Federal officials will join an arson investigation centering on a Planned Parenthood facility in Pullman, Washington, after a fire at the clinic was deemed to be an intentional act of violence.
Officials said alarms inside the building were tripped before the fire was reported around 3:30 a.m. on Friday morning. No one was injured in the early morning blaze, but the facility will need to be closed for a month of more because of extensive fire and smoke damage, Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Tanya Riordan told The Spokesman-Review of Spokane.
The Pullman Fire Department put out the fire about three hours after it started, the newspaper reported. Investigators from the fire department and the Inland Northwest Joint Terrorism Task Force ruled that the blaze was arson later in the day, KREM-TV reported.
The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives joined the probe due to a history of anti-abortion activists targeting medical providers that offer abortions, said FBI Special Agent Frank Harrill.
“This is an appalling act of violence towards Planned Parenthood, but unfortunately a predictable ripple effect from the false and incendiary attacks that fuel violence from extremists,” said Karl Eastlund, the CEO for Planned Parenthood of greater Washington and North Idaho.
Over the weekend, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued a statement condemning the attack and linking it to the extreme rhetoric that has sparked previous incidents of anti-abortion violence, saying: “While I am extremely grateful that there were no injuries following the arson attack, it’s deeply disappointing that we still see the kind of hateful rhetoric in our state that fuels this kind of violence.”
But, he added, “Attacks such as this will not weaken my commitment to supporting Planned Parenthood and its mission to provide women, men, and families affordable health services.”
Playing with fire
The fire follows a recent wave of protests at Planned Parenthood clinics across the country. On Aug. 22, less than two weeks before the building was set ablaze, the Idaho-based Selkirk Pro-Life Alliance sponsored a large anti-abortion protest at the Pullman clinic. Over 500 protesters gathered in front of the now-charred building, waving signs and calling for Congress to defund the organization. Ironically, the Pullman clinic — like many other Planned Parenthood facilities — doesn’t even offer abortion services.
According to local news accounts, many of the protesters referenced a series of videos released by anti-abortion activists in California that purported to show Planned Parenthood executives discussing the illegal sale of aborted fetal tissue. Those videos have been thoroughly debunked, however, and federal investigators have already determined that there is no proof that Planned Parenthood was engaging in such activity, as have probes in six states thus far.
Nevertheless, Republicans have used the discredited videos as an excuse to ratchet up the extreme rhetoric and launch further, baseless attacks on Planned Parenthood — an organization whose clinics serve one in four American women at some point in their lives.
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who represents Pullman, jumped on the anti-Planned Parenthood bandwagon at a town meeting last month in Spokane, accusing the agency of engaging in “illegal activities.” As is customary when McMorris Rodgers makes an accusation or insinuation, she failed to present any evidence of those supposed “illegal activities,” but nevertheless called for the women’s health organization to be defunded.
“If not willing to cooperate, then we should take action to defund Planned Parenthood,” McMorris Rodgers said.
At an August protest in Spokane, local Republican state Rep. Matt Shea likened Planned Parenthood’s health services to World War II Nazi medical experiments. He described Planned Parenthood as “an evil organization” and declared: “There is no difference between Planned Parenthood and what Dr. Josef Mengele did in Germany in the 1940s.”
Also last month, The Federalist, a right-wing publication, declared, “It’s getting tough to tell Planned Parenthood from Nazis.” Similarly outrageous statements have been made by Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee.
Fanning the flames
Penn State University political science professor Dr. James Piazza, who has studied the predictors of extreme right-wing violence — including against abortion clinics — since 1970, told the Guardian that many anti-abortion attacks can be traced back to this type of escalating anti-choice rhetoric in the political realm.
“Politics at the national level seems to play a pretty big role in periods where these sorts of attacks seem to go up,” said Piazza, about threats that are carried out. “That really elevates things in the public.”
Indeed, reproductive rights activists say violent threats against abortion providers have spiked since the videos were released.
“In my 20 years with [the National Abortion Federation], I have never seen the escalation and extent of hate speech and threats,” Vicki Saporta, president of National Abortion Federation, told the Guardian in a recent interview.
The arson in Pullman comes on the heels of two other suspicious fires set at Planned Parenthood locations in other parts of the U.S. In July, a fire was started outside the door of the Planned Parenthood office in Aurora, Illinois. The FBI is currently investigating that fire to see if any federal laws were violated. In August, a suspicious car fire broke out at the construction site of a Planned Parenthood in New Orleans. Both sites have a history of being targeted by hostile anti-abortion protesters.
According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, in the past three decades anti-abortion activists have targeted providers with more than 6,400 acts of violence including bombings, arsons, death threats, kidnappings, assaults, and murders, as well as more than 175,000 acts of disruption including bomb threats and harassing phone calls. Based on these numbers, abortion providers in the U.S. are confronted with violence every 1.7 days and deal with other forms of harassment 16 times each day.