Three days after a gunman killed three people and wounded nine others at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, politicians are publicly wrangling about whether the incident should be called an act of domestic terrorism, a debate that has focused on rambling remarks about "baby parts" the suspected shooter reportedly made to police after he was arrested.
Police have declined to speculate on the motive of alleged shooter Robert Lewis Dear, but Planned Parenthood says it has no doubt about what sparked the incident. On Monday, Joan Malin, the President and CEO of Planned Parenthood New York, said the 57-year-old Dear was driven by "dangerous" anti-abortion sentiment whipped up in the wake of a recent "sting" video controversy.
Malin linked the incident to "relentless" and "toxic" rhetoric from the organization's opponents. "[Dear's] own statement to police, in which he mentioned something about 'no more baby parts,' is exactly the same phrasing used by anti-abortion activists," she said. "The language used by our opposition has created a heightened and tense situation that has now been translated to violence. It's hard to imagine there's no link between this incident and the toxic rhetoric that ratchets up the tension."
The organization is now taking no chances when it comes to security. On Monday, two officers from the NYPD's counter-terrorism unit were stationed outside Planned Parenthood's headquarters in Manhattan. Officers have also been deployed to all five Planned Parenthood health centers in the New York area. "I want clients and staff to feel safe even though there are no known threats against us here specifically," Malin said.
In July, anti-abortion activists released footage from a secretly taped meeting with Planned Parenthood representatives that purportedly showed discussions about the sale of fetal tissue. Planned Parenthood maintains that the videos were heavily edited and taken out of context, and that accepting donations for tissue samples are an accepted and legal part of medical practice.
The tapes sparked a Congressional probe into Planned Parenthood and fueled efforts to strip the organization of federal funding. Republican politicians and presidential candidates, including Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Ted Cruz, have frequently referenced unproven activities allegedly carried out by the group, including claims of "dismembering" or "harvesting" babies or "baby parts," the phrase Dear allegedly uttered when he was taken into custody.
Dear made his first court appearance on Monday afternoon, wearing what officials described as a "suicide prevention garment." He is expected to face multiple first-degree murder charges, but will not be formally charged until his next court date on December 9. If convicted of murder, he faces life in prison or the death penalty.
Malin said it's "vital" to publicly acknowledge that Dear's actions were "motivated by hate."
"In the context of the language he used, I think it can be talked about as a result of his opposition to safe and legal abortion," she said. "He killed three people because of his views — all three were incredible heroes."
Law enforcement officials told ABC News on Sunday that the Justice Department is currently building a domestic terrorism case against Dear, but that it would only move forward if the state case became "sidetracked."
"The case may fit the criteria for a federal domestic terrorism case, but based on my experience, I would be very surprised if this is not simply a local prosecution," Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, a former US attorney and state attorney general, told the Associated Press. "Murder charges will be more than adequate on the local level."
Following the shooting Friday, there have also been questions about the state of Dear's mental health. He was previously arrested in South Carolina for being a "Peeping Tom" and shooting his neighbor's dog with a pellet gun, but both charges were dismissed. Dear's former wife also accused him of assault, but did not press charges.
On Monday, Malin called an all-hands working lunch in the conference room of the Planned Parenthood's headquarters, saying she wanted to "reassure" staff about the heightened security measures.
"They seemed calm — there was really more exasperation from them," Malin said of her staff. "We've been through a lot already and it seems to be more and more [hate]."
Malin said that in spite of the shooting and the groups of anti-abortion activists that regularly converge outside Planned Parenthood clinics to dissuade staff and clients from entering, it's now more important than ever to keep clinic doors open.
"There are more than 2.7 million patients that rely on Planned Parenthood," she said. "In New York we see more than 50,000 people a year and it's not just abortion-related services, which is a small part of what we do. We also provide cancer screenings, STD checks and a whole host of other important reproductive health services."
One of those patients, Emily Byrne, a first-time expectant mother, had sought to make an appointment for a routine scan at a Planned Parenthood clinic in New York on the morning of the shooting. Byrne, who is a native Australian currently traveling through the US, said she was "shocked" to see the incident unfolding on the news, but that it wouldn't deter her from visiting a Planned Parenthood clinic in any state in the future.
"Planned Parenthood is one of the few affordable women's health care services available for people who are uninsured," she said. "I hope this attack provokes more support of this service, rather than a continuation of calls to cut funding."
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