A coalition of abortion rights groups, community organizers and women’s health advocates has called on the United States Department of Justice to instruct the FBI to investigate Friday’s shooting at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic as an act of domestic terrorism. The coalition said it presented Attorney General Loretta Lynch with a petition last week calling on the federal government to look at the recent surge in violence directed at women’s health clinics and abortion providers in context and to publicly label them acts of terrorism.
Planned Parenthood has experienced an increase in attacks — including shootings, bombings and arson — following the release earlier this year of misleadingly edited videos that accused the organization of “selling baby parts.”
Robert Lewis Dear, the man charged in the Nov. 27 Colorado Springs clinic attack that left three people dead and nine others injured, is reported to have said “No more baby parts” in interviews after his arrest, although Colorado investigators have not yet ascribed a motive to the shooting.
Since the 1970s, there have been 11 murders and 26 attempted murders of abortion providers and more than 200 bombings and arsons at clinics, according to the National Abortion Federation. The Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal in all U.S. states and territories.
Attacks on the clinics have been “politically motivated, narrow in target but intended to scare a wide audience” and so fit the federal definition of domestic terrorism, according to Ilyse Hogue, the president of coalition member NARAL Pro-Choice America, who spoke during a Wednesday press conference.
She said that the heated rhetoric by anti-abortion activists, conservative members of Congress and some of the candidates seeking the 2016 Republican presidential nomination made violence much more likely. “We could have predicted this attack,” she said, referring to the Colorado shooting.
“Right wing rhetoric has dangerous real-world consequences,” said Heidi Hess, a campaign manager at progressive advocacy group Credo Action, who joined Hogue for the press conference.
Laura Leavitt, a campaign manager at Courage Campaign, a California-based grass-roots organizer, called out GOP presidential candidates Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump for “spreading fear and hate” with “heinous lies” and “factless accusations.”
Fiorina promoted the doctored anti-abortion video in a Republican debate earlier this year, claiming she had seen footage of a “fully formed fetus ... while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” (Repeated fact checks have not been able to confirm that such a brain-harvesting video exists, but Fiorina has continued to repeat the story.)
In response to critics citing such campaign rhetoric in reference to the Colorado Springs attack, Fiorina dismissed the drawing of such links as “typical left-wing tactics,” saying they were “demonizing the messenger because they don’t like the message.”
Trump, who also referred to the inflammatory video, said he believed Republicans should threaten to shut down the government in order to cut federal aid to Planned Parenthood.
Cruz, a senator from Texas who has called Planned Parenthood a “criminal enterprise,” has also advocated using a government shutdown to defund the women’s health organization. Just days before the shooting, Cruz promoted his endorsement by Troy Newman, the president of Operation Rescue, a far-right anti-abortion group. Newman has advocated for killing those he called “abortionists.”
“It’s time for Fiorina, Cruz and Trump to stop trying to distract from facts and take responsibility for the violence,” Leavitt said. She added that calling the attacks on health clinics “anything less than terrorism is a huge slap in the face to women and a danger to us all.”
But beyond the rhetorical shift, there are questions about what the domestic-terrorism label would mean at the national level. The federal criminal code has no specific charge for acts of domestic terrorism. Unlike cases involving foreign actors, in which U.S. agencies can charge suspects with giving material aid to terrorist groups, domestic crimes are prosecuted under a variety of laws that focus on the acts themselves.
In the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh was charged with “conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction” and the “malicious destruction of federal property,” along with the murders of law enforcement officials.
In 2012 a Florida man received a 10-year sentence after he was convicted of arson after firebombing an abortion clinic, according to The Associated Press.
In June, when a white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African-Americans in a South Carolina church, it was, according to statements by Roof’s friends, to “start a race war.” The crime fit the FBI definition of domestic terrorism, according to Jenna McLaughlin, writing in the Intercept, but he was charged with murder, attempted murder and use of a firearm because, as Lynch said at the time, “there is no specific domestic terrorism statute.”
The federal law that seems most immediately applicable in the case of Dear, the Colorado shooter, is the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which makes it “a crime to injure or intimidate abortion clinic patients and employees.”
A survey conducted by Public Policy Polling for UltraViolet, a women’s rights advocacy group, shows 67 percent of Americans consider this year’s attacks on Planned Parenthood clinics to be domestic terrorism. Having the federal government declare the incidents terrorism would increase resources and encourage more coordination across local and federal agencies to determine if the attacks are in any way connected, according to Shaunna Thomas, a co–executive director of UltraViolet.
But some, like Vicki Saporta of the National Abortion Federation, feel that the division of the Justice Department already tasked with enforcing the FACE Act is best equipped to investigate the clinic attacks. “This is their expertise,” Saporta told Vox. “They know what they’re doing.”
And some civil liberties experts caution about further broadening the “terrorism” category. “You have all these acts that are terrorist but already criminalized,” said Faiza Patel, a co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, in a July interview with The Intercept. “[The crime of] providing material support to a foreign terror organization is already problematic,” she said. “It captures things that are nonviolent” and “comes close to the line of the First Amendment.”
But Hogue believes that the terrorism designation will help counter what she sees as an attempt to intimidate women seeking services at clinics such as Planned Parenthood. “The Colorado shooter wants to scare people from having this discussion,” she said. “When acts are labeled terrorism, federal agencies get involved.”