Targeted Attacks On Abortion Providers Is Domestic Terrorism


UPDATE: The family of the victim in this shooting has sued Planned Parenthood for not warning patients about “the risk of injury or death associated with entering Planned Parenthood.”

By now anyone within reach of a television, radio, or Internet connection has heard about the gunman who exchanged fire with police from inside a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood on Friday. So are we ready to call targeted attacks on abortion providers domestic terrorism?

As of this writing, Colorado Springs police are reporting that three people have died and at least eight others were injured after 57 year-old suspect Robert Lewis Dear, now in custody, entered the clinic at 3480 Centennial Blvd armed with “a long gun” and bags of unknown “items” and opened fire. Despite false reports that the incident may have started down the street at a Chase bank, Lt. Catherine Buckley assured reporters in a televised press conference that Planned Parenthood was the only location under siege.

Dr. Leah Torres, a Salt Lake City-based OB-GYN specializing in reproductive health still doesn’t think this will be enough for people to finally take the violence seriously.

“I’m scared for my colleagues, I’m scared for my patients,” Torres told The Establishment. “This violence continues to be excused because Planned Parenthood provides health care.”

I agree with her. As a longtime clinic escort and founding board member of the Clinic Vest Project, I’ve spent untold hours connecting health centers — both Planned Parenthood locations and independent providers — with resources, helping start new programs, and advocating for protective local laws. And in recent months, requests have spiked in regions and from groups who have never needed assistance or experienced picketing before. The past year may have seen people changing their profile photos and using #PinkOut on social media, but most people still see attacks on abortion as sheerly political while missing the very real harassment and threats that happen daily around the country.

Perhaps you are flinching because Dr. Torres and I use the word “terrorism.” You might find us unnecessarily alarmist, thinking this was just the act of a “lone gunman.” What does one guy whose mental health is certain to be called into question (despite statistics that people with mental illness are ten times more likely to be victims of violence than the general population) have to do with the big picture anyway? The CSPD have said “to even speculate on a motive would not be reasonable” and “we do not know about this person’s mentality or ideology.”

But those who work in reproductive health care see it differently — they have a collective memory of previous attacks, targeting, and murders.

Did you know that there were four arsons at Planned Parenthood clinics in the first 74 days following the release of the attack videos from anti-choice group The Center for Medical Progress this summer? The Southern Poverty Law Center considers these incidents — regularly reported as “vandalism” in the corporate media — to be terrorism.

And it gets worse.

An FBI Intelligence Assessment released in September attempted to warn law enforcement that they were recording an increase in attacks on reproductive health care facilities. The language is unequivocal: “[I]t is likely criminal or suspicious incidents will continue to be directed against reproductive health care providers, their staff and facilities.”

Credit: National Abortion Federation
Credit: National Abortion Federation

Over the summer, hackers claimed to have outed Planned Parenthood employee data. Considering the number of abortion providers who have been murdered — eight total including a security guard, two receptionists, and a clinic escort — it’s no wonder the Colorado Springs clinic has bullet-proof glass. They are hardly alone in taking such extreme precautions.

According to more than 100 interviews with abortion providers reported on by lawyer/authors David Cohen and Krysten Connon in their book Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism, not all doctors and staff wear bulletproof vests, but most have considered it whether or not they have received direct threats. The data from the Feminist Majority Foundation’s (FMF) latest National Clinic Access Project Survey released early this year explains why: nearly 68% of reproductive health clinics nationwide experience frequent and regular anti-abortion activity.

Cohen and Connon report that provider targeting has included assaults; threats in person and by mail; targeting of private practices and other places of employment; bombings; home picketing; stalking of providers’ young children; kidnappings; Internet attacks; and intimidation of extended family and neighbors.

Do we need more murders for people to take this seriously enough to end the violence? When will doctors no longer need to take evasive measures like using different routes to and from work and hiding their information, faces, and license plates?

Dr. Torres wants to know when we’re going to prosecute the attackers as domestic terrorists:

“This is domestic terrorism. Health care providers and health care seekers are being shot. Police are being shot trying to protect them. When will violent rhetoric be reprimanded? When will anti-abortion legislators and corporations be held responsible for passive approval of these attacks?”

Anti-abortion legislators have become nearly single-issue politicians at this point, holding repetitive hearings and attempting to pass redundant laws. Planned Parenthood continues to be vilified by these ideologically extreme state and federal representatives who are still — despite Planned Parenthood being more popular than they are — promising to strip the organization of any funding they can before the end of the legislative session.

And we know that these politicians, who only take a time out from attacking abortion access to demand we take terrorism seriously by keeping out war refugees, won’t say word one about Friday’s shooting if the white, male attacker admits extremist Christian motivation.

Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, an affiliate that includes Colorado Springs, clearly sees the connection. In the statement from their president and CEO Vicki Cowart, which was released during the siege:

“We share the concerns of many Americans that extremists are creating a poisonous environment that feeds domestic terrorism in this country. We will never back away from providing care in a safe, supportive environment that millions of people rely on and trust.”

At what point does the public say, “ENOUGH”? Why is no one pissed off about this? And why does what little anger that flares up during a nationally televised incident dissipate so quickly? Polling shows that abortion access is extremely mainstream, with even 79% of Republicans agreeing that a patient’s economic status shouldn’t determine whether or not they can receive a wanted abortion.

If we’re a pro-choice country, it’s time we started acting like it. Yes, everyone who is able should donate to their local clinic, to the national provider support group The Abortion Care Network, and to the members of the National Network of Abortion Funds. But that isn’t going to be enough to end the violence on providers and patients.

Cohen and Connon have ten recommended changes to the legal system and I can’t advocate strongly enough for all of them. Number ten, especially, is something we all can do in our rhetoric and in our networks: labeling provider harassment as terrorism.

We can no longer tolerate the way “both sides” are given equal weight in the media or the lukewarm reactions of check-the-box “pro-choice” candidates. There is a real war going on, a battle for access to basic health care — to a procedure that one in three people who can get pregnant will need in their lifetimes. One side is willing to arm themselves and to murder not just doctors, but bystanders. As abortion providers go to work every day despite the threats — even speaking out like Dr. Torres, Dr. Willie Parker, and Dr. Cheryl Chastine, the very least we can do is to honor their bravery by publicly supporting them and demanding our elected officials and law enforcement are on their side.