The shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs on Friday was a vivid reminder that the organization isn’t just a political lightning rod for conservatives who oppose abortion rights. It’s also under constant threat of harassment and violence from radical anti-abortion advocates, ranging from hate mail and vandalism all the way up to arson, bombings, and in a few cases, the murder of clinic staff or patients.
The Colorado attack comes at a time when the Republican Congress is trying to figure out new ways to go after the group. So where will those efforts go now?
At the moment, we don’t have direct confirmation that Robert Dear, the alleged killer, was motivated by objections to abortion. What we do know is that, according to anonymous law enforcement sources, he said “no more baby parts” to officials, which would be a clear reference to the “sting” videos created by an anti-abortion group showing Planned Parenthood personnel discussing the transfer of fetal tissue to researchers. (Though many have charged that the videos show Planned Parenthood “selling baby parts,” that is not in fact true. The organization only accepts small reimbursements on the order of $50 or so to cover their costs when making these transfers, and the videos don’t show them doing anything different.)
In any case, the important context to understand is that Planned Parenthood has almost never not been under attack, both from violent extremists and from Republicans in Congress who would like to see the organization disappear, or at least deprive it of the Medicaid reimbursements it gets for things like pap smears and cancer screenings (no government money can go to fund abortions). The nature and intensity of that assault ebbs and flows, but a confluence of events has caused the attack in Colorado Springs to get even more attention than it otherwise would have.
After those videos were released, Republican presidential candidates began condemning Planned Parenthood in unusually vituperative terms, accusing the group of murder and all manner of other crimes. Their colleagues in Congress saw an opportunity to renew what had been a sporadic attack on the group, so they mounted multiple investigations in an attempt to find something they could use as a justification for cutting off the group’s Medicaid reimbursements. When the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s lengthy grilling of Planned Parenthood chief Cecile Richards not only didn’t prove any wrongdoing but made the Republicans on the committee look foolish, outgoing Speaker John Boehner announced the creation of a Benghazi-style committee to investigate the organization.
The idea, as it seems to be in most congressional investigations Republicans launch, is that while they don’t really know what they’re looking for, if they look hard enough then they’ll find something that can be used against Planned Parenthood. And it’s possible they will, though there isn’t actually much reason to think so. If they do find something that sounds problematic, it will suddenly become the one aspect of the abortion issue Republicans care about above all others.
Don’t forget that before those videos came out and Republicans decided that “selling baby parts!” was a handy tool that could be used to bludgeon the group, they weren’t crusading to end fetal tissue research. Some of them even supported it; notably, Mitch McConnell voted for the law that allowed such research to take place. They’ve shown no interest in any new law changing the regulations covering how that research is conducted. If any of the presidential candidates who were in such high dudgeon over the videos have a plan to outlaw fetal tissue research, I haven’t heard about it.
The truth is that Republicans don’t despise Planned Parenthood because they genuinely believe the organization is breaking the law. They despise it because they despise abortion rights, and also because Planned Parenthood’s political activities support Democrats. It’s not complicated.
And now we have a situation where the Colorado murders help establish a context in which further “investigations” of Planned Parenthood in Congress will take place. Will the group’s advocates bring up those murders again and again, arguing that clinic violence and congressional harassment are all parts of the same animal? You bet they will. That won’t change Republicans’ desire to go after Planned Parenthood, but it might make them a little hesitant about doing so, at least until memories have a chance to fade.
The Benghazi committee has been going for a year and a half, and shows no sign of ever wrapping up its work so long as there’s some miniscule chance it might find something incriminating on Hillary Clinton. So Republicans might just make their select committee on Planned Parenthood semi-permanent, even if they put it on the back burner for a while.