Words matter. When we dehumanize people – when we call them demons, monsters, and murderers – we make it easier for others to do them harm. Let’s not pretend that we don’t know that.
How we talk about abortion matters. We know it, and anti-choice extremists and politicians know it. Anti-abortion activists are not making WANTED posters or revealing doctor’s addresses for fun. They’re doing it to harass and intimidate, and they’re doing it knowing the long history of violent fanatics using their rhetoric to justify crimes against providers and clinics.
According to an anonymous police source, after Friday’s attack on the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, the alleged perpetrator made a comment in its wake about “no more baby parts”. He specifically targeted the facility.
The shooting may be the most horrifically violent attack on a clinic in the country’s history, but it was far from the first. There have been four arson attacks against centers that provide abortions just since July, when David Daleiden and the euphemistically named Center for Medical Progress began releasing deceptively edited videos of Planned Parenthood employees discussing fetal tissue donation. Or, as anti-abortion activists and politicians have referred to it, “baby parts”.
The attack in Colorado, which left three people dead and nine wounded, was shocking, but it was also the predictable result of a culture that demonizes abortion, uses fantastical and false rhetoric about Planned Parenthood and allows politicians and activists to make false representations about women’s reproductive health.
In August, US district judge William Orrick blocked the release of more videos from Daleiden citing the “history of violence” against abortion providers. When 32 lawyers from across the country petitioned California’s attorney general, Kamala Harris, to conduct her investigation into Daleiden quickly because of “a real threat to abortion provider safety”, they wrote about how doctors and staffers are stalked and receive death threats, and how this targeted harassment led to the murders of eight doctors since 1993.
Planned Parenthood was cleared of any wrongdoing by every state that investigated it after the videos were released, yet its president, Cecile Richards, was still made to testify in front of the House this September in a sham of a hearing where Republicans grilled Richards on everything from musical acts at organizational events to her personal salary.
After the hearing, the FBI warned that increased attacks on abortion clinics were coming. An FBI intelligence assessment report noted, “It is likely criminal or suspicious incidents will continue to be directed against reproductive health care providers, their staff and facilities.”
Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, told a reporter just last month that, since the videos’ release, “the intensity and volume” of hate speech directed at clinics was “unprecedented”.
“People have also been calling clinics and making threats to murder all the doctors or to wipe out all the staff,” she said.
The culture of hate against Planned Parenthood – an organization that serves mostly low-income women and provides legal, safe medical services – is so extreme that some felt it entirely appropriate to express their glee over the shootings on Friday, claiming that the people hurt had it coming. And while the gunman was still in the building, Representative Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, went on CNN to criticize the organization, saying, “We saw those barbaric videos, and that was something many of us have a legitimate concern about.”
Even those defending the organization fell into the trap of stigmatizing abortion, tweeting corrections at media organizations that called the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs an “abortion clinic” or noting that abortions are a small part of the organization’s work. While it’s true that Planned Parenthood offers a variety of services, I think it’s safe to say the attacker wasn’t there because he was angry about pap smears.
We must demand that the violent radical language and lies about abortion stop.
People disagree about the morality of abortion, but the doctors who provide them aren’t evil: they are doing what they think is right and good for their patients. (That hasn’t stopped some conservative media, even in the wake of this tragedy, from calling them “demonic.”) The women who go to Planned Parenthood, whether for a checkup or an abortion, aren’t callous beasts: they’re people trying to do the best they can for their lives and families.
As we find out more about the shooter, people will claim – as they often do – that he was a lone wolf, that he was mentally unstable and that he is not at all representative of those who disagree with abortion. Republican politicians will eventually take great pains to condemn the shooter’s attack, while ignoring all of the lies, language and culture of misogyny that contributes to this kind of violence.
Some people are already telling the truth, though. Vicki Cowart, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountains released a statement that eyewitnesses confirm the attacker “was motivated by opposition to safe and legal and abortion”. The attorney general, Loretta Lynch, called the shooting a “crime against women” getting care at Planned Parenthood.
We can all tell the truth about this attack; we don’t need a police press conference to confirm the shooter’s motive. We know why this happened. Clinic workers who put their lives on the line every day know why this happened. Because of hate, because of lies, and because words matter.