The right wing's attacks on women's access to abortion once again turned deadly on November 27.
Colorado Spring police arrested Robert 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.
For days, the mainstream media refused to “speculate” about Dear's motives — a restraint that did not characterise their coverage of the Paris terror attacks two weeks before. Even after witnesses reported that Dear said “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. He called for action to curtail gun access and support for the law-enforcement officials on the scene. Obama did not use the words “women”, “abortion” or even “healthcare” once.
His message may have resonated with many people who know 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 healthcare was cowardly. It is a sign of his unwillingness to take a clear stand in defence of women's rights and the lives of patients and healthcare providers.
Colorado's Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper also urged his constituents 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 healthcare should hush up — or they might bear responsibility for the violence of the anti-abortion fanatics.
Dear's “baby parts” comment was 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 Centre for Medical Progress (CMP). The footage appeared to show Planned Parenthood officials, who were discussing the legal and medically vital practice of making foetal tissue from later-term abortions available for life-saving research, bragging about an illegal for-profit venture.
The thoroughly debunked videos go way beyond “inflammatory rhetoric”. They convey deliberate lies that could land CMP in a courtroom, faced with criminal or civil prosecution.
The right's slander should have been easily recognised after similar right-wing video smear campaigns led a Democratic-controlled Congress to defund the anti-poverty group ACORN in 2009 and the US Department of Agriculture to sack civil rights veteran Shirley Sherrod in 2010.
Instead, the allegations that Planned Parenthood “sells baby parts” were the subject of congressional hearings. Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards faced hours of aggressive and condescending questioning by lawmakers.
The claim has been taken up by anti-abortion groups that picket outside clinics during coordinated national days of action.
The CMP distanced itself from Dear's violence, but 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 healthcare 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. This has ranged 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 after the release of CMP's videos, four arson attacks struck Planned Parenthood facilities in Washington, California, Illinois and Louisiana.
Most Republicans also distanced themselves from Dear's actions — despite the fact that their attacks on Planned Parenthood and abortion 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 Senator Ted Cruz, another Republican 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”.
Yet another republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee 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. “There'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 right-wing terror
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.
Yet 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 defence”.
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 22 trans women this year — mostly women of colour.
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 groups.
The last murder attributed to anti-choice violence took the life of late-term abortion provider Dr George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas, 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.
Tiller's murder forced the closure of the last remaining abortion facility in Kansas City.
Tiller's murder and this new terrorist attack in Colorado Springs show that anti-choice claims of concern for foetal life co-exist with the violent disregard for the lives of women and healthcare 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. This forces women carrying a severely ill foetus to make a choice between risking their safety, travelling 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 non-existent relationships with their guardians to seek permission just to exercise control over their own bodies and lives. Mandatory waiting periods and counselling 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% 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 the law was passed, Texas had 41 abortion providers. Today, just 17 clinics remain.
A new study dramatises the effects of the closures. Researchers asked Texas women if they or their best friend had tried inducing an abortion on their own. It turned up between 100,000 and 240,000 estimated attempts. This represents a huge number of people facing desperate and potentially dangerous circumstances.
Vicious commentary appeared on social media during and after the attack on Planned Parenthood, cheering on and excusing Dear's terrorist assault and murders.
Self-proclaimed “pro-lifers” offered victim-blaming statements like: “No sympathy for any pregnant female who was injured in the Planned Parenthood shooting that was there to get an abortion. She deserved it.”
Others degraded all Planned Parenthood patients as “lazy and slutty”. Still others praised Dear as more effective at protecting Black “babies” than the Black Lives Matter movement.
The hypocrisy could not be more obvious. Each of the three people killed by Dear — police officer Garrett Swasey; Jennifer Markovsky, who was at the clinic to support a friend; and Ke'Arre Stewart, an Iraq war veteran — had children of their own.
Author and activist Jessica Valenti noted on social media: “In the wake of the attack on Planned Parenthood, I've noticed that a lot of well-meaning people are defending the organisation by saying that it is not just an abortion clinic, or pointing out that abortion is just one small part of the services Planned Parenthood provides. This is the exact wrong sentiment right now…
“Abortion is legal, abortion is moral. And right now, we must support Planned Parenthood BECAUSE of the abortions they provide, not in spite of them.
“Now is the time to reiterate how important abortion care is to women's health and wellbeing - not just cancer screenings, not just contraception. Abortion. A procedure that saves lives, that offers freedom, bodily integrity, and equality.”
Barack 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 defence activists united in action at the height of right-wing violence and blocked the actions of organisations 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 defence, street protest and bottom-up organising 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.
[Abridged from Socialist Worker (US).]