On Nov. 27, Robert Lewis Dear allegedly shot and killed three people and injured nine others at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. The individuals murdered included a police officer, a U.S. Army veteran and a mother of two.
After being detained by police officials, Dear went on a rambling diatribe against the government and abortion, while muttering, “No more baby parts,” a supposed reference to the highly edited and surreptitiously recorded undercover videos released by the Center for Medical Progress in early 2015.
The allegations that Planned Parenthood illegally sold fetal organs have been debunked by multiple state government investigations as well as the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee. However, police officials still haven’t released a motive for the act of violence.
Planned Parenthood and its primarily liberal supporters were quick to denounce the act, which has been appropriately described as domestic terrorism by many pundits and organizations. Planned Parenthood itself tweeted, “The increase in hateful rhetoric & smear campaigns against abortion providers & patients creates an environment that breeds acts of violence.”
Former Governor of Maryland Martin O’Malley, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all released statements reiterating their support for Planned Parenthood and their advocacy for women’s health and reproductive rights. Sanders tweeted, “I strongly support Planned Parenthood and the work it’s doing. I hope people realize that bitter rhetoric can have unintended consequences.” President Barack Obama offered condolences and reiterated his positional frustration regarding American gun control reform.
Most of the right, on the other hand, was silent for nearly two whole days before acknowledging the brutal attack. It is important to note that rhetoric towards Planned Parenthood has been bitter, accusatory and aggressive, particularly in the wake of the 2015 undercover video controversy.
CBS News reported that “The women’s health organization has [been] featured prominently as a target of the anti–abortion movement in recent months. Congressional conservatives made several attempts to defund Planned Parenthood earlier this year after undercover videos sparked outrage over the clinic’s health care practices,” (CBS News, “Presidential candidates react to Planned Parenthood Shooting,” 11.29.15).
Conservatives were quick to criticize liberals’ reactions as premature given the lack of information available regarding the shooter’s intent (a somewhat valid assertion, though inherently problematic given the Republican Party’s history of reacting blindly to tragedies). However, many Republican presidential candidates were very slow to react to the tragedy, unlike their Democratic counterparts.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a self–proclaimed enemy of Planned Parenthood who has described the organization as a “criminal enterprise,” was the first to respond to the tragedy by tweeting, “Praying for the loved ones of those killed, those injured & first responders who bravely got the situation under control in Colorado Springs.” As The New Yorker points out, however, this statement does not really specify whom he is offering condolences to (The New Yorker, “The Planned Parenthood Shooting and Republican Candidates’ Responses,” 11.29.15).
Cruz later generated controversy by suggesting that the shooter may have been a “transgendered leftist activist” based on the findings of conservative blogger Jim Hoft, who purportedly discovered that the alleged shooter was registered to vote as a woman.
However, no relatives or officials have commented on Dear’s gender identity and there is no indication that Dear is a trans woman. Additionally, Cruz’s use of the word “transgendered” is widely considered offensive by the LGBTQ community and only further shows the callousness and superficiality of Cruz’s comments.
Former Governor of Florida Jeb Bush offered an apolitical response of, “There is no acceptable explanation for this violence, and I will continue to pray for those who have been impacted.” Bush does not hold anyone accountable and does not offer any words of reform or change (though, this is better than the incendiary rhetoric of his colleagues).
Donald Trump told Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press” that the shooting represented a discontentment and anxiety regarding Planned Parenthood and the anger generated from the video; however, he avoided saying that the strong, bitter language of other Republicans caused the shooting, saying instead that the shooter has not yet made a “statement.”
The common thread between these three Republican candidates is a lack of accountability for their words and accusations regarding the abortion debate over the last year, especially since September.
Planned Parenthood has been maligned and attacked on the political front relentlessly, despite investigations revealing that the arguments made in the undercover videotapes of Planned Parenthood officials were false and unfounded.
It is not ridiculous and misguided to argue a link between extreme conservative rhetoric regarding abortion and the attack. Bryn Greenwood tweeted about a series of her experiences working at Planned Parenthood facility in Kansas where the building and its staff were regularly confronted with arson, verbal threats from protesters, small explosives and even gunfire.
Greenwood details, “We received hundreds of phone calls, threatening to torch our clinic and kill the ‘murdering whores’ who worked there.” She noted that her facility did not even perform abortions and yet was met with relentless harassment from the pro–life campaign.
In the same series of tweets, Greenwood related her experience working with Dr. George Tiller, a doctor working at an abortion clinic who was shot in 1993 through both arms, only to go to work the next day.
“Dr. Tiller kept coming to work after he was shot, because he was a caring man who knew how important his work was,” Greenwood described. In 2009, Tiller was murdered in his own church by a pro–life activist.
She finished her series of tweets by calling attention to acts of terrorism against clinics across the nation and abortions that are still performed in Dr. Tiller’s old clinic, “because that’s how you respond to terrorism. We can’t let them win.”
Greenwood’s tweets instill a reminder within the current discussion regarding the Colorado Springs shooting that harassment and violence against Planned Parenthood and women’s health clinics isn’t a new phenomenon. They also serve to refute many conservatives’ statements saying that the rhetoric surrounding the pro–life movement does not have the unintended effect of violence against such institutions. Cruz, Trump and other Republicans must shift their dialogue on the abortion debate to one that does not breed violence and anger in order to open up the possibilities for actual progress.
—Nicholas Barone ’19 is a student at Vassar College.