Colorado Planned Parenthood Shooting Is Part Of A Frightening Trend

Is this the next stage of anti-abortion violence in America?
A demonstrator waits for abortion doctor George Tiller's casket to be taken to a hearse after his funeral services at Co
A demonstrator waits for abortion doctor George Tiller's casket to be taken to a hearse after his funeral services at College Hill United Methodist Church on Saturday, June 6, 2009, in Wichita, Kansas.

A gunman opened fire in a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Friday, the latest in a string of attacks at the health care provider's clinics this year.

Robert Lewis Dear, 57, who surrendered to authorities after an hourslong standoff, appears to have been motivated by opposition to abortion. Abortion clinics have long been the targets of violence, including bombings, anthrax scares and mass blockades. This year alone, arsonists attacked four Planned Parenthood clinics in Washington, California, Illinois and Louisiana

In October, NARAL Pro-Choice America launched a petition urging the FBI to investigate the arson attacks, stating that “they’re perpetrated by an extreme minority that’s committed to ruling through fear and intimidation” and urging the FBI to treat them with the gravity warranted by domestic terrorism.

“We can’t wait until one more patient, doctor or nurse is hurt or killed before we say enough is enough. It’s time for an investigation to get to the bottom of this,” the group said.

An unidentified victim is transported into an ambulance after a gunman opened fire at a Planned Parenthood facility in C
An unidentified victim is transported into an ambulance after a gunman opened fire at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Friday. The attack was one of several against Planned Parenthood clinics this year.

 Attacks on clinics are not always violent, though they are often threatening, designed to sow fear and to make it harder for abortion providers and clinic workers to do their jobs. In Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism, David S. Cohen and Krysten Connen detail the many ways in which clinics have been attacked or threatened in the last several decades:

Extremists have also thrown butyric acid into clinics, glued clinic locks shut, locked themselves into clinic property using items such as bicycle locks or chains, drilled holes into clinic roofs so that the clinic floods, invaded clinics, vandalized clinics, made threatening phone calls, tried to persuade patients to go to fake clinics, put spikes in driveways, talked outside clinics about bomb-making chemicals, laid down on sidewalks, jumped on cars, camped out in front of clinics for multiple-day stretches, and sent decoy patients into clinics to disrupt business.

Cohen told The Huffington Post that Friday’s shooting was on the extreme end of the obstacles that abortion providers and clinic workers face on a daily basis. “The normal part of being an abortion provider is living an working in fear, and today is an example of why,” he said. “Thankfully these things don’t happen every day but they do happen, and because they happen, abortion providers have to live their lives and go to work knowing that they’re in danger.”

One of the most high-profile examples of violence against an abortion provider is the 2009 murder of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas. Tiller’s clinic had been the target of numerous acts of sabotage and violence, including a shooting in which Tiller was hit in both arms.

Cohen also noted that if some of the people who were wounded in the Colorado Springs shooting were patients, then the attack represents a shift in anti-abortion violence. On Saturday night, police were unwilling to ascribe a clear anti-abortion motive to Dear's actions, but multiple officials familiar with the investigation described the attack as politically motivated.

“The patients have suffered from blockades and from being harassed by protestors, but this is new,” he said. “If it is true that it’s patients that are being injured, this is new.” He compared the day’s events to the 1998 bombing of an Alabama abortion clinic; that attack also occurred while the clinic was seeing patients, and was timed for when the clinic opened in the morning.

Though Cohen would not reveal if he had interviewed abortion providers or clinic workers from the Colorado Springs clinic for his book, he described the climate in which they practice reproductive health care.

“It’s a very conservative part of Colorado, and Colorado has some very extreme anti-abortion folks,” he said. 

This most recent attack happened against a backdrop of increased hostility against Planned Parenthood, the result of a series of undercover videos that purport to show Planned Parenthood employees discussing the sale of fetal tissue. The videos have triggered renewed calls for the organization to be defunded, as well as a five-hour grilling of Planned Parenthood President and CEO Cecile Richards by a congressional select committee.

Friday's shooting left one police officer and two civilians dead. 

“To think that this is medical care in 2015 in the U.S. is horrifying,” Cohen said. “This is how terrorism works. These incidents don’t happen often, but when they do, they make people fear for their lives.”