12.01.2015
  • United States

Abortion Under Siege

  • Rachel Cohen

The Right’s virulent anti-abortion rhetoric created the environment that led to the Planned Parenthood attack.

Civilians being escorted from the scene of the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs on November 27. Andy Cross

The right wing’s attacks on women’s access to abortion once again turned deadly last Friday.

Colorado Spring police arrested Robert L. Dear six hours after he entered a Planned Parenthood facility wielding an AK-47 rifle. By then, he had murdered three people and wounded nine others.

For days, many in the mainstream media refused to speculate about Dear’s motives — a restraint that certainly didn’t characterize their coverage of the Paris terror attacks two weeks earlier. Even after witnesses reported that Dear uttered the phrase “No more baby parts” during his arrest, police claimed the shooter’s intentions required further investigation.

President Barack Obama issued a statement as the attack was still unfolding, calling for action to curtail gun access and support for the law enforcement officials on the scene. Obama didn’t use the words “women,” “abortion,” or even “health care” once.

His message may have resonated with many people who know Colorado Springs as a place where right-wing ideas flourish — and Colorado as a state where lawmakers were successfully recalled in 2013 after they supported gun-control legislation.

But Obama’s decision to dodge any comment about women’s right to access abortion as health care was cowardly — a sign of his unwillingness, common among his fellow Democrats, to take a clear stand in defense of women’s rights and the lives of patients and health care providers.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, likewise urged his constituents on both sides to “tone down the rhetoric” in debates about abortion. “I think we should have a discussion at least urging caution when we discuss some of these issues, so we don’t get people to a point of going out and committing violence,” he said.

In other words, supporters of a women’s right to choose abortion and of Planned Parenthood’s mission of providing women’s health care should hush up — or they might bear responsibility for the violence of the anti-abortion fanatics.

To anyone without an interest in burying their heads in the sand, Dear’s words about “baby parts” were an obvious reference to slanderous allegations against Planned Parenthood taken up by Republican politicians from Congress to the presidential campaign trail.

The right wing seized on manipulated video footage concocted by the misnamed Center for Medical Progress (CMP) to make it seem like Planned Parenthood officials discussing the legal and medically vital practice of making fetal tissue from later-term abortions available for lifesaving research were bragging about an illegal for-profit venture.

The infamous and now thoroughly debunked videos go way beyond “inflammatory rhetoric.” They convey deliberate lies, which could land CMP in a courtroom, faced with criminal or civil prosecution.

The Right’s slander should have been easily recognized after similar right-wing video smear campaigns led a Democratic-controlled Congress to defund the anti-poverty organization ACORN in 2009 and the US Department of Agriculture to fire civil-rights veteran Shirley Sherrod in 2010.

Instead, the despicable allegations that Planned Parenthood “sells baby parts” were the subject of congressional hearings, with Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards facing hours of aggressive and condescending questioning by lawmakers. The claim has been taken up at the grassroots by anti-abortion organizations that picket outside clinics during coordinated national days of action.

Though CMP distanced itself from Robert Dear’s violence, sections of the anti-choice right have openly endorsed terrorism in the past.

The Right’s effort to vilify abortion — a normal part of women’s health care and necessary for women to enjoy any semblance of equality — as the “murder of unborn children” has provoked a consistent stream of violence over several decades, ranging from hundreds of acts of clinic vandalism to kidnapping, stalking, assault, attempted murder, and the murder of eight abortion providers and clinic staff.

In the weeks following the release of CMP’s videos against Planned Parenthood, four arson attacks struck Planned Parenthood facilities in Washington, California, Illinois, and Louisiana.

Most Republicans likewise distanced themselves from Dear’s actions — despite the fact that their virulent attacks on Planned Parenthood in particular and abortion in general set the stage for such terrorism.

On Fox News Sunday, Carly Fiorina, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination — and vocal defender of the CMP videos, even after they were debunked — said attempts to link the Colorado clinic shooting with anti-abortion rhetoric were “typical left-wing tactics.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, another GOP presidential hopeful, had the gall to declare on the campaign trail in Iowa — in the absence of any evidence at all — that Dear is a “transgendered [sic] leftist activist.”

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, yet another Republican presidential contender, told CNN that Dear’s killings were “domestic terrorism” — but in the next breath equated Planned Parenthood’s abortion services to Dear’s mass murder. “[T]here’s no excuse for killing other people, whether it’s happening inside the Planned Parenthood headquarters, inside their clinics where many millions of babies die, or whether it’s people attacking Planned Parenthood,” Huckabee said.

Rising Violence

The Colorado Springs killings are another example of a frightening rise in right-wing terrorist attacks.

It comes on the heels of shootings attributed to white supremacist vigilantes against Black Lives Matter activists in Minneapolis. In that case, police have arrested three suspects who littered the Internet with hateful messages and open discussions of their planned attack — though authorities say they are still investigating whether to indict the men on hate crime charges or whether their assault on protesters might be considered “self-defense.”

Other forms of hate violence have claimed lives and inflicted harm across the country. For example, activists and supporters have brought to light the murder of twenty-two trans women in 2015, a majority of whom were women of color.

Nor is the Planned Parenthood shooting the only attack of its kind in the city of Colorado Springs this year. In January, the city’s NAACP office was damaged when Thaddeus Murphy set off an explosive device. Murphy’s motives have also been portrayed as “murky,” though his actions follow a long history of arson attacks against black civil-rights organizations.

The last murder attributed to anti-choice violence took the life of late-term abortion provider Dr George Tiller in Wichita, KS, in 2009.

Tiller’s practice in Kansas City had been a focal point of violence — including a 1986 bombing and 1993 shooting — and right-wing protest for years. The anti-choice movement has targeted later-term abortion providers for special demonization, and Tiller was one of only five providers of abortions after the stage of pregnancy in which a fetus is considered viable, or able to survive outside the womb.

The US Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision guaranteed legality for abortions taking place before fetal viability, and indeed, the vast majority of abortions take place within the first eight weeks of pregnancy, before an embryo becomes a fetus.

But in rare cases, making up less than 1 percent of all abortions, a pregnancy is terminated after twenty-four weeks of pregnancy. This procedure almost always stems from late-developing and severe health complications, but the Right has cynically portrayed procedures involving the partial delivery of more developed fetuses as representative of all abortion practices.

Tiller’s murder forced the closure of the last remaining abortion facility in Kansas City and left just four providers of later-term abortions to attempt to provide care for hundreds of parents annually facing the tragic ending of wanted pregnancies.

Dr Tiller’s murder and the attack in Colorado Springs show that anti-choice claims of concern for fetal life coexist with the violent disregard for the lives of women and health care providers. But in truth, women’s lives are on the line every time our right and access to reproductive justice is placed at risk.

Legislative attacks limiting access to abortion do the greatest harm to those who are most vulnerable to begin with. Several states have banned late-term abortions, forcing women carrying a severely ill fetus to make a choice between risking their safety, traveling great distances, and paying thousands of dollars to terminate their pregnancies, or giving birth to children who will endure tremendous suffering for the duration of their very short lives.

Parental notification laws compel young women who may have violent or nonexistent relationships with their guardians to seek permission just to exercise control over their own bodies and lives. And mandatory waiting periods and counseling add to the expense of a procedure that has become unaffordable for many poor and working women.

The closure of clinics has been one of the Right’s most effective tactics in limiting reproductive rights in practice, with potentially life-threatening results. Six states now have only one abortion provider, and 87 percent of counties nationwide have no abortion providers.

In its next term, the US Supreme Court is due to rule on the constitutionality of a 2013 law passed in Texas amid mass protests. At the time that HB 2 was approved, Texas counted forty-one abortion providers across its large expanse. Today, just seventeen clinics remain, and more could be closed if the law is upheld.

A new study dramatizes the effects of the closures. Researchers asked Texas women if they or their best friend had attempted to induce an abortion on their own — and turned up between 100,000 and 240,000 estimated attempts. Even if these estimates double or triple the real number, they represent a massive number of people facing desperate and potentially dangerous circumstances.

Rejecting Fear

Obama and other political leaders will use the fact that law enforcement officers were among those killed and wounded by Dear to attempt to rehabilitate the role of police in public safety. But we can look to our own past struggles to see what really made a difference in keeping our rights and lives safe.

In the 1980s and 1990s, activists turned back a tide of anti-choice violence by standing up to the Right in the streets and on the sidewalks in front of our clinics. Small groups of clinic defense activists united in action at the height of right-wing violence and blocked the actions of organizations like the Pro-Life Action League and Operation Rescue. These confrontations eventually won wider support and drew together enough participants to run the bigots back underground.

More than a decade after clinic defense, street protest, and bottom-up organizing subsided, we can’t afford to be apologetic or fearful about defending women’s rights. We are long overdue for a new fighting movement that protects abortion as a part of the reproductive justice that every woman and everyone who can become pregnant deserves.