To many abortion rights advocates, it seemed only a matter of time before something like this happened.
Ever since the summer, when an antiabortion group accused Planned Parenthood of illegally selling fetal tissue, threats against the organization had escalated to unprecedented levels, abortion providers say. They stepped up collaboration with the FBI and local police and stiffened security at clinics. But on Friday, their worst fears came true: A man walked into a health center in Colorado Springs and opened fire.
Police have not yet identified a clear motive for the shooting, which killed a police officer, Garrett Swasey, and two other people and left more than six injured. But the suspect, identified as Robert Lewis Dear Jr., attacked a clinic run by Planned Parenthood, a longtime foil of antiabortion activists that has been under heightened scrutiny in recent months. During his arrest, Dear referred to “baby parts,” a law enforcement official said.
Abortion rights advocates say the connection is clear. Over the summer, a little-known antiabortion group called the Center for Medical Progress released a series of covertly filmed videos purporting to show that Planned Parenthood illegally sells fetal tissue, or “baby parts,” as abortion foes refer to it, for research. The century-old nonprofit agency has denied wrongdoing, and state and congressional investigations have so far failed to produce proof supporting the allegations.
Nevertheless, the casual and sometimes graphic conversations about abortion procedures captured on the videos have provided fodder for conservatives on Capitol Hill, in governor’s mansions and on the presidential campaign trail to seek to strip the organization of government funding. The efforts have led to sometimes passionate commentary on the part of conservatives and Republicans against abortion and sharply critical of Planned Parenthood, striking a tone that abortion rights advocates say created an atmosphere that put clinic workers and patients at risk.
Antiabortion groups were quick to condemn the shooting and assert that, despite often impassioned and emotional language, their years-long campaign is about saving lives, not taking them. They emphasized that there was still no clear explanation for the shooting, which was carried out by a man who was known by friends and acquaintances as a malcontent who often clashed with neighbors and had encounters with police. Grass-roots activists connected with the antiabortion movement said they did not know Dear and that his name was not familiar.
“Our prayers and concern are with the victims today of the Colorado Springs shooting, people who did not deserve such violence,” Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, an antiabortion group, said in a statement Saturday. “While we don’t know all the details of this horrific event, we know that it was an evil act, one condemned by pro-life Americans nationwide.”
But Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, a professional association for abortion providers, said the antiabortion rhetoric had grown so heated in recent months that something like this was bound to happen.
“They have ignited a firestorm of hate. They knew there could be these types of consequences, and yet they ratcheted up the rhetoric and ratcheted it up and ratcheted it up,” Saporta said. “It’s not a huge surprise that somebody would take this type of action.”
On the Sunday morning talk shows, Republican presidential hopefuls walked a fine line, condemning the attack while also defending the criticism heaped on Planned Parenthood. On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” real estate mogul and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called the shooter “mentally disturbed” and reiterated the complaints about Planned Parenthood. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, also a Republican hopeful, decried “extremism on both sides,” on ABC’s “This Week.”
On “Fox News Sunday,” former Hewlett Packard chief Carly Fiorina called the shooting “obviously a tragedy,” adding, “nothing justifies this.” In the past, she has accused Planned Parenthood of “butchering babies for body parts.” But the Republican presidential candidate resisted the notion that the fiery rhetoric contributed to the shooting.
“This is so typical of the left to immediately begin demonizing a messenger because they don’t agree with the message,” she said. “The vast majority of Americans agree [that] what Planned Parenthood is doing is wrong.”
But abortion rights advocates say the videos have also led to a spike in threats against the organization — with a worst-case scenario unfolding in Colorado Springs.
“Politicians need to stop escalating the rhetoric against Planned Parenthood, and that means by and large the Republican Party,’’ said Laura Chapin, a pro-abortion rights political communications consultant and former press secretary to former Colorado governor Bill Ritter (D). “Right-wing politicians need to back off.’’
Saporta called the Colorado Springs shooting the deadliest such attack in history because it led to three fatalities. With Friday’s tragedy, she said, the death toll from antiabortion violence has risen to 11. The last such incident at an abortion clinic occurred in 2009, when a gunman shot and killed George Tiller, a Kansas doctor who performed the procedure late in a pregnancy.
Previously, Saporta said, her organization used internal staff to track threats to report to law enforcement. But the volume got so high that she contracted with an outside security firm to monitor threats 24 hours a day, she said. The company now provides her organization with daily reports, with the results reported routinely to the FBI and local police.
Strict security measures have become the norm at abortion clinics, which often have bulletproof glass, surveillance systems, security guards and volunteer escorts to usher patients through a gantlet of antiabortion demonstrators. Staff members are advised to keep unlisted phone numbers and to vary their commutes. Many clinics have moved into more private buildings, with underground parking to prevent demonstrators outside from snapping pictures of workers’ faces or license plates as they arrived at the office.
The Colorado Springs clinic has security cameras inside and outside the building, and workers are trained on how to deal with situations such as an active shooter, said Vicki Cowart, president of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. She credits this training with the fact that none of the 15 staff members were wounded Friday, and likely none of the patients as well, she said.
Saporta drew special attention to the group that filmed the undercover Planned Parenthood videos. Two of the videos were shot at a clinic in Denver, about 75 miles north of Colorado Springs. The videos sparked an onslaught of threats against one doctor featured in those videos, who has since moved out of her home and hired round-the clock security, Saporta said.
Since the videos’ release, she said, four Planned Parenthood clinics have been targeted for arson; a man was arrested for bringing a bomb into a Kansas clinic; and someone with a hatchet destroyed equipment at a Planned Parenthood facility in New Hampshire.
David Daleiden, project leader for the Center for Medical Progress, did not respond to a request for comment over the weekend. But Troy Newman, who sits on the board of directors, defended the project, which he said shed light on a matter of intense public interest.
Newman is president of Operation Rescue, an organization that is often present outside abortion clinics to document instances in which an ambulance has to be called and posts information about abortion providers, including their pictures, online. He has described abortion doctors as “butchers” and has called women who obtain abortions “murderesses,” and the vice president of his organization served two years in federal prison for conspiring to damage a clinic.
But he said his actions are not incitements for violence but rather “truth-telling” in the face of a corrupt industry.
“There’s a frustration that all of us experience from a lack of prosecution of Planned Parenthood by the federal authorities, but that frustration should never be taken to the point of extremism where people are killed as a result,” he said.
Jose A. DelReal contributed to this report.