WASHINGTON — Even as the authorities say they remain uncertain what precisely led a gunman to attack a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs on Friday, a comment attributed to the suspect by a senior law enforcement official — “no more baby parts” — fed directly into an already high-pitched controversy over Planned Parenthood and its practices.
The phrase was an eerie echo of language used by politicians here and in many state capitals since an anti-abortion group began releasing its undercover videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing possible donations of fetal tissue for medical research.
Congressional supporters and opponents of Planned Parenthood were uncharacteristically subdued over the weekend as they awaited more information about the shooting, which killed three people and wounded nine, so it was unclear how the episode might affect Congress’s year-end agenda after lawmakers return on Monday from their holiday recess. But considering the extent to which Planned Parenthood has fomented political passions on both the left and the right in Washington, that restraint seems unlikely to hold.
Long before Friday, Planned Parenthood was expected to be prominent in the debate over legislation to finance federal operations, which the Republican-controlled Congress must pass before Dec. 11 to keep the government open. Anti-abortion conservatives want Republican leaders to let the government shut down unless President Obama agrees to end reimbursements to Planned Parenthood for health services to low-income patients. (These services do not include abortions, because federal law bans payment for most abortions.)
Interactive Feature | A Brief History of Deadly Attacks on Abortion Providers The fatal shooting of three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs was the latest incident in a long history of violent attacks on doctors and clinics providing abortions.
Five congressional committees have been investigating Planned Parenthood since a California-based anti-abortion group called the Center for Medical Progress in July started posting 11 videos online, one at a time over several months, purporting to show that Planned Parenthood was trafficking in “baby parts” for profit. Planned Parenthood has denied that.
John A. Boehner resigned as House speaker days after creating a special committee to investigate Planned Parenthood, other abortion providers and tissue procurement businesses. His decision to quit was forced by hard-line conservatives’ credible threat to unseat him for refusing to lead a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding. His successor, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, did not address the shootings over the weekend. But a spokesman, Brendan Buck, said on Sunday that the tragedy would not change the investigating committee’s plans.
On Saturday, Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, called on Mr. Ryan to disband the special House committee investigating Planned Parenthood. “It is time to stop the demonizing and witch hunts against Planned Parenthood, its staff and patients, and the lifesaving health care it provides to millions every day,” she said. Representative Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, the chairwoman of what is called the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, said in a statement that Mrs. Boxer should stop “playing politics with this tragedy.”
Investigators are interviewing friends, associates and family members of the suspected gunman, Robert L. Dear Jr., to determine whether he had ties to any extremist groups or if anyone helped him plot the attack, according to senior law enforcement officials. The authorities also want to know whether Mr. Dear told anyone about the plot in recent weeks, the officials said. So far, the authorities have found no evidence that he had help from anyone, the officials said. They also said they did not know if the suspect had any political motivations.
Prominent Democrats, including Mr. Obama and the House Democratic leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, initially reacted to the shootings by reiterating their frequent calls for gun safety legislation, not by suggesting that abortion opponents’ attacks on Planned Parenthood might have been incendiary. They were awaiting more information about the shooter and his motivations, Democratic aides said. Others, however, sought to draw a connection between the fiery language used against Planned Parenthood and the potential for violence.
On the ABC News program “This Week” on Sunday, the head of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, Vicki Cowart, lamented the “hateful speech” of recent months among legislators and Republican presidential candidates. “I can’t believe that this isn’t contributing to some folks, mentally unwell or not, thinking that it’s O.K. to target Planned Parenthood or to target abortion providers,” she said.
For months, House Republican leaders have sought to project toughness against Planned Parenthood — through words and the investigations — to appease conservative hard-liners and, it was hoped, to blunt their fervor for shutting down the government. After the first video came out in July, Mr. Boehner said, “I think I’d vomit trying to talk about” it.
From the start, the language used by Planned Parenthood opponents was provocative, though none of it advocated violence. Mr. Boehner, as he announced the creation of the special House committee to investigate abortion providers and fetal tissue businesses, said, “Recent videos exposing the abortion-for-baby-parts business have shocked the nation, and demanded action.”
On the presidential campaign trail, where Planned Parenthood has played a prominent role, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican who is relying on support from Christian conservatives, was among the first last summer to demand an investigation into Planned Parenthood’s “sale and transfer of aborted body parts.” Of his rivals, Carly Fiorina has assailed the “harvesting of baby parts,” including — falsely — a live fetus’s brain, while Mike Huckabee has said Planned Parenthood is “selling babies’ body parts like the parts of a Buick.”
Republicans’ statements — on air, in committee hearings, in news releases and on a House website devoted to information on the committees’ investigations — suggested that Republicans had made up their minds against the group. The House Judiciary Committee, for example, entitled its September hearing “Examining the Horrific Abortion Practices at the Nation’s Largest Abortion Provider.”
The undercover videos include scenes from a Colorado facility, but in Denver rather than the Colorado Springs site. David Daleiden, the 26-year-old abortion opponent who created the Center for Medical Progress and who posed as a biotechnology representative to infiltrate Planned Parenthood affiliates and surreptitiously record his attempts to procure tissue for research, posted a statement on the center’s website condemning the “barbaric killing spree in Colorado Springs by a violent madman.”
Mr. Daleiden, who had shared his video results with a few Republican state legislators and members of Congress before their public release, did not address early criticisms that his work might have helped incite extremists or the mentally ill.
Since July, several Republicans have contended that Planned Parenthood committed criminal acts — profiting from selling body parts, altering abortion procedures to preserve certain organs, even murdering fetuses. Representative Trey Gowdy, a conservative from South Carolina, on Fox News in July said the videos showed Planned Parenthood to be “barbaric,” “depraved” and “right on the precipice of discussing homicide.”
The investigating committees are not expected to finish until next year, aides say. Yet the website created by House Republican leaders for a chronology of the committees’ work already concludes that the videos show “Planned Parenthood officials admitting unethical and potentially illegal procedures” that are “despicable” and “abhorrent.”
Selling tissue for profit is illegal. Officials captured on video say repeatedly that Planned Parenthood seeks no profit but only minimal reimbursements — $30 to $100, one doctor says — for expenses like processing or transporting tissue. Officials also are recorded describing, sometimes in clinically callous tones, how doctors could alter an abortion procedure to preserve specific tissue or organs, without harming the patient. Some Republicans have suggested that is illegal; and some medical ethicists have called it ethically questionable at worst.
In October, Planned Parenthood said it would no longer take money for any tissue transfers, but has denied any wrongdoing. Of its approximately 700 health centers, under half provide abortions — including the Colorado Springs facility that was attacked — and just three affiliates in West Coast states have arrangements with researchers, universities or procurement companies to transfer tissue from fetuses or fetal placentas.
Many affiliates especially in conservative states do not want to invite controversy, officials say, though patients often ask to make tissue donations.
A 1993 federal law allows fetal tissue for research. Supporters included two current Republican leaders — Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, now the majority leader, and Representative Fred Upton of Michigan, chairman of a committee investigating Planned Parenthood.
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