It isn’t yet clear why 57-year-old Robert Lewis Dear opened fire in a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic on Friday afternoon, ultimately killing three people and injuring several more. But the shooting feels particularly threatening to reproductive rights supporters.
There’s a long history of anti-choice extremists using threats, harassment, and violence to make a political point against abortion. According to the National Abortion Federation (NAF), which tracks data on abortion clinic violence, there have been more than 200 arsons and bombings of clinics since the mid-1970s. Although there isn’t as much extreme violence perpetrated against clinics as there was in the 1990s, the problem hasn’t gone away. Over the past several years, the level of personal attacks against abortion doctors and clinic staff has actually been on the rise.
And this year, following the release of several inflammatory videos accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from the sale of aborted fetal tissue, the national women’s health organization has become a particular target. There’s been an apparent uptick in arson and vandalism at Planned Parenthood clinics around the country — leaving clinic employees concerned that the heated political rhetoric against Planned Parenthood is translating into action.
“Since a series of highly-edited, misleading anti-abortion videos was released in July, we have seen an unprecedented increase in hate speech and threats against abortion providers. We have been quite worried that this increase in threats would lead to a violent attack like we saw today,” NAF’s president, Vicki Saporta, said in a statement released after Friday’s shooting.
Although authorities don’t know whether Dear was trying to specifically target Planned Parenthood, one of the videos released this summer did feature a Colorado-based abortion doctor. According to Saporta, the release of the videos — which were produced by far-right activists that have connections to some of the most extreme anti-abortion groups in the country — led to an increase in protests and death threats against that doctor.
Indeed, the shooting comes just one month after a prominent abortion rights group called on the Department of Justice to investigate incidents at abortion clinics as domestic terrorism.
“The media need to report these incidents as what they are: domestic terrorism,” Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in October, after a Media Matters report found that major media outlets were largely silent on the recent string of vandalism at Planned Parenthood clinics. “By staying silent or failing to discuss this new wave of attacks on health clinics in the context of anti-abortion extremism, the media is giving extremists the cover to regressively and violently attack women, their access to health care, and the medical professionals who provide it.”
Independent abortion providers are even more vulnerable than Planned Parenthood clinics, since many of them don’t have the institutional resources to invest in security measures like cameras and metal detectors.
Abortion opponents were quick to downplay Friday’s shooting, seizing on early reports that shots were fired in a bank to argue the event had nothing to do with Planned Parenthood. But there’s a broader context that explains why, regardless of whether authorities are able to pinpoint Dear’s motives, violent events at clinics are enough to put people on edge.
The reproductive rights community is still reeling from the all-too-recent history of doctors being murdered, according to David Cohen, a law professor at Drexel University who interviewed dozens of employees who work at abortion clinics for a book entitled The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism. In his book, Cohen argues that law enforcement officials need to become more educated about the legacy of anti-abortion harassment so they understand why abortion providers may feel uneasy today.
For instance, in 1998, an abortion doctor named Barnett Slepian was killed by a sniper who shot a single bullet through his window as he stood in the kitchen of his home in New York. In 2009, the abortion doctor George Tiller was shot to death in the foyer of his church in Kansas, where he was passing out bulletins for the service.
“The people in the profession are acutely aware of what’s happened to people before them,” Cohen told ThinkProgress in a previous interview. “People have been murdered at home, at work, at church. The message is: You’re not safe anywhere.”
This piece originally identified the Colorado Springs health center as featured in a video about Planned Parenthood. In fact, the videos feature a Colorado-based doctor, but not the clinic building itself.