The shooting at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, which left three people dead, is a domestic terrorist attack, one in a long line of such attacks against abortion providers and women's health-care institutions. It is also the unfortunate outcome of a months-long anti-abortion campaign against Planned Parenthood.
Starting in July, the Center for Medical Progress released a series of videos attempting to discredit Planned Parenthood for allegedly selling fetal tissue. The videos were followed by congressional hearings, attempts to — yet again — defund Planned Parenthood, and the exhortations of Republican presidential candidates jumping on the issue as an opportunity to show the electorate their anti-abortion colors and score political points with lies about abortion and fetal research.
The campaign also ignited a new wave of violence against abortion providers: threats, arson, and protests against abortion clinics and Planned Parenthood in particular, culminating in the murder of three. Since those videos surfaced, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, where Friday's shootings happened, had been beset with almost daily protests.
This is not a new cycle. Indeed, it follows a long-established link between inflammatory language surrounding the fetus and violence against abortion providers that dates back to the creation of an anti-abortion propaganda campaign in the 1980s.
During that decade, anti-abortion activists embarked on a concerted effort to redefine abortion as murder and the fetus as a baby. To depict abortion providers as murderers, the Chicago anti-abortion activist Joseph Scheidler, then at the height of his prominence, brought together a small group of health professionals who had provided abortions, assisted in them, or managed abortion clinics. He asked them to testify in front of large anti-abortion audiences about their past work and videotaped them as they "confessed" to the murder of infants. Then he distributed the videos through anti-abortion networks and websites. By repeating these stories over and over again, the anti-abortion movement created a story line that stuck.
Scheidler was joined by psychologist David C. Reardon, who, in highly stylized narratives, interviewed women within the anti-abortion movement who regretted their abortions. They were asked to confess to "murdering their child" in exchange for absolution. If they testified to their own culpability and joined the anti-abortion movement, they could take on the role of the passive victim in their own abortion dramas. The women argued that they had been coerced into their abortions, did not understand the nature of the procedure, and were traumatized as a result.
Finally, to further highlight the gruesome nature of abortion and the humanity of the fetus, anti-abortion activists created narratives that recounted the abortion experience from the perspective of the fetus. The stories focused on the moment the fetus died, presented in gruesome detail. The fetus, these accounts suggested, understood the mortal danger of the abortion procedure and fought against it with all its might. Most commonly, these stories were told by the women who had an abortion and could presumably speak with authority to the fetal experience.
With the advent of ultrasound, antiabortion activists such as the physician Bernard Nathanson provided visual views of abortion from the fetal perspective. In the 1984 movie The Silent Scream, Nathanson narrated the abortion experience of a first-trimester fetus, which included the "silent scream of a child threatened imminently with extinction."
In fact, all of these story lines are propaganda, not matched by any reality.
Abortion providers don't murder babies — nor do women who decide to end their pregnancies, regardless of their feelings about the procedures afterward. Indeed, most women do not regret their abortions. And the American Psychological Association concluded in 2008 that abortion does not result in negative mental-health outcomes for women.
Finally, fetuses are not babies. They lack consciousness and the developmental capacity to experience their own abortion.
But words are not just words. Anti-abortion activists perpetuated these story lines in anti-abortion materials, counseling centers, and on picket lines. They have served as recruiting tools and incitements for violence: the harassment of patients and staff, the bombing of abortion clinics, and, starting in the early 1990s, the murder of abortion providers and staff.
The Colorado Springs shooting was yet another replay of this dynamic — the result of decades of anti-abortion propaganda that is regularly whipped into a frenzy — with deadly outcomes for an increasing number of people engaged in women's health care.
It is high time we understand this kind of violence and call it what it is: domestic terrorism.