As abortion bans spread across the U.S., Christian pastor Ken Peters is preparing to close a half-dozen chapters of the Church at Planned Parenthood, the protest group he founded that holds worship services outside abortion clinics.
Those chapters are “going to go out of business,” he says.
“We’re not sad about that. We’re thrilled.”
Those six locations are in states where abortion is already or will soon be illegal after the Supreme Court decision last week that overturned a constitutional right to terminate pregnancy. When they close, “we’ll take all of our reinforcements” and dispatch them to places where abortion remains legal, Mr. Peters says. He’s expecting a surge in attendance at services in Washington state, where he founded the church in the eastern city of Spokane.
In the months to come, “about half the country will have – if not complete, then severe abortion restrictions. So now we can focus on the other half,” he says.
“People are excited, people are fired up.”
Others are scared.
As the Supreme Court decision turns the U.S. into a patchwork of abortion law, state lines are becoming front lines. One of those is the boundary between Washington, whose leaders are among the most dedicated supporters of abortion rights in the U.S., and Idaho, one of the country’s most conservative states.
When that happens, the line between the two states – a largely invisible boundary through rolling hills and canola fields – will divide two very different abortion regimes.
In Idaho, legislators have already passed a law banning most abortions that is expected to come into force this summer. In Washington, Planned Parenthood is expanding its staff by 10 per cent and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to prepare for a swell of new out-of-state clients.
The organization is also investing in better security, like double-locking doors that restrict entry to clinics. A Homeland Security briefing issued after the release of the Supreme Court decision warned that violent extremist activity is “likely.”
Northern Idaho has long been a hotbed for extremism, situated in a region that became a haven to Confederate veterans after the Civil War and has, in the years that followed, continued to nurture far-right ideology. “They believe there’s a war between good and evil,” said James Aho, an Idaho State University scholar who has spent more than four decades studying groups in the region.
In early June, Idaho police arrested 31 men affiliated with a white nationalist group who arrived in a U-Haul truck near a Pride event in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, looking like a “little army,” police said. Two of the men – Mishael and Josiah Buster – regularly attended the Church at Planned Parenthood.
Mr. Peters says he does not advocate violence and people must be held responsible for their own actions: “I do not take any blame whatsoever.” But he calls Planned Parenthood the “gates of hell,” and has poured incendiary rhetoric into a country where abortion clinics have physically burned to the ground, including in Washington cities near the Idaho boundary.
Authorities are wary about that history repeating itself. With “the high emotions surrounding that issue, definitely, we have a heightened risk,” said Gary Jenkins, chief of the Police Department in Pullman, an eastern Washington city a stone’s throw from Idaho.
In Pullman and other nearby towns, abortion providers and crisis pregnancy centres – which counsel women away from abortion – are preparing for the worst. One pregnancy centre has hired night-time security. Another will conduct police preparedness training. “Nationwide there are centres similar to ours that have been violently attacked,” said Amy McNelly, CEO of Palouse Care Network, which opened a new location in Pullman in June. Though she feels safe at the moment, “I think it’s smart to be prepared, in case that happens.”
The Pullman Planned Parenthood centre has tangible reason for worry. At 3:32 a.m. on Sept. 4, 2015, police say someone tossed an incendiary device into the clinic. The resulting blaze, ruled an arson, destroyed the building. No one has been arrested.
The structure has since been rebuilt, but fear lingers, particularly at a time when its clinician, a woman whose name The Globe and Mail is not publishing because she fears reprisal, looks at “how upset people are, how violent they can be” in the current political climate. At the same time, “it feels like we’re going to end up seeing a ton of people driving across state lines to get here,” she said.
At the beginning of the year, 42 per cent of women seeking abortions in Pullman were from Idaho. Today, it’s more than two-thirds. It has been, the clinician says, “a really weird time to be the rural America abortionist.” She doesn’t tell most people where she works. Her surname is different from that of her partner and their children.
The clinic’s staff train four times a year, practising their response to scenarios that include a bomb threat or a menacing person inside the building. Collette Oliver-Soleil, the clinic’s manager, reminds staff not to leave work alone. Though she sees no immediate risk, the recent U-Haul arrests in Idaho unsettled her. Coeur d’Alene, a 140-kilometre drive from Pullman, is close enough that “we consider that our home,” Ms. Oliver-Soleil said.
The threat of violence there “definitely brings home the possibility that something could happen here,” she said.
The men in the U-Haul were armed with riot shields, dressed in military gear and equipped with a smoke bomb and detailed plans. “It could have been very hazardous for many people,” said Bob Norris, the sheriff in Kootenai County, which includes Coeur d’Alene. He lamented, however, that Idaho law makes it likely the worst punishment they will face is a brief stay in a county jail, or a small fine. “I wish we had more tools in the toolbox,” Mr. Norris said.
For now, the 31 men have been released on bail of US$300 each.
A light sentence will send a message, said Amy Cooter, a sociologist who researches militias and other conservative groups.
“If they only face a minor fine, then it’s going to become a model for what they might do in other places,” she said. She sees evidence that militant groups are being galvanized by the Supreme Court abortion ruling. For them, she said, the conclusion is: “we need to capture this moment and keep pushing.”
Those with very different views on abortion share a sense of rising danger. The Supreme Court decision has “hyped up what people are feeling – on both sides,” said Andrew Kerin, executive director of Tiny Heartbeat Ministries, a Washington-based organization that plans to continue its protests outside the Pullman Planned Parenthood. In late June, the group celebrated by singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic after a woman read its materials, “turned her car around and left” a clinic.
“Glory, glory, hallelujah!” the group wrote on Facebook.
Mr. Kerin sees opposing abortion as a religious imperative, a common motivation in a region that has attracted a deeply conservative strain of Christianity. The Idaho town of Moscow, a 15-minute drive from Pullman, is home to Christ Church, which set off fireworks to celebrate the Supreme Court decision. Jared Longshore, an associate pastor, wrote an article praising God for having “cut down” rights to abortion, which he calls a “blood sacrament.”
But, he wrote: “Now is not a time to compromise.”
The continued practice of abortion in nearby Washington state is “obviously a huge problem,” he said in an interview. “We don’t feel limited by the state border, as far as the truth of God is concerned.”
Mr. Peters and his church, meanwhile, have been successfully sued by Planned Parenthood, which has called them “bullies who are trying to take away care” from those in need. The Church at Planned Parenthood sings outside clinics, and Mr. Peters says he has been misunderstood. He has called for the fire of God to fall upon abortion clinics – but is an appeal to a spiritual force that cleanses and delivers judgment. “It’s not actual fire,” he says.
Still, he has faith that divine punishment lies in store for states that continue to allow abortion.
“I think you’re going to see Idaho be blessed of God – and you’re going to see Washington hurt,” he said. “God’s going to withhold his blessing for that state.”
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