In the wake of Friday's deadly shooting at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic, groups that oppose abortion are defending themselves against the charge that their rhetoric helped inspire the killer. Almost all of these groups broadly condemn violence against abortion providers, though some of their members have been directly tied to it in the past.
Authorities have yet to assign a motive for the rampage, which killed three people and injured several more. But NBC News reported that the suspect, Robert Lewis Dear, told law enforcement after he was arrested: "No more baby parts."
Vicki Cowart, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountains, added: "Eyewitnesses confirm that the man who will be charged with the tragic and senseless shooting that resulted in the deaths of three people and injuries to nine others at Planned Parenthood's health center in Colorado Springs was motivated by opposition to safe and legal abortion."
The National Right to Life Committee said it "unequivocally condemns unlawful activities and acts of violence regardless of motivation," and Americans United for Life said, "We categorically condemn this violence." But in interviews with MSNBC, some grassroots abortion opponents across the country also pointed the finger at legal abortion itself.
"After all these years and millions of babies that have gone to their death, violence is to be anticipated," said Judie Brown, president of American Life League, in a phone interview with MSNBC. "Because it's acceptable to violently kill a baby, so why isn't it acceptable to violently kill other people?"
"We never approve of violence against anybody, whether it's the unborn babies or the clients of Planned Parenthood or anybody else," Ann Scheidler, vice president of the Pro-Life Action League, told MSNBC. But, she added, "it's not the fault of the pro-life movement that someone found out that Planned Parenthood is doing these things. It's the fault of Planned Parenthood for selling the baby parts."
Planned Parenthood, for its part, has directly linked Dear's actions to anti-abortion rhetoric. "One of the lessons of this awful tragedy is that words matter, and hateful rhetoric fuels violence. It's not enough to denounce the tragedy without also denouncing the poisonous rhetoric that fueled it," said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
The affiliate in Colorado had been one of several targeted in a series of secretly-recorded videos by the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress. CMP, in its press release touting the Colorado tapes, said "the biggest problem is bad actors like Planned Parenthood who hold themselves above the law in order to harvest and make money off of aborted fetal brains, hearts, and livers." Planned Parenthood has repeatedly said it only accepted lawful reimbursements for voluntary fetal tissue donations for medical research, and it has ceased accepting any payment at all.
Rev. Pat Mahoney, the director of the Washington-based Christian Defense Coalition who described himself as a former national spokesperson for Operation Rescue, also reacted angrily to the suggestion that anti-abortion rhetoric had fueled the Colorado violence.
Evidence linking Dear to the movement is still scant, Mahoney said. "Let's not take the death of innocent people to promote a political agenda," he said. "Planned Parenthood is doing exactly what they accuse the pro-life community of doing. They accuse us all the time of using inflammatory rhetoric and hateful language to promote our agenda."
In 1995, after a gunman killed two Planned Parenthood workers in Brookline, Massachusetts, Bernard Cardinal Law, then the archbishop of Boston, called for a moratorium on protesting outside abortion clinics. (New York's archbishop disagreed, saying he would follow suit only "on condition that a moratorium be called on abortions.") There have been no such calls forthcoming this time around.
The suggestion makes Scheidler, vice president of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League, bristle. "Planned Parenthood is a villain," she said. "They undermine the integrity of families and the morality of young teen girls and kill babies on a regular basis, day after day. We're not going to say, 'Oh, poor Planned Parenthood, we should never say anything negative about what they call 'services.' Because they are a blight on our culture."
The Christian Defense Coalition's Mahoney said, "Our movement utterly condemns violence." Asked about the fact that Operation Rescue's Cheryl Sullenger was convicted of conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic, Mahoney said, "Cheryl Sullenger did time in prison for her actions. She now works peacefully to end the violence of abortion." (Operation Rescue did not return a message requesting an interview but condemned the attack on their website.)
What about Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue and an adviser to the Center for Medical Progress? Newman wrote in his 2003 book that "the United States government has abrogated its responsibility to properly deal with the blood-guilty. This responsibility rightly involves executing convicted murderers, including abortionists, for their crimes in order to expunge bloodguilt from the land and people." (Last week, presidential candidate and Sen. Ted Cruz accepted Newman's endorsement.)
"If you read that within the entire context of the book," Mahoney said, "Troy addressed that is after they held a trial."
Scheidler's Pro-Life Action League is among the organizations that publishes the names, faces, and addresses of abortion providers. Asked if such disclosures could make providers feel unsafe, she replied, "We don't pose any threat, we in the mainstream pro-life movement.... If they feel threatened, they can always get out of that business, I suppose. It's not something that would make us back off on our mission."
One notorious anti-abortion activist, who has long been an open supporter of violence against abortion providers, broke with the movement in offering direct support to Dear.
Donald Spitz, who runs the Army of God website and is based in Virginia, said of his fellow anti-abortion activists' condemnations of violence, "They say that all the time. I think they're hypocritical."
While many groups insist violence against abortion providers is counterproductive to their cause, Spitz suggested such rhetoric is disingenuous. Referring to Scott Roeder, who murdered abortion provider George Tiller and who Spitz calls a friend, Spitz said, "How could that be counterproductive when he stopped them from providing abortions? They've lost their mind. They're into political correctness way too far."
As for Spitz's own reaction, "I think Planned Parenthood is an evil organization, so I didn't lose any sleep when I heard about it," Spitz said. "They sell baby parts, and they reap what they sow, and now they're complaining about it."
He added, "There are no innocent people in Planned Parenthood. They're in there for a reason."
Spitz said he wrote to Dear on Monday to offer his support.
"I told him, I was reaching out to him, it appears that everybody is against him. I'm not against him," he said.
Spitz was given pause, though, by the fact that the three killed on Friday weren't involved in providing abortion. "It's one thing to kill an abortionist who's killing babies," Spitz said. "What he did, I don't know."