November 27 marked the one-year anniversary of a deadly shooting attack on a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood center that killed three and wounded nine more.
In July 2015, the anti-choice group Center for Medical Progress (CMP) released a series of deceptively edited videos falsely alleging wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood employees. Multiple investigations have not only cleared Planned Parenthood, but also consistently debunked the fraudulent claims the organization has advanced. Nevertheless, right-wing media and anti-choice lawmakers have continued to attack providers and spread misinformation about the essential services they provide. This campaign of misinformation makes reproductive health care less accessible, but also incites violence against clinics, patients, and providers.
From the inception of CMP’s smear campaign, right-wing media were among the most enthusiastic champions of the anti-choice group’s misinformation. For example, following the release of CMP’s second video on July 21, 2015, Fox News dedicated 10 segments across seven separate programs to hyping the deceptively edited footage in a single day. In addition, Media Matters found that during a 14-month period (from January 1, 2015, through March 6, 2016), Fox News’ evening news programs frequently relied on extreme anti-choice figures and misinformation to promote CMP’s fraudulent claims about Planned Parenthood and abortion.
The Washington Post reported the day after the attack that the Colorado Springs shooter, Robert Lewis Dear, explained his actions using the phrase “no more baby parts” -- mirroring the language used by CMP to falsely accuse Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing. Media Matters found that Fox News and Fox Business were responsible for 83 of 119 mentions of the phrase “baby parts” or “parts of babies” on major cable news networks’ reports about the release of CMP’s videos before the subsequent Colorado Springs attack. In comparison, Fox spent just 30 seconds covering reports that Dear stated, “I’m guilty. There’s no trial. … I’m a warrior for the babies,” during his first court appearance on December 9, 2015.
In fact, right-wing media have continually dismissed anti-choice violence and resisted classifying such attacks as acts of terrorism. Rather than account for the severity of anti-choice violence, right-wing media have instead denied its systemic nature, downplayed incidents, and dismissed individuals like the Colorado Springs gunman as anomalous “kooks.”
For example, on the June 21 edition of Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, host Bill O’Reilly downplayed the dangers of clinic violence, claiming he was unable to remember a time when “a Christian blew up an abortion clinic.” Previously, in December 2015, Fox News contributor Erick Erickson wrote that he was surprised “more Planned Parenthood facilities and abortionists are not being targeted” and suggested that such violence was only “getting rarer.”
Prior to the Colorado Springs attack, the FBI released an intelligence assessment that warned of an increase in violence against abortion providers and clinics. This assessment was later supported by the National Abortion Federation (NAF), which found that in 2015 there was a “dramatic increase in hate speech and internet harassment, death threats, attempted murder, and murder” of abortion providers that coincided with CMP’s incendiary allegations and rhetoric. NAF president and CEO Vicki Saporta noted that the ninefold increase in harassment and threats of abortion providers in the month after the release of the first CMP videos was “unprecedented.”
The FBI’s warning was prescient. After Dear allegedly carried out his deadly attack, a clinic in St. Louis was vandalized while a Washington man was 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, Scott Anthony Orton posted more than 18 different threatening messages online before he was arrested. In April 2016, Orton pleaded guilty to threatening StemExpress employees.
In May, The New York Times reported that MedStar Washington Hospital Center in D.C. barred abortion provider Dr. Diane J. Horvath-Cosper from publicly speaking about the need for greater abortion access. The hospital’s medical director issued the gag order after the Colorado Springs attack “out of concerns for security,” saying he didn’t want to draw attention to MedStar’s abortion and reproductive health care services in the nation’s capital.
A Planned Parenthood clinic in Appleton, WI, was forced to close its doors due to security concerns in August 2016. This move left “any patient who does not live in Madison or Milwaukee” without a nearby provider, according to Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin director of government relations Nicole Safar.
More recently, an Alaskan man, Robert Joseph Klima, was indicted in November for making threatening phone calls to a Planned Parenthood call center, claiming he would bomb an Anchorage clinic. Alaska Dispatch News reported that Kilma made multiple calls and insisted that “he knew how to carry out the destruction of the building.”
Despite the clear threat posed when the names and details about abortion providers are made public, a congressional panel created to investigate Planned Parenthood has worked to expose even more such information. And the panel -- the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives -- has consistently relied on CMP and other anti-choice groups to fuel its politically motivated attacks on abortion access.
Established in October 2015, the select panel has been criticized by mainstream media outlets for its “Benghazi treatment” of Planned Parenthood -- prompting numerous lawmakers to call for its disbandment. Although the panel has found no substantial evidence of wrongdoing during its tenure, Rewire reported that congressional leadership approved a request for additional funding that would “more than doubl[e] the total cost of the investigation," bringing it to $1.59 million. Equally concerning, extreme anti-choice groups like Operation Rescue have asked House Speaker Paul Ryan to extend the sham investigation beyond its originally authorized end date in December 2016.
The select panel Republicans have already been criticized for showing little concern for the safety of the targets of their investigation. In June, select panel chairman Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and her colleagues failed to redact identifying information about abortion providers and patients from subpoenaed documents. Similarly, the select panel Republicans have also publicly released identifying information about abortion providers whom they believe (but have not proved) were involved in malfeasance.
Just this month, Warren Hern -- a late-term abortion provider who lives just hours from Colorado Springs in Boulder, CO -- received a letter from Blackburn implying that he has been involved in wrongdoing and demanding information about Hern and his practice.
In response, Hern lambasted Blackburn, writing that her “clear and unabashed purpose is to obstruct women seeking abortions, to control their lives, and to crush physicians who help them.” He dismissed Blackburn’s allegations as “outrageous,” “patently false,” and based on an “unfounded fantasy” while warning of the danger the panel’s attacks posed to women’s health and scientific advancement. Hern also warned Blackburn that her attempts to demonize abortion providers and ally with anti-choice groups threatened the safety of providers, their patients, and clinic staff:
I am determined to give my patients the safest possible medical care in a humane and dignified environment that supports their emotional and social needs to the fullest extent possible. I have a superior staff of nurses, counselors, and other health professionals who are dedicated to help these women and their families. Your sordid exploitation of this activity for political purposes places all of us -- patients, physicians, and all members of my staff -- at risk of violent retaliation by anti-abortion fanatics. You know this. This is not some paranoid fantasy. A number of physicians specializing in abortion services have been assassinated, on at least one occasion in the physician’s church, and numerous other people, including an off-duty police office and one physician’s bodyguard, have been murdered in cold blood by anti-abortion fanatics, each assassin a so-called “peaceful” anti-abortion protester up until the moment of the murder.
When is the last time you ever spoke out and condemned these senseless and spineless murders?
You and your Republican Party are vigorously allied with a violent terrorist movement that threatens the lives of women, their families, and health care workers. As part of this shame “investigation,” your letter to me and letters to other physicians constitute a program of target identification for anti-abortion assassins. You can deny this, but it is a fact.
Your “investigation” is legislative harassment that endangers our lives. The blood of any of us who are assassinated is on your hands.
While anti-choice groups and lawmakers continue targeting abortion providers like Hern, the people of Colorado Springs are still healing from a violent attack on their community fueled by extreme anti-abortion sentiments.
In October 2016, several survivors of the Planned Parenthood attack spoke to Cosmopolitan about their experience and continuing fears of becoming targets of anti-choice violence. But as the clinic manager explained, “We have come through this and are stronger.” She concluded: “We are going to be there for this community because they need us.”