NPR host Terry Gross highlighted the long history of anti-choice violence against abortion providers and explicitly linked this year's uptick in threats and violence to the hateful rhetoric that followed the release of deceptively edited videos from the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), Media Matters' 2015 Misinformer of the Year. In spite of this violent history and recent upsurge, right-wing media has consistently pushed the narrative that violence against abortion providers is minimal and that anti-choice groups are peaceful.
On the December 17 edition of NPR's Fresh Air, Gross interviewed David Cohen and Krysten Connon, and discussed their new book: “Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism.” Cohen and Connon discussed the long pattern of violence towards abortion providers and their families and the importance of classifying such attacks as the acts of terrorism they often are. Objections to classifying acts of violence against providers and clinics as domestic terrorism are pushed by the right-wing media by denying the systemic nature of the violence, and claiming people like accused Planned Parenthood shooter, Robert Lewis Dear, are "kooks" while ignoring a history of violent rhetoric directed at abortion providers.
As RH Reality Check explained, the November 27 attack on the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood “was not an isolated incident.” In an interview with CounterSpin, RH Reality Check editor-in-chief, Jodi Jacobson, noted the Colorado Springs attack was “just one in a long series of attacks on Planned Parenthood.” Since the Colorado Springs attack, there have already been further incidents of violence and harassment. On December 12, a Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis was vandalized when someone threw rocks through the front windows. Similarly, a Washington man, Scott Anthony Orton, was recently arrested for making death threats against employees of StemExpress, the biomedical company targeted in several of the discredited CMP videos. As reported by The News Tribune, Orton posted over 18 different threatening messages that led to his arrest:
Orton posted his first message on the Internet: “The management of StemExpress should be taken by force and killed in the streets today.”
Over the next four hours, according to officials, Orton posted 18 additional messages, ranging from “Kill StemExpress employees. I'll pay you for it” and “Stop the death of innocents. Kill the killers,” to “StemExpress your lives don't matter nearly as much as your deaths do” and “I think I'll take a little trip to Placerville this weekend. I hear there's some good hunting down Placerville way ... ”
The affidavit says Orton identified “Victim 1” by title or name in other messages. Those included:
- “Someone needs to double tap the (officer) of StemExpress. She lives in Placerville CA.”
- "(Victim 1) will have to face the souls of the babies she's bought and sold when she arrives on the other side. I'm sending her there early."
- "(Victim 1) must die. End of story. If we as humanity accept her actions we're to be judged in the harshest manner possible."
- "(Victim 1) your life isn't worth squat."
The final message quoted in the affidavit was posted the next day, July 17: "(Victim 1) of StemExpress should be executed by hanging."
As explained by Cohen during the Fresh Air interview, terrorism is the most appropriate word to describe threats of this nature, despite right-wing media's reluctance to admit it. “Terrorism,” said Cohen, “is violence or the fear of violence used to accomplish a political goal when normal politics have not accomplished that goal.” He concluded that, “that's what's happening here with anti-abortion extremists...they're using violence and the fear of violence to try and accomplish this goal, and that's what terrorism is.”
Cohen further argued that the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood attack resulted from the proliferation of dangerous rhetoric following the release of the now thoroughly debunked videos from the Center for Medical Progress. Cohen explained that the language utilized by the accused shooter, Robert Lewis Dear, “almost exactly mirrored the language that we've been hearing” following the release of the heavily edited videos. Cohen additionally discussed the similarities between past attacks on Planned Parenthood clinics and “what Dear did in Colorado,” to contextualize the “rampage” within a historical pattern of violence (emphasis added):
TERRY GROSS (HOST): Since you've been studying acts of violence and threats of violence against abortion providers, did you see anything in the Colorado Springs rampage that was different from what you've seen in the past?
DAVID COHEN: What happened in Colorado Springs with the almost indiscriminate shooting of people at the Planned Parenthood was not entirely new because in Boston in 1994, John Salvi went into a Planned Parenthood and a preterm within a few miles of each other - two abortion clinics in Boston - and killed a receptionist in both places and wounded five others, including a security guard and a couple of patient supporters who were there - very similar to what Robert Dear did in Colorado. So as much as there's been violence against abortion providers in the past - and it's mostly been providers including doctors and other staff - there have patient supporters and security guards who have also been harmed in serious ways by anti-abortion violence, which is what Robert Dear did because he did not kill any staff or doctors at the abortion clinic or at the Planned Parenthood, and he did not kill any patients but patient supporters and first responders. And that has happened before.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the rhetoric of extremist anti-abortion people. And what struck you about what Robert Dear said about his motivation for his shootings at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs?
COHEN: What struck me was that the language he was using about no more selling babies or selling baby parts mirrored almost exactly the language that we've been hearing for the past several months, ever since those videos about Planned Parenthood were released in July of this summer. And so he was taking that language almost directly and shouting that in the process of committing this violent act.
And if you think about it, using language like abortion providers are selling baby parts, or abortion providers are murdering children, or abortion providers are killing babies - that kind of language is going to have an effect because to some people, they're going to say, oh, that's what's happening? If that's what's happening, we need to stop it because who's not against killing babies? We're all against killing babies. And if I knew that babies were being killed somewhere, that would be horrible. I would want to try and do something about it.
And so it encourages people to try and do something about it - and for a lot of people, in ways that are legal - by talking out about it - but in - for other people who don't have the respect of the law - for the law - or who feel that they can take things into their own hands, like Robert Dear, to do what he did. And so I think this rhetoric is something that absolutely contributed to what happened in Colorado Springs.
Gross also focused the conversation on disproving the false yet oft-repeated right-wing media allegation that Planned Parenthood's fetal tissue donation and reimbursement program violated the law. As David Cohen explained (emphasis added):
COHEN: The transaction that occurs - and this is perfectly permitted under federal law - only allows for the exchange of money for the compensation for costs associated with, say, storage of fetal tissue or transportation of the fetal tissue, so we're talking about 10s of dollars here. We're talking about 30, 40, $50, in terms of time for staff and costs associated. That's it. So the money that was discussed in these videos was about that, and that's perfectly allowed under federal law. And in fact, if you look at the investigations that have occurred throughout the states since those videos have been released, Planned Parenthood has now been found to violate no laws by every investigatory body since the release of those tapes.
They have not violated the law, but this language has permeated our politics and our culture, and that has effects. And we've seen that with the increase of threats to abortion providers, the violence that was in Colorado Springs. There have been arsons against Planned Parenthoods, vandalism. A Planned Parenthood in St. Louis was just vandalized this past weekend with rocks thrown through their glass windows, with thousands of dollars' worth of damage. Thankfully, no one was in there so no one was hurt by the shards of glass. There've been death threats against the people who were featured in those videos. And so the language has - and in these videos have - not resulted in any findings of criminal wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood, but they have resulted - and we knew this would happen - they have resulted in more targeting, more harassment and more violence.
In response to this violence, the Feminist Majority Foundation has launched a new ad campaign which asks: “When did the right to life become the right to terrorize abortion providers?”