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The Road to Recovery: Colorado Planned Parenthood One Year After the Attack

On November 27, 2015, after months of politically-motivated, baseless attacks on Planned Parenthood, a man opened fire on a clinic in Colorado Springs. Eleven months later, the providers in the state are working harder than ever to ensure that women...
October 24, 2016, 8:25pm
Photo by RJ Sangosti/Getty

For Vicki Cowart, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, the day after Thanksgiving will be an acute day of remembrance. Last year, on November 27 at 11:48 AM, Cowart learned there was an active shooter at the Planned Parenthood branch in Colorado Springs. By the day's end, after the man who claimed he was a "warrior for the babies" held the clinic hostage for five hours, Robert Lewis Dear Jr. killed three people and injured nine others.

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It will be date that represents the tragedy, as well as the increasing violence toward women who want to exercise their reproductive rights. But Cowart says it will also be a day that signifies the bravery of the women and men who keep Planned Parenthood's doors open; the community who rallied around the center after the attack closed down the clinic for months and left the facility damaged and its staff shaken; and all those who fight for choice, despite the dangers.

Read more: What Women Do When They Can't Afford an Abortion

"I won't be able to get through that time without a lot of emotions," Cowart said over the phone. "But pride will be one of them: pride in our resilience and hope for the future. Sadness and fear will be mixed in there, too."

When I called Cowart to talk to her about the year after the shooting, I wasn't expecting our conversation to take on such an optimistic tone. I should have known, however, that when you're in a line of work where regular terrorist attacks against your place of work go quietly unnoticed, legislators pass bills to criminalize you for doing your job, and violent opposition is to be expected, optimism is the only way forward.

Even before the attack, conservative politicians and anti-abortion "activists" had turned their ire on Planned Parenthood; a few months prior, David Daleiden and his fraudulent organization, the Center for Medical progress, had released videos that purported to show Planned Parenthood profiting from the sale of fetal tissue. The videos were false and misleading, but nonetheless damaging—a Republican-led congressional committee subsequently opened up an investigation into the healthcare provider, giving political legitimacy to Daleiden's cause. Despite not having not found any wrongdoing on Planned Parenthood's part, this bolstered Daleiden's "sting" videos and inspired a spate of state-level bills to defund Planned Parenthood.

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In this toxic environment, the shooting became only the latest and the most direct affront to the healthcare provider, which helps millions of women and men with family planning, contraception, STD screenings, and other preventative care. Looking back, Cowart calls the attack a turning point. "[Anti-abortion activists] really are trying to shut us down and punish women who seek abortions. They want to punish people who just happen to be near an abortion facility," she said. "[The shooting] was a really blatant underscoring of the anti-choice environment that has built up around us over the years."

So in the aftermath, optimism—coupled with a grave acknowledgement of what is at stake—was particularly important. It was essential to send a message that the health care provider will continue to serve women in the face of efforts to stop it. "Right away, after the shooting happened, we said to ourselves and our community, We are resilient. We will not let this event define us," Cowart said.

In the first week of December, Planned Parenthood organized a national day of solidarity. In South Denver, supporters dressed in pink filled a church and Cowart spoke to the crowd. "I had to tell everyone, 'Stop sending donuts. We're drowning in sweets,'" she told me, joking that the outpouring of compassion Planned Parenthood received was overwhelming. "We had people in the immediate aftermath bring food to the health center near them and send flowers," she explained. "We had people call us and say, 'I have to get off the sidelines. I can't not be involved anymore.'"

Planned Parenthood also launched a campaign called "These Doors Stay Open." The Colorado Springs clinic was forced to shut down for months following the incident and during that time, Cowart says, "we did a lot of care-taking of our warriors, frankly." But clinics across the country were up and running on November 28. "We opened the other health centers the next day, but not without fear. People got up and punched through their fear to be open for their communities," she said.

The center was finally reopened on May 1, to a big celebration. "We tried as much as possible to be business as usual. We're in the business of serving people and they need us to be strong," Cowart said. And at this point, they are back to providing services for patients "in as normal a way as possible." They're moving forward, Cowart says, optimistically.

When I asked her if this optimism extends to the current state of our reproductive rights, she equivocates. "This is a long-term problem that we're working on. We're moving very quickly to a solution. Not quick enough, I'll give you that. We have giant swaths in this country where women cannot access an abortion without driving for a day or two to find a provider. More than a third of the women in this country live in a place where abortion is heavily restricted, and we all live in a place where abortion is not paid for for poor women, with the Hyde Amendment in place. That particularly falls hard on our sisters who are poor, our sisters of color, our rural sister, and young sisters," she said. "There's so much work to be done. But we're inexorably marching toward a solution."

And even though there are times when it feels like we're marching further away from a solution than toward one—like when you think about how there were 411 anti-abortion laws that were introduced this year—Cowart remains staunchly hopeful. "[Gloria Steinem] likened what's happening for [women's rights] to a woman who has been in a long-term violent relationship," she offered up. "We're pushing away our bonds, we're breaking away from our abuser. We're clearly pushing back in a way that hasn't happened before, and therefore there are really strong negative reactions. The Colorado shooting was one of them. The horrible conversations that we're hearing from Donald Trump is one of them. But eventually you do push away and you do break free." We just have to keep pushing.