Abortion Providers Are Too Scared To Even Talk About Security

"I won't say exactly what precautions our doctors take, because we do keep that pretty private."
Colorado Springs shooting suspect Robert Lewis Dear Jr. appears via video for this first court appearance on Nov. 30, 2015.
Colorado Springs shooting suspect Robert Lewis Dear Jr. appears via video for this first court appearance on Nov. 30, 2015.

WASHINGTON -- After a gunman opened fire at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs last week, killing three people, I wondered what new steps clinics would take to prevent similar attacks. So I asked Shannon Brewer, director of the Jackson Women's Health Organization, the only abortion clinic left in Mississippi, whether her doctors wanted to don bulletproof vests. She wouldn't say.

"We do keep that pretty private," Brewer said. "But every precaution that we can take, we are taking." She also declined to say whether any staff members have concealed carry permits. "That's part of our security, so I'd rather not answer that.”

Brewer said her staff is accustomed to following safety precautions. But across the country, other abortion clinics are taking a closer look at their security measures, which have long been more stringent than other healthcare providers. The details of these plans are still largely top-secret, because staff members fear that revealing them could enable future attackers.

Kathaleen Pittman, administrator of the Hope Medical Group for Women, an abortion clinic in Shreveport, Louisiana, said the situation in Colorado was heartbreaking, but "also heartbreaking is the amount of time and money spent on security rather than direct patient care."

"I am angry I cannot speak candidly about our security measures, but I have to consider our patients and staff," she added. The risk is so substantial that in June, the medical director for Pittman's clinic had to hide behind a black curtain to testify on an admitting privileges law, and was referred to only as "John Doe No. 3."

The precautions in place at the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs may have saved lives. When alleged shooter Robert Lewis Dear Jr. attacked the clinic and entered into a lengthy standoff with law enforcement, employees moved patients through a secure door to a separate room, The New York Times reported. The clinic also reportedly had bulletproof vests and internal cameras that officers could access.

Abortion clinics are prepared to deal with emergencies, said Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, an association of abortion providers. Prior to last week, there had been 8 murders, 17 attempted murders, 42 bombings, and 186 arsons at abortion clinics, Saporta said. "Many clinics have bulletproof glass, and cameras and lighting and metal detectors and security entrance systems that are not common for other medical facilities," she said. (Saporta had not heard of staff having concealed-carry permits.) But the scope of the Colorado shooting, she said, "takes things to a different level."  

On Monday, Saporta's organization was sending out a security alert to clinics. "Of course we don't want to give those specific details out, so anybody who wants to do them harm can figure out how to get around them," she said. 

Some clinics started ramping up security after the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion group, released heavily edited videos over the summer that purportedly showed that Planned Parenthood profits from the illegal sale of fetal issue. (The women's healthcare organization has strongly denied the claims.) Dear, the alleged Colorado shooter, may have referenced those videos when he was arrested. A law enforcement official reported that he said, "No more baby parts." The anti-abortion group has condemned the shooting.

Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota began to review security this summer in wake of the videos "because our opposition has become more emboldened than we've seen in the past," said spokeswoman Jennifer Aulwes. In light of the Colorado shooting, she said, "We are expediting any security enhancements and doing full security audits of all our sites."

Accessing health care "should not mean bulletproof glass, safe rooms and bulletproof vests," said Mary Kogut, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri. But recognizing that extreme anti-abortion rhetoric may fuel violence, she added, "We have security procedures and precautions."

When The Huffington Post called one abortion clinic to ask about security measures, the person who answered the phone said news of the shooting was "very scary" for staff, and that they had changed their security measures. The employee, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, also said that staff members have access to bulletproof vests, but declined to elaborate further.

"I'm afraid to," she said.

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