Words Matter: The Relationship Between Political and Public Debates and Violence in Our Communities

COLORADO SPRINGS, CO - NOVEMBER 27: People are rescued near the scene of a shooting at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Color
COLORADO SPRINGS, CO - NOVEMBER 27: People are rescued near the scene of a shooting at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs Friday November 27, 2015. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

As last Friday's attack at a Planned Parenthood facility unfolded, news reports showed a dangerous and chaotic situation--one that sadly took the lives of Ke'Arre Stewart, Jennifer Markovsky, and Officer Garrett Swasey and injured nine others. As I watched the now all-too-familiar reports, I feared this attack was connected to the controversy around Planned Parenthood that anti-choice groups created and promoted since this summer. Reports suggest that this was indeed the case, as the alleged shooter apparently made a comment about "no more baby parts" to law enforcement officials.

That this attack was carried out at a Planned Parenthood facility is sadly unsurprising. This past September, the FBI reported increased threats to reproductive health care facilities. At the same time, an FBI Intelligence Assessment warned that attacks were "consistent with the actions of lone offenders using tactics of arsons and threats all of which are typical of the pro-life extremist movement." The report went on to caution that "likely criminal or suspicious incidents will continue to be directed against reproductive health care providers, their staff and facilities."

Just as this attack fits the profile of incidents about which the FBI warned, the alleged shooter's words to law enforcement share a chilling similarity with those used by prominent anti-choice figures, including many of my colleagues in Congress. When he created a select panel after deceptively-edited videos tried to implicate Planned Parenthood in wrongdoing, former House Speaker John Boehner referenced the "baby parts business." In fact, all of the Republican members of the select panel have made multiple public references to "baby body parts" or "body parts." Since July of this year, Republicans on the select panel have used the calculated and provocative phrase at least 33 times.

I certainly do not think that my colleagues intended to condone or encourage violence. Still, the connection between the words used by both public officials and the alleged shooter is chilling, and it demands that we examine the vitriol used in debates about women's reproductive health, particularly coming from anti-choice activists.

Words matter, and people with sincere but conflicting opinions must be willing to engage and debate in ways that do not lead to the kinds of threats and violence that we now see directed towards women's reproductive health facilities. As someone who has worked on these issues for quite some time, I know that debates and discussions can be more meaningful, illuminating, and productive when we avoid the vitriol that leaves us investigating a crime scene, caring for nine injured shooting victims, and mourning the lives of three.