A North Carolina man opened fire with rifle inside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Friday, killing three people and raising new concerns that agitation against abortion could, as it has before in the US, escalate violence against providers.
Police have not yet said what caused Robert Lewis Dear, 57, who spent time in a cabin near Black Mountain, N.C., to attack the clinic in Colorado’s second-biggest city. A veteran police officer and two civilians were killed, and nine others, including five police officers, were wounded during a tense firefight that included multiple hostage rescues by police.
The attack came as thick snow fell on a state that has now seen several mass violence attacks in Columbine, Aurora, and, just late last month, in Colorado Springs, where a gunman killed three people near downtown, before being shot and killed by police. President Obama Saturday bemoaned another attack where “more Americans and their families had fear forced upon them.”
But given the site of the attack – and major crimes directed toward at least five other Planned Parenthood clinics since September – some pro-choice advocates surmised that the assault may be an act of “domestic terrorism” tied to a series of undercover videos released this summer that showed Planned Parenthood staffers discussing the transport of fetal body parts to medical researchers.
While the motives of Friday's attacker haven't been made public, the mayor of Colorado Springs said Saturday that people can make ""inferences from where it took place." And clearly, the US is facing another tense period in the long annals of abortion violence in the US, which has included 6,948 violent attacks on clinics and eight deaths between 1977 and 2014.
To be sure, attacks on clinics and staff have declined steeply since a high point 1990s, when Congress passed laws against clinic harassment and the Clinton administration assembled a task force to help protect abortion rights.
But the National Abortion Federation has reported an uptick in incidents involving clinics since The Center for Medical Progress released videos this summer, including a nine-fold increase in harassment of clinic employees.
"We have been quite worried that [an] increase in threats would lead to a violent attack like we saw" on Friday, Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, which tracks attacks on clinics, told Mother Jones on Friday.
Still, the recent uptick in clinic harassment pales compared to past flare-ups in violence and intimidation aimed at abortion providers. In 1982, an Illinois abortion doctor and his wife were kidnapped and three clinics were bombed. In 1984, the country saw 25 cases of bombings and arson. Attacks on clinics reached an apex in the 1990s, when John Salvi killed two abortion clinic clerks in Boston in 1994 and in 1996, when Eric Rudolph, the Atlanta Olympic bomber, also bombed clinics in Birmingham and Atlanta.
By comparison, there were 12 total cases of clinic vandalism in all of 2014 and just five cases in 2013, according to federation figures. The number of bombings and arson at clinics had dropped to zero in 2014. All in all, eight doctors and staff have died since 1977, but it’s been six years since Dr. George Tiller was gunned down in Tennessee by an anti-abortion activist.
To be sure, abortion, and the role of Planned Parenthood in the practice, remains a hot-button issue in the US. Before the Colorado Springs active shooter situation was even over, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R) of Illinois, a staunch abortion opponent, told CNN that the shooter could have had a “legitimate disagreement” with the organization, though he panned the man as a “person … that is to some level psychotic and crazy.”
New state laws, especially in conservative states, as well as concern about clinic safety, have led to a steep decline in the number of clinics operating nationwide, from 2,000 clinics in the early 1990s to 582 in 2013. In the past year, about six surgical clinics have closed every month, in part due to laws that require the clinics to meet hospital surgical standards. Some states, including Kentucky and Mississippi, have only one remaining clinic, raising deeper legal questions about whether convenience is a right.
Whether or not Dear was motivated by anti-abortion activism that has played out on the national political stage, on Saturday most pro-life activists harshly condemned the attack.
"It's a really sad thing, no matter what the reason," Joe Martone, Jr., a protester associated with a Catholic pro-life group that protests at the clinic, told the Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper. "No matter how much I despise Planned Parenthood, no one deserves to go through this, and I pray for everybody involved."
“The Center for Medical Progress does not support vigilante violence against abortion providers,” added David Daleiden, the founder of the organization. “There are people at Planned Parenthood who I still consider friends and my thoughts and prayers are with them at this time for no one to be injured.”
Dear, the alleged shooter, lived part of the year in a remote cabin “a half-mile up a twisty dirt road near Black Mountain, North Carolina,” the Associated Press reported. “On Saturday, there was a cross made of twigs on the door of the pale yellow shack.”
As Friday’s standoff came to a tense resolve after police persuaded the shooter to give up, a police officer said over the radio: “[Dear is] going to come out with his hands up.”
A few moments later, another officer radioed: "We have our suspect right now. He's saying that he is a loner; he's by himself."