Planned Parenthood: How the Colorado shooting challenges the pro-life movement

Women are led to safety from the Planned Parenthood building where the gunman opened fire.Reuters

The attack on the Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs on Friday was a tragedy. Three died, including a police officer who was also a church elder, and nine were wounded.

It also exposed the tensions between US pro-life movement and the democratically-expressed will of the American people, who want abortion to be legal.

The suspect in the case, Robert Lewis Dear – a loner who lives off-grid in a cabin in the woods – reportedly said "no more baby parts" to investigators after his arrest.

The reference is to a scandal which broke after undercover investigators from a pro-life movement secretly videoed a lunchtime conversation with a Planned Parenthood executive at which rates for the supply of different body parts from aborted foetuses were discussed. While Planned Parenthood denied that this amounted to a "sale" of the tissue, there was widespread outrage which Republic presidential candidates were quick to capitalise on. Its public funding has come under severe scrutiny and six states have so far defunded it.

Statements from responsible figures – even those most passionately committed to the anti-abortion movement – have condemned the shooting. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, tweeted:

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins condemned the shooting: "While the investigation into the shooting at the Planned Parenthood center continues, regardless of what the motive is determined to be, we strongly condemn this violence." Focus on the Family president Jim Daly, whose organisation is situated in Colorado Springs, also spoke out. "Today's violence at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood facility, just miles from our ministry headquarters, is tragic and deplorable. It is to be condemned," he said.

When news of the shooting first broke, it was possible to warn against jumping to conclusions and pro-lifers appeared keen to distance themselves from the attack. Moore himself retweeted another tweet saying "Colorado Springs police says there is no connection to Planned Parenthood & shooting victims are getting treatment". In a podcast, academic and ethicist Albert Mohler said that the location "led immediately to assumptions about the motivation for the attack". He said that the shooting "undermines the values of the pro-life movement" and said that "we are not authorised to be judge, jury and executioner".

Republican presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina was among those who said that liberals were trying to use the tragedy to demonise anyone who opposes abortion or public funding for Planned Parenthood.

"Anyone who tries to link this terrible tragedy to anyone who opposes abortion or anyone who opposes the sale of body parts is [applying] typical left-wing tactics," she said on Fox News Sunday.

However, Planned Parenthood itself is in no doubt that the rhetoric used by anti-abortion campaigners is behind the attack. "We've experienced so much hateful language, hateful speech," Vicki Cowart, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountains, said on ABC's This Week programme on Sunday. "I think politicians have been in that conversation, and I mean, you know that the airwaves are full of anti-abortion language, of anti-Planned Parenthood accusations, much of which is false in nature...the tirades against Planned Parenthood in the last few months have really been over the top."

An example of what she meant was evident even on Sunday, just two days after the attack. The pastor of Jacksonville First Baptist Church, McCall Brunson, referred in his sermon to Planned Parenthood's president Cecile Richards. He accused her of hating God and loving death. Brunson read a verse from the Bible warning, "the person who sins will die".

"I can get onto Planned Parenthood here," he continued. "Who in the world is better to represent them than that president of Planned Parenthood? You've seen her on Ellen DeGeneres, you've seen her before Congress. She is so astute, she is so smart, she's so sharp, she is attractive, she is so clean cut."

"But let me tell you something," Brunson added. "She hates our God because she loves death."

"Amen!" several church members shouted.

But pro-lifers have a problem. They are, for the most part, genuinely horrified by what has happened – though it is not the first lethal attack on an abortion clinic – and desperate to distance themselves from responsibility for what has happened. However, it can't be denied that the heightened language used by campaigners about the morality of abortion, which decribes it unequivocally as murder and equates it with Herod's massacre of the innocents, has helped to demonise those who carry out abortions, profit by them or undergo them. Add in to that toxic mix the easy availability of guns in Colorado – once again lamented by President Obama – and the mental fragility of a troubled individual too easily persuaded that he was doing a good thing by targeting what he was taught to believe was evil, and a tragedy was going to happen.

And yet pro-life campaigners, by the nature of their argument – that from the moment of conception the foetus has exactly the same ethical standing and right to life as a baby or an adult human – are driven to precisely that sort of language. There is no middle ground and no room for understanding.

This is not, in fact, the only way of conducting this discussion – but it is the only way America is hearing at the moment. And as long as that's the case, there will always be the risk of more attacks like this one.

Follow @RevMarkWoods on Twitter.