Following a concerted effort by Republicans to pressure law enforcement agencies to target activists supporting the right to abortion, the FBI dramatically increased its caseload on abortion-related “domestic terrorism.”
Last year, as the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade sparked major protests nationwide, the FBI opened nearly 10 times as many investigations into cases of abortion-related domestic terrorism as it had in 2021, a new internal report reveals. While the report doesn’t say how many of these incidents were motivated by support for reproductive rights and how many were anti-abortion, the uptick follows calls by top Republicans in Congress for the bureau to pursue “pro-abortion terrorism.”
“Pro-abortion terrorism is sweeping our nation,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wrote in a column last June, lamenting that “only after the outcry from the pro-life community did the FBI announce an investigation” into Jane’s Revenge — a small group of activists that firebombed an anti-abortion pregnancy center on June 7, 2021 — and that the attorney general “has yet to launch a wider DOJ investigation.” While conceding “no one has been killed or seriously injured,” Rubio said, “Things will only get worse before they get better.” (Facebook later quietly designated Jane’s Revenge a terrorist organization, as The Intercept reported.)
Rubio’s column cited roughly 50 attacks on anti-abortion activists and institutions, linking to a list posted by the anti-abortion Family Research Council. Apart from the actions of Jane’s Revenge, most of the cases enumerated describe simple vandalism.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, similarly urged the bureau to go after so-called pro-choice extremists. “Responding to the current threat of pro-abortion violent extremism will require the FBI to continue its efforts to identify and investigate cases of abortion-related violence across our country at a high rate,” Grassley wrote in a June 27 letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray last year.
As vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and then-ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, respectively, both of which oversee the FBI, Rubio and Grassley were both in a position to influence bureau leadership, and it appears the bureau listened.
The FBI’s abortion-related terrorism investigations jumped from three cases in the fiscal year 2021 to 28 in 2022, a higher increase than any other category listed, according to an audit published by the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General on June 6. The number of abortion-related cases in 2022 far exceeds that of all previous years included in the audit, going back to 2017.
In the same time frame, FBI investigations into “racially or ethnically motivated extremists” decreased from 215 to 169; investigations into “anti-government / anti-authority” declined even more sharply, from 812 to 240. In fact, the only other category to see an increase in cases was “animal rights / environmental,” which underwent a modest increase from seven to nine cases.
Again, the report does not specify what proportion of the cases are motivated by support for reproductive rights or anti-abortion views. Asked about the specific breakdown, the FBI did not respond to a request for comment. But in testimony before the Senate on November 17, 2022, Wray revealed that the vast majority of the bureau’s investigations are focused on violence against anti-abortion individuals or organizations.
“Since the Dobbs Act decision, probably in the neighborhood of 70 percent of our abortion-related violence cases or threats cases are cases of violence or threats against pro-life,” Wray said. “Now we have quite a number of investigations as we speak into attacks or threats against pregnancy resource centers, faith-based organizations, and other pro-life organizations.”
But experts say the vast majority of serious violence in abortion-related cases is carried out by individuals trying to stop people from having abortions. From 1993 to 2016, 11 murders and 26 attempted murders were carried out by anti-abortion advocates, according to NARAL Pro-Choice California. In contrast, Michael German, a former FBI agent and a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, said that he was not aware of a single case of serious bodily injury caused by abortion rights advocates.
“The FBI should not devote counterterrorism resources to vandalism cases that don’t threaten human life out of some flawed notion of parity.”
“There is a long history of deadly anti-abortion violence in this country,” German said. “The FBI should not devote counterterrorism resources to vandalism cases that don’t threaten human life out of some flawed notion of parity.
“Counterterrorism resources should be directed to the most serious threats,” German told The Intercept. While the Department of Homeland Security defines domestic terrorism such that it “must be dangerous to human life” or critical infrastructure, the FBI does not have this requirement. “Mere vandalism and property damage, while crimes that might deserve state and local police attention, should not be treated as terrorism.”
Since the bureau collapses both anti-abortion and abortion rights into the same abortion-related threat category and doesn’t collect data on specific incidents, they exercise considerable discretion in determining which side to investigate.
“That’s part of why the FBI resists collecting data on domestic terrorism incidents: it frees them to target by bias and ideologies they oppose rather than the data regarding actual acts of violence,” German said.
As the global war on terror draws down, the FBI is increasingly focusing its attention domestically. In 2021, the bureau more than doubled its domestic terrorism caseload according to Senate testimony by Wray, who warned that domestic terrorism was “metastasizing across the country.”
While the January 6 uprising is an obvious driver, as the bureau’s focus on individuals supporting reproductive rights makes clear, its domestic terrorism investigations are targeted at both the right and left alike. Wray’s Senate testimony noted that the uptick in their domestic terrorism investigations began in the spring of 2020, when civil unrest arose in response to George Floyd’s murder.
“I think there has been a big push in right-wing media to drum up a fear of pro-choice violence, like they did with ‘Antifa,’” German said. “Agents are probably influenced by it.”