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Planned Parenthood shooting shows how extremes fuel abortion debate

The abortion debate is deeply polarized, and the tone of that debate, when dialed up, can fuel extremism, experts say. 

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Flowers are left at an intersection near the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., Saturday. A gunman stormed the clinic in central Colorado on Friday and killed three people, including a police officer, and wounded nine others before surrendering after a standoff at the facility lasting several hours, authorities said.

Isaiah J. Downing/Reuters

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To Carly Fiorina and some other Republican presidential candidates, the assertion is wildly inappropriate.

The attempt to connect Friday's fatal attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., to harsh new antiabortion rhetoric is "so typical of the left," Ms. Fiorina said on "Fox News Sunday." It is a bid "to immediately begin demonizing a messenger because they don’t agree with the message."

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In the aftermath of the attack, in which three people were killed during an hours-long standoff, the president of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains said in a statement: "We've seen an alarming increase in hateful rhetoric and smear campaigns against abortion providers and patients over the last few months."

The anger generated by the recent release of an undercover video in which a Planned Parenthood official discusses the sale of fetal tissue has created an environment that "breeds acts of violence," added the president, Vicki Cowart.

Experts are not so quick to dismiss the potential link. According to numerous media reports, the suspect mentioned "no more baby parts" to investigators after being taken into custody – reciting words used in the campaign against Planned Parenthood. But more deeply, the event speaks to the lack of anything approaching a middle ground in the abortion debate, despite the fact that most Americans have complex and often contradictory views on the subject that make them antiabortion in some ways and pro-abortion rights in others.

The tone of that debate has an effect, experts say. The level of vitriol has not neared the level of the 1990s, when antiabortion violence was at its peak and its most ardent proponents were forming quasi militias and serializing stories of an antiabortion apocalypse. But there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that mass killings are essentially "contagious," with media coverage of one feeding the next. And in the decades-long history of violence against abortion providers, attacks have generally corresponded with moments when the temperature of the debate was hottest. 

"There has been a long history of arsons, bombings, attacks, but they tend to ebb and flow," Lauren Anderson, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation executive with experience in antiabortion violence cases, told The Daily Dot. "It’s cyclical, and you see upticks based on events that hit the mainstream media. When something happens that brings it to the forefront, that causes a surge in violent activity."

'Both' or 'neither'

The issue is not the tactical push to defund Planned Parenthood. Polls show decreasing public support for the organization, which is the nation's largest abortion provider in addition to offering other medical services for low-income women. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, 44 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the organization; in 1989, a Gallup poll put that number at 89 percent.  

Rather, the issue is the nature of the abortion debate. On one hand, it incorporates only those at the extremes, since many Americans don't fit into "pro-choice" or "pro-life" camps. A Vox poll found that 18 percent of respondents said they were both; 21 percent said they were neither. A Gallup poll finds that 51 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal, but only in certain circumstances.

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"Told that legal abortion is unspeakably brutal to unborn humans and that lack of access to legal abortion is unspeakably brutal to women, [many Americans] feel both are correct," writes Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic. "So many Americans have conflicted opinions about abortion policy, or do their utmost to look away from the abortion debate entirely, precisely because when they listen to an abortion opponent describing the consequences of its ongoing legality and then an abortion rights proponent describing the consequences of making it illegal, they desperately desire to avoid being complicit in either of those terrible realities."

By playing to the extremes, the debate also enflames them. "It tends to embolden those who believe that they should do something about it," said Ms. Anderson of the FBI. "Many of the attacks against reproductive rights providers in our country are individuals who have sort of bought into this thing, not necessarily an organization. Although their belief systems are very different from organizations like ISIS, they share extremist ideology."

In the 1990s, when anger over abortion tipped into consistent, violent attacks, a backlash emerged. Laws to protect abortion clinics helped, as did the establishment of a federal task force. But the attitudes of antiabortion activists themselves played a key role, as well, "as acts of terrorism ... alienated many in the larger anti-abortion movement," according to a 1998 analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center.  

Roe's legacy

In many ways, the polarized abortion debate that emerged out of Roe v. Wade in 1973 was a precursor for today's broader polarized political dialogue. Writing about how the political landscape was shifting after the Clinton impeachment, The New York Times observed: "It revived the cultural wars of the 1960's.... And it also resuscitated the sort of Manichaean language used in the cold war – language that for years had been employed only by extremists concerned with hot-button topics like abortion rights...."

In that way, the abortion debate has become a proxy for the larger issue of American political polarization – moving to the extremes, where the debate is sharper and simpler, rather than dealing with the messy middle. 

"I find it rare to see leaders of the pro-life and pro-choice movements having a productive conversation," writes Sarah Cliff of Vox. "When put into debate, they often talk past each other. This makes sense: these are the people who exist at the more polarized ends of the issue."

But having talked to an array of Americans, she continues: "I could easily see the people I interviewed ... having a productive discussion about how our country regulates abortion. It’s not hard for me to envision these people, from diverse backgrounds and with significantly different views on abortion, still finding space where they agree."

And in the process, perhaps, shrinking the space within the conversation for the extremes. 


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