more than $500,000 in physical damage, but has yet to result in a single arrest.
The violence at Harden’s clinic was some of the most severe, but it was hardly an isolated case. At least 80 pregnancy resource centers were hit with crude vandalism, threats, after the Dobbs leak. The attacks began immediately, from the words “MY BODY MY CHOICE” spray-painted on the wooden doors of a Denver, Colo., church to Antifa members joining pro-abortion protesters and smashing up store windows, governmental buildings, and pregnancy centers in Portland, Ore. And the attacks continue today, if at a slower clip.
On May 8, a pro-life public policy group in Madison, Wis., was firebombed. Police reported that the office of Wisconsin Family Action was first hit with a Molotov cocktail that didn’t ignite, and then a fire was started that burned a wall. The attack caused $50,000 in damages to the building, WFA President Julaine Appling estimated, including shattered windows, a damaged wall, and burned rugs and books; the office was also vandalized with the anarchist “A” symbol.
“We felt an active threat against us,” Appling told me. “I said to law enforcement that day, until you catch whoever has written that, we still have a viable threat. It doesn’t have a date of expiration on it.”
Shortly after the attack, Jane’s Revenge, an extremist pro-abortion group, issued a communiqué on an anarchist server, claiming responsibility: “We demand the disbanding of all anti-choice establishments, fake clinics, and violent anti-choice groups within the next thirty days.”
Fearing for his Buffalo clinic, Harden alerted the FBI in May. He had already warned local police several months before, after noticing suspicious behavior outside the clinic, including what Harden described as “crude protests” and “online propaganda campaigns.” But the added threats from Jane’s Revenge gave CompassCare more concern. Harden said he didn’t receive any response from the FBI after submitting the tip.
Even before the current spate of physical attacks, abortion-rights activists were already launching attacks on pregnancy resource centers online. Gen Z For Change, a progressive nonprofit that specializes in social-media and technology activism, launched its S.A.F.E.R. initiative at least a year earlier, teaching pro-abortion activists to run a program from their own computers that would post numerous one-star reviews on a pregnancy center’s Google page. The S.A.F.E.R. program could also elevate one-star reviews, according to Harden. Another organization, Expose Fake Clinics, teaches similar tactics. EFC is linked on Planned Parenthood’s official blog, in an explainer on crisis pregnancy centers.
In May, per Harden, CompassCare was a victim of one of these attacks. After the Buffalo office was listed as a “fake clinic” on the EFC website, it disappeared from Google searches and Google Maps, according to Harden. He described multiple attempts by CompassCare to get the clinic back on the search engine, but was only told that “one of the managing accounts on the listings had violated Google’s policies.” Google refused to cite the specific policy violated, Harden said. At the same time, a new “Compasscare” listing appeared on Google Maps in the Buffalo area, under a different address, directing traffic away from the actual pregnancy resource center. When Google updated its algorithm on May 25, Harden said the real CompassCare’s organic search results “tanked.”
A representative from Google denied that CompassCare’s Eggert Road address was ever removed or marked as permanently closed. She added that deliberately fake content and unnecessary or incorrect content are in violation of Google policy.
Yet in June, a group of federal lawmakers wrote a letter to Google demanding the search engine censor ads, search results, and map listings for pro-life pregnancy centers. In the same month, New York Attorney General Letitia James alleged that Google was guilty of “misinformation” for including pregnancy resource centers in abortion-related search results. By August, even Google’s union, Alphabet Workers Union, was pressuring the tech giant to remove pro-life centers from search results and navigation. On Aug. 25, Google instituted a new filtration mechanism that screens pro-life centers out of common unplanned pregnancy search terms and promotes Planned Parenthood to the top of most search results; the filter is on by default, Harden noted, though it can be toggled off.
On June 7, Google finally returned word to CompassCare, and reactivated its listing on or about 1:26 a.m., according to Harden. At 2:30 a.m., the facility was attacked. A second communiqué from Jane’s Revenge, the anarchist group that claimed credit for the Madison attack, surfaced a week later. The authors declared “open season” on pro-life clinics and people, saying future attacks would not be “so easily cleaned up as fire and graffiti.” The communiqué added: “Sometimes you will see what we do, and you will know that it is us. Sometimes you will think you merely are unlucky, because you cannot see the ways in which we interfere in your affairs.”
A handful of FBI agents showed up at CompassCare that June morning, along with local police, fire department, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives officers, and even two Secret Service agents. At the FBI’s request, Harden handed over the clinic’s video surveillance footage without making a copy, confident the law enforcers would make quick arrests. Instead, weeks went by, during which Harden was only shown selected stills of the footage.
According to Harden, the stills he was shown revealed more than one possible perpetrator and a vehicle with a legible license plate number. He also noted that Amherst Township police, who oversee the area of Buffalo where the clinic is located, have data showing whose cell phones were in use at the building site around the time of the firebombing.
“We don’t want to disseminate the tape to anyone at this time because we don’t want it to get out, what we’re doing and who we're looking at,” Amherst Town Attorney Stanley Sliwa told local Buffalo media at the time.
Back in Wisconsin, Julaine Appling of WFA was filing a public-records request with the Madison Police Department, seeking information about her own arson attack. It was now three months after the initial attack, and Appling had heard no report from local, state, or federal law enforcement on even the physical evidence that was collected the day of the attack.
Appling’s only contact with detectives came in mid January, eight months after her organization was attacked, on the heels of the Thomas More Society, a Catholic pro-bono legal group, announcing its investigation into the attacks at Harden’s CompassCare and several other pro-life pregnancy centers. While Appling’s pro-life policy group isn’t included in the Thomas More Society investigation, she noted the “interesting” timing of the visit, on the heels of the Catholic group launching its own investigation. A Madison Police Department detective and three members of the Milwaukee-based FBI domestic-terrorism squad showed up at her office.
“I guess they came out to meet me?” Appling told me. “They gave me no information, said there was nothing they could tell me. No person was apprehended or indicted. They just said they were ‘aggressively and actively’ working on the case.”
Law enforcement was also ghosting Harden. When he asked if the FBI had prepared extra enforcement the night after Roe was overturned, the agent assigned to him hung up on him, Harden recounted, before calling back to assure him that “the FBI takes all threats seriously.” That night, another suspected arson attack was reported at a pregnancy center in northern Colorado.
In September, Harden sued the local police department for access to his surveillance film. One month later, 40 members of Congress signed a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray, demanding answers. On the list were Chip Roy, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton. Three hours after the letter was published, Harden said he received a text message from the same FBI agent who hung up on him weeks before, asking to talk.
Harden claims that the agents offered him a copy of his surveillance footage in exchange for him making fewer media appearances and dropping the lawsuit over the footage. They also sought to assure him of their interest in catching the criminals, Harden recalled.
In viewing the footage together with the agents the next day, however, it was clear to Harden that the FBI wasn’t exactly putting in diligent work. In a single viewing, he gathered more than they seemed to have in four months. “They didn’t even know the orientation of the building,” Harden said.
The statute of limitations for federal crimes is fairly high—typically around five years—and even higher for cases of arson, in which the state has 10 years after the crime took place to begin to prosecute a suspect. Adding to the mayhem is the stipulation that for crimes of conspiracy, the clock doesn’t even start ticking until the offense has finished, meaning every time conspirators commit a new offense, that statute of limitations is reset once more.
In theory, law enforcers could delay significant legal action against the perpetrators behind Jane’s Revenge for the same reason they might delay prosecuting organized-crime suspects, in hopes of using them as lines to catch the big fish. Justice, in such cases, may be long delayed, and further crimes committed due to a perception, true or not, that there will be no consequences for such actions.
But is that really what’s going on here? The speed with which federal law enforcement has tackled violence against abortion clinics suggests otherwise. After the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the Department of Justice announced a task force in July aimed at protecting “reproductive rights” (its terminology) in a proactive, coordinated fashion.
When a Michigan Planned Parenthood building was set on fire on July 31, a suspect was arrested within five days. Three days after an Illinois Planned Parenthood was set on fire on Jan. 15, police publicly circulated images of a truck seen at the crime. Before the end of the same month, 32-year-old Tyler Massengill was arrested and charged with “malicious use of fire and an explosive to damage, and attempt to damage” the Planned Parenthood building. On Oct. 5, shortly before the congressional letter to Wray, the DOJ revived a 19-month-old case of pro-life protesters allegedly blocking the entrance to a Tennessee abortion clinic, indicting 11 of them on FACE Act charges; one of the indicted 11 was an 87-year-old woman.
Perhaps no image has been more indelible in the cultural imagination of the pro-life movement than the FBI’s September arrest of pro-life activist Mark Houck, surrounding his home with 25 to 30 agents and around 15 vehicles at 7 a.m., over a 2021 altercation with a pro-abortion protester in front of a Planned Parenthood facility—private felony charges for which previously had been dismissed.
The warrant for his arrest was signed by Obama-era federal magistrate Richard Lloret, who later set a $10,000 bail for the two FACE Act charges against Houck, the sentence for which was up to 11 years in prison and fines of up to $350,000. After a highly publicized trial, a jury acquitted Houck of the charges on Jan. 30.
By contrast, the two indictments in January were the first and only measures, so far, relating to violence against abortion opponents. Because of this, Harden and Appling have taken personal responsibility for protecting their clinics. Appling’s WFA offered a $5,000 reward to any person who brought forward evidence leading to an arrest associated with the attack on her facility. Harden has hired a private investigative team.
An FBI spokesperson defended the agency’s action with regard to the ongoing violence in a written statement to me: “The FBI takes all violence and threats of violence very seriously and we are working closely with our law enforcement partners at the national, state, and local levels to investigate these incidents.”
The spokesperson refused to say if the FBI had put additional enforcement in place or pursued any additional measures to counter the violence, but pointed to the agency’s $25,000 reward for information leading to arrests in nine of the most violent arson attacks, including CompassCare and WFA. The FBI didn’t respond to a request for comment regarding FBI agents’ proposed quid pro quo with Harden over the CompassCare surveillance tapes. The DOJ didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.