When Robert Dear broke into the Colorado Spring Planned Parenthood on Friday afternoon, he didn’t make it past a locked door leading to the clinic’s center. Practitioners and patients on the other side had access to bulletproof vests. And as Dear moved through the parts of the facility he could enter, police watched him through the clinic’s live surveillance cameras.
While the incident was undeniably shocking, these security measures already in place unveiled an unfortunate reality: This type of attack was anything but unplanned for.
“Abortion facilities need to have extensive security practices in place that aren’t common at any other type of medical facility,” said Vicki Saporta, Executive Director of the National Abortion Federation (NAF), a professional association of abortion providers, whose 400 members include Planned Parenthood centers. “It’s a testament to the staff at the Colorado Springs clinic that they acted so quickly and professionally.”
Abortion clinics have always taken extreme efforts to ensure the safety of both their patients and staff — going far beyond any practices average medical centers put in place — and for good reason. Since 1977, there have been eight murders and more than 220 bombings and arson attacks at abortion facilities in the United States, according to NAF. If anything, last week’s attack only further highlighted the need for these security tactics.
Saporta said that NAF holds routine security trainings for its members, and often audits facilities to ensure they have adequate safety precautions in place. From a bulletproof glass-clad reception desk to metal detectors, most clinics do all they can to promise a safe environment — even if it risks patient comfort.
“Many clinics are built away from main roads, tucked away in areas that aren’t accessible by public transportation and difficult to find,” said David Cohen, constitutional law professor and co-author of Living in the Crosshairs, a new book on anti-abortion terrorism in the U.S. “And it’s hard for anyone to be heard through bulletproof glass.”
In the book, Cohen mentions a 2012 study of patients at abortion clinics that found that many of the extreme safety precautions used at clinics can increase patients’ “feelings of stigmas, secrecy, and isolation [and] make the experience more upsetting.”
Staff face equally upsetting threats. In researching his book, Cohen interviewed many abortion clinic employees about the specific precautions they regularly take to stay safe — both inside and outside the workplace.
“If anyone told me when I was in medical school that I would go to work armed and with a bulletproof vest, I would have thought they were nuts,” physician Kevin Bohannon told Cohen.
Many staff Cohen talked with had been stalked by anti-abortion protesters who had found their identities. Many had their their spouses and children targeted and threatened.
“Some doctors drive to some public parking lot and get picked up by clinic staff, just to get to work in the morning,” he said. “And staff wear disguises, carry guns, change their mailing addresses — it’s a constant fear. What it all comes down to is vigilance.”
In response to Friday’s shooting, some clinics decided to ramp up their already strict security tactics. But Cohen said this shouldn’t be the answer.
“This shouldn’t be on the clinics. More needs to be done with law enforcement to keep clinics safe, and much more needs to be done to tone down the harmful rhetoric around abortions,” he said. “In an ideal world, going to the abortion clinic should be just like going to the dermatologist. But we’re far from that ideal.”