For years, opponents of abortion rights have complained to local, state, and federal law enforcement that Theodore “Ted” Shulman, a radical abortion-rights activist, was harrassing and threatening them. Nothing ever came of it until late February, when the anti-abortion rights blogosphere lit up with rumors that Shulman had finally been arrested.
“This is a huge relief to us that Ted Shulman is behind bars where he belongs,” Cheryl Sullenger, a senior policy advisor for Operation Rescue, the controversial Kansas-based anti-abortion group, said in a post on the group’s blog. But Politics Daily‘s David Gibson, the only reporter to cover the story back in February, could not confirm any charges against Shulman, and could not reach the FBI for comment. (Sullenger claimed the indictment had been filed under seal.) Now Mother Jones can confirm that Shulman, the 49-year-old son of famed feminist author and activist Alix Kates Shulman, faces a six-count federal indictment for allegedly threatening two unnamed anti-abortion activists. The charges, which each carry a maximum five-year-sentence, could land Shulman in prison for decades if he’s convicted on all counts. Shulman pleaded not guilty.
Neither the FBI agent nor the assistant US attorney handling the case responded to requests for comment. A call and email to Shulman’s lawyer went unreturned. It’s not unheard of for extreme anti-abortion activists to face legal consequences when they cross the line. But Shulman is by far the most prominent alleged harrasser of abortion foes, and one of the first—perhaps the first—to be prosecuted under federal laws that forbid threatening others across state lines. He seemed to see himself as a kind of pioneer—according to Gibson, he liked to refer to himself as the “first pro-choice terrorist.”
(There aren’t any easily available statistics on all harassment and threats directed at pro- and anti-abortion rights activists, but abortion rights supporters argue that such tactics are far more frequently used by the other side. In 2010, 23.5 percent of abortion clinics nationwide reported being targeted by blockades, invasions, arson, chemical attacks, stalking, physical violence, gunfire, bomb threats, death threats, or arson threats, according to data gathered by the National Clinic Access Project.)
Many prominent opponents of abortion rights claim to have been harrassed or threatened by Shulman over the years. Gerard Nadal, a blogger and university professor who does “science in the service of the pro-life movement,” has written on his blog that he and “many others” have been subjected to “repeated threats” from Shulman, including: anti-abortion speaker and organizer Bryan Kemper; anti-abortion blogger and World Net Daily columnist Jill Stanek; Operation Rescue leader Troy Newman; Father Frank Pavone, the head of Priests for Life; Planned Parenthood “sting” videographer Lila Rose; Colorado anti-abortion activist Ken Scott; Cheryl Sullenger; and Princeton professor Robert George.
Sullenger, who is not named in the indictment (Shulman’s alleged targets are referred to as “Victim 1” and “Victim 2,”) claims a long history of harrassment from Shulman. “He often posted threatening comments to our web site and called me on my cell phone too many times to count,” she said in the blog post. “He was always brazen in his threats and openly identified himself, telling us not to bother calling the FBI because they would never do anything for us. Thankfully, he was wrong about that.”
Sullenger has had her own troubles with the law in the past: in 1988 she and her husband were convicted for plotting to bomb an abortion clinic in Southern California, and she was sentenced to three years in prison. As an organization, Operation Rescue has drawn criticism for its harassment of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Wichita who was gunned down in his church in 2009 by Scott Roeder, an anti-abortion activist with ties to Sullenger. Last October, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow aired a documentary about Tiller’s murder that Operation Rescue believes led to an increase in death threats against the group. Tiller isn’t the only abortion provider who has been murdered in recent years: Since 1993, eight doctors have been assassinated at the hands of anti-abortion extremists, and another 17 have been the victims of murder attempts.
From the indictment, the Tiller murder appears to have been an inspiration for many of the threats that Shulman is charged with making. The murdered doctor’s name appears in three of the six alleged threats. Shulman was most feared by anti-abortion activists for his alleged willingness to call their homes and cell phones, but just one of the counts stems from phone communications. The other counts stem from comments that Shulman—who also went by the aliases “Doctor Defense,” “DD,” and “Operation Counterstrike,” the name of his blog— allegedly submitted for publication on various websites around the web. In January 2010, before Roeder was convicted and sentenced for Tiller’s murder, Shulman allegedly posted this comment on the website of the conservative Catholic magazine First Things:
If Roeder is acquitted, someone will respond by killing [Victim-1] of [the University] and [Victim-2] of PRIESTS FOR LIFE.
Shulman’s alleged threats are notable in that he never explicitly says that he will kill the targets—although he sometimes comes very close. Take this threat, for example, allegedly posted on the website of Priests for Life:
Payback for Dr. Tiller coming soon. [Victim-2], you should write your will.
Jodi Magee, the CEO and President of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health (PRCH), an organization of abortion providers and their allies, condemned Shulman’s alleged actions but cautioned against drawing a parallel between his behavior and attacks on abortion providers. “Our doctors have received hundreds and thousands of death threats and worse at the hands of anti-abortion activists,” she said. “That kind of violence is a noted pattern in the anti-abortion movement. To my knowledge [anti-abortion activists] are not persecuted in the same way that physicians providing legal medical services to patients have been.”
You can read the full indictment here [PDF].