Suspicious Fire at Missouri Planned Parenthood Prompts FBI Investigation

The incident may be part of a pattern of escalating attacks on women's health clinics across the country under the Trump presidency.
February 14, 2019, 6:46pm
Planned Parenthood sign

The FBI is in the process of investigating a fire that took place at a Missouri Planned Parenthood clinic on Sunday, which local authorities have deemed suspicious.

Officials from the Columbia Police Department say security footage captured someone wearing dark clothing approaching the facility around 4 AM Sunday morning; smoke can be seen rising from the building as they leave the area. The fire activated the building's sprinkler system, which extinguished the flames by the time firefighters arrived on the scene, according to the New York Times.

Federal authorities are investigating the incident as a potential infringement of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, a law that makes it a violation of civil rights to interfere with or obstruct access to reproductive health services or damage the facilities offering those services—a crime punishable by up to one year in prison.

The FBI's Kansas City Division spokesperson told Broadly Thursday afternoon that the bureau has no additional information to release. But Planned Parenthood Great Plains President and CEO Dr. Brandon J. Hill released a statement on Tuesday calling the fire an "intentional effort" to disrupt the clinic's services.

"The circumstances surrounding the fire are coming into focus, and it is clear that this was an intentional effort to damage our facility in order to disrupt services and block patient access to sexual and reproductive health care," Hill said. "We continue to cooperate with law enforcement on the active investigation and encourage anyone with information about the incident to contact authorities."

Though the Missouri Planned Parenthood no longer provides abortions—it was forced to discontinue its abortion services last year when a law requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges to local hospitals left the state with just one abortion clinic—the recent fire may be part of escalating attacks on abortion clinics across the country.

A May report from the National Abortion Federation found that in 2017, abortion providers reported nearly double the death threats and threats of harm they did the year before; reports of trespassing more than tripled; and reports of obstruction roughly tripled as well.

Vicki Saporta, the federation's president, told the Associated Press that the spikes in threats and violence to take place under President Donald Trump appear to have a connection to a political climate where anti-choice sentiments have become more dominant.

"The protesters are feeling emboldened by the political environment and seeing what they could get away with," Saporta said, referring to the findings regarding threats, trespassing, and harassment. "They want to make it more difficult to provide care, without going to very extreme forms of violence."

But it seems that anti-abortion protesters have also begun taking more extreme measures. Last year, three men were charged for a 2017 attempted bombing of an Illinois abortion clinic, and in February 2018, a man faced multiple charges for crashing a truck into a New Jersey Planned Parenthood clinic, which resulted in injuries to three people, including a pregnant woman. According to the AP, the incident had been the "first major violent attack" of an U.S. abortion clinic in three years.

These incidents can result in costly damages to clinics that are often difficult to recover from: A Cleveland abortion clinic incurred more than $32,000 in damages after bricks were thrown through the facility's windows multiple times over the course of three weeks in 2017.

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Hill said repairs to the Missouri Planned Parenthood, the site of Sunday's fire, are currently underway, and the staff hopes to reopen the clinic next week. The staff is also working with patients to reschedule appointments they have missed or will miss over the coming days due to the fire.

"Make no mistake—we are committed to providing care in the Columbia community, and this crime will not deter us from our mission," Hill continued. "Our patients rely on us each day, and with a strong community of supporters beside us, we will reopen our doors as soon as possible."