NEW YORK — As a leading defender of abortion rights and comprehensive sex education, Planned Parenthood deals daily with some of America’s most contentious issues, and is well accustomed to receiving verbal threats.
Some of the organization’s supporters say Friday’s deadly shooting at its clinic in Colorado Springs shows that the vitriolic rhetoric could be inspiring actual violence.
“It is time to stop the demonizing and witch hunts against Planned Parenthood, its staff and patients,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat.
But critics show no signs of backing away from a multi-pronged offensive against Planned Parenthood, keeping protests and a congressional investigation on their agenda for the coming year.
The man arrested in the attack that killed a police officer and two civilians uttered the phrase “no more baby parts,” a law enforcement official said.
Authorities have not elaborated on the gunman’s possible motives, but Planned Parenthood said witnesses described him as an abortion opponent. The “body parts” phrase echoed rhetoric that surfaced last summer, when anti-abortion activists began releasing undercover videos they said showed Planned Parenthood personnel negotiating the sale of fetal organs.
The anti-abortion group that made the videos, the Center for Medical Progress, condemned the “barbaric killing spree in Colorado Springs by a violent madman.”
Planned Parenthood said any payments were legally permitted reimbursements for the costs of donating organs to researchers, and has since stopped accepting even that money. Though the videos have inspired multiple investigations in Congress and in several states, none has confirmed any law breaking by Planned Parenthood.
Since the videos surfaced, threats have become even more frequent, abortion-rights leaders say.
“We’ve seen an alarming increase in hateful rhetoric and smear campaigns against abortion providers and patients over the last few months,” said Vicki Cowart, president of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. “That environment breeds acts of violence.”
Security at Planned Parenthood facilities nationwide has been tightened as a result, said the organization’s spokesman, Eric Ferrero.
There have been eight murders and more than 220 bombings and arson attacks at abortion facilities in the U.S. since 1977, according to the National Abortion Foundation. Two Planned Parenthood receptionists were killed in 1994 at clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Planned Parenthood has remained in the news since the videos were made public, with most Democratic politicians supporting the organization and many Republican leaders assailing it. Republicans have sought to cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood, and several GOP-governed states have tried to block Medicaid funding to the organization.
All the Republican presidential candidates say they favor restricting abortion rights. Some were asked about the Colorado Springs shootings on Sunday’s talk shows.
Mike Huckabee condemned the attack as a “despicable act of murder” and said “what he did is domestic terrorism,” but then equated the killings to the abortions Planned Parenthood provides.
“There’s no excuse for killing other people, whether it’s happening inside the Planned Parent headquarters, inside their clinics, where many millions of babies die, or whether it’s people attacking Planned Parenthood,” Huckabee said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
On “Fox News Sunday,” Carly Fiorina also took the opportunity to criticize.
“The vast majority of Americans agree, what Planned Parenthood is doing is wrong,” she said. “So what I would say to anyone who tries to link this terrible tragedy to anyone who opposes abortion or opposes the sale of body parts is, this is typical left-wing tactics.”
Such comments are “unconscionable,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood.
“It’s not enough to denounce the tragedy without also denouncing the poisonous rhetoric that fueled it,” Laguens said. “Instead, some politicians are continuing to stoke it.”
Planned Parenthood also gets criticism for its advocacy for teens seeking contraception and candid information about sexuality, but its role as the nation’s leading abortion provider is what makes it such a target.
Its president, Cecile Richards, endured hours of hostile questioning from GOP members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in September, and the GOP-controlled House then voted to form a new investigative panel to probe its abortion and fetal-tissue policies.
“This is about getting answers to questions about how we treat and protect life in this country,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican chairing the panel, said last month. “The allegations raised in these disturbing and abhorrent videos have led us to ask: What have we come to in this country?”
Some Planned Parenthood supporters called on House Speaker Paul Ryan to disband the investigative panel in the aftermath of the shooting, but there was no indication that would happen.
Nor was there any move to call off protests against Planned Parenthood planned for Jan. 21, two days before the annual anti-abortion March for Life. The Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, said the shootings should not be used to “inflame emotions” and said the protests would proceed as scheduled, to “hold Planned Parenthood accountable for their immoral and illegal actions.”