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Republicans weigh changes to law meant to protect abortion access

GOP lawmakers say Biden administration has ignored attacks on anti-abortion advocates, facilities and churches

Rep. Mike Johnson speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in April.
Rep. Mike Johnson speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in April. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The chairman of a House Judiciary subcommittee said Tuesday that Republicans could pursue changes to a 1994 law meant to protect access to reproductive health care clinics.

Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., made the comments at the outset of a hearing on the so-called FACE Act, where the parties clashed over the issue of abortion and heard about clinic access, firebombings, FBI oversight and food stamps.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Limited Government hearing on the law comes as the country has grappled with the end of the constitutional right to an abortion in the past year. Johnson and other Republicans have called it a “disgrace” that the Biden administration used the law to prosecute protesters for intimidation outside abortion clinics while allegedly ignoring attacks against churches and crisis pregnancy centers that counsel against abortion.

“We believe that the facts show the Biden administration has shown a clear double standard of enforcing the FACE Act in a way that protects pro-abortion activists and facilities while substantially ignoring attacks on pro-life advocates, facilities and churches,” Johnson said.

Johnson argued there have been dozens of attacks, ranging from vandalism to arson, on churches and crisis pregnancy centers since the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization last year that overturned the constitutional right to an abortion. Republicans said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland has ignored those attacks.

“Churchgoers should be able to exercise their First Amendment right to religious freedom at places of worship without being terrorized,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, this has not been the case under Attorney General Garland’s Justice Department.”

The ranking member of the panel, Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa., argued that Republicans had downplayed the long-standing violence directed against abortion providers.

“The overwhelming majority of such violence, threats and intimidation has been and continues to be directed against abortion providers and patients [by] anti-abortion extremists,” Scanlon said.

Scanlon also pointed out that the DOJ has launched a separate program meant to prosecute crimes against churches and other houses of worship through its domestic terrorism task force.

Witness testimony

The Democratic witness, Talcott Camp, the chief legal and strategy officer at the National Abortion Federation, said that in the year since the Dobbs decision there has been a spike in threats and attacks against abortion providers.

Her organization released a report collecting threats and violence directed against abortion providers in 2022, which included more than 200 death threats, dozens of burglaries and four arsons, including one in Casper, Wyo.

“These incidents involve a real person with a real family and often real children, and every one of these incidents means that every provider of abortion care and every patient trying to access abortion care lives in terror,” Camp said.

Camp said the attacks since the Dobbs decision reminded her of attacks on abortion clinics and providers, starting in the 1970s, that included arson, butyric acid, anthrax attacks and murder.

“For decades, abortion providers and their patients have faced escalating harassment and violence; post-Dobbs world, that atmosphere has only intensified. And the FACE Act and the protections that offers, all the more critical,” Camp said.

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs last year, the 1994 law has rocketed to prominence. The Justice Department has launched dozens of prosecutions, including a February indictment against eight defendants in Michigan for allegedly blockading an abortion clinic in 2020.

One of the Republican witnesses, Mark Houck, was acquitted after a jury trial on two federal charges under the law earlier this year. During his testimony he referred to abortion clinics as “abortuaries” and argued he was targeted for expressing his religious beliefs after pushing a clinic escort during an argument.

Another Republican witness, Tammy Kocher, the executive director of New Life Family Services facility in Minnesota, said her facility was vandalized in March after months of protests where “we were warned ‘if abortions aren’t safe, neither are you.’” She said there have been no arrests yet in the case.

“The people we serve should not feel threatened simply for walking through our doors,” Kocher said.

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