Against all odds, the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs is thriving one year later
Lately, when visiting a Planned Parenthood clinic — any Planned Parenthood in the country, for that matter — it's hard not to think about what happened last year in Colorado.
It's hard to sit there and wait for an HPV screening or birth control refill and not wonder who's coming through the door next. It's hard to be proactive about sexual health knowing there are people who would happily take a life to prevent people from doing so.
Of course, that's exactly what Robert Lewis Dear Jr. wanted.
On November 27, 2015, Dear held hostage and then gunned down 12 people in a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood — injuring 9 and killing 3. He did this after buying into discredited anti-abortion propaganda that falsely claimed the health care service was selling aborted fetus parts on the black market for cash. He believed he was a, direct quote: "warrior for the babies."
Most ironically, none of the people that lost their lives that day were at Planned Parenthood for the abortion services that Dear had fixated on; both Ke'Arre Stewart (a father of two and an Iraq war veteran) and Jennifer Markovsky (a mother of two) were accompanying friends to the clinic, and Garret Swasey, the third victim, was a police officer who responded to the clinic's 911 call.
After the massacre, the Colorado Springs location was forced to shut down. But, as it shuttered its doors in the wake of the tragedy, Planned Parenthood clinics all across the country were up and running the next day, coordinating an immediate response to the killings with a campaign for solidarity called "These Doors Stay Open."
Although, the campaign was not launched without trepidation.
"We opened the other health centers the next day, but not without fear. People got up and punched through their fear to be open for their communities," Vicky Cowart, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains told VICE.
One year later though, with the support Colorado Springs community, the clinic is back up and running, working harder than ever to ensure that women can access reproductive care. In fact, the clinic's insistence on moving forward and continuing to provide services in the face of opposition has actually affected Colorado Springs residents' option of abortion; immediately following the attack, the percentage of city residents who supported a woman's right to chose was at its highest level in two years.
"We tried as much as possible to be business as usual. We're in the business of serving people and they need us to be strong," Cowart said.
For Cowart and the rest of Planned Parenthood, that strength has manifested itself in a surprising level of something entirely unexpected — optimism.
For the center, November 27 is a date that both recalls the senseless loss of life and the increasing violence towards Americans who flex their rights to make their own reproductive choices. However, it's also a date that you can't commemorate without giving due credit to the inspiring bravery of the people who work tirelessly to keep Planned Parenthood running, as well as those who fight for choice in the face of danger.
"I won't be able to get through that time without a lot of emotions," added Cowart. "But pride will be one of them: pride in our resilience and hope for the future. Sadness and fear will be mixed in there, too."
This attitude of optimism is nothing short of a feat for a woman and a company that faces frequent terrorist attacks against clinics, laws passed that criminalize employees for doing their jobs, and violent opposition to work that saves lives and contributes to the health of both women and men.
Even before the killings at the the Colorado Springs clinic, threats and harassment towards Planned Parenthood staff and patients have been rampant. According to the 2014 National Clinic Violence Survey, nearly 20 percent of Planned Parenthood locations have been affected by violence that includes things like chemical attacks, bomb threats and arson. A separate report by the Feminist Majority Foundation and the National Clinic Access Project found that in 2014, 28 percent of Planned Parenthoods were threatened with the publication of photographs and personal information of doctors and staffers, a 10 percent increase from 2010. And, perhaps worst of all, a series of state-level bills have been passed to defund Planned Parenthood, legislation that's based around the same false propaganda Dear bought into when he shot 12 people.
For an institution that only focuses 3 percent of their health care provision on abortion — one that actually prevents abortion by providing access to contraception — these laws are a huge blow. They mean millions of men and women can't access affordable and safe family planning options, contraception, STD screenings and reproductive preventative care that screens for things like cervical, breast and prostate cancer.
Yet, again, Cowart's reaction to this kind of toxic job climate is optimism. In her view, it's the only way forward; the only way Planned Parenthood can stay open and undeterred.
“We take your healthcare so seriously that we will provide care no matter what,” Cowart told The Guardian. “And we will do what we have to to make sure we are bringing you into a safe, quality, careful environment.”
In fact, looking back, Cowart says she sees the attack not as just another bullet point in a laundry list of physical and legislative assaults towards her business, but as a turning point.
"[Anti-abortion activists] really are trying to shut us down and punish women who seek abortions. They want to punish people who just happen to be near an abortion facility," she said. "[The shooting] was a really blatant underscoring of the anti-choice environment that has built up around us over the years."
So, a year after the shootings, this kind of optimism and a stalwart refusal to give into the obstacles that keep people from making their own sexual health decisions, is particularly important. Planned Parenthood's ascension from the ashes of tragedy and reacclimation into normal service had to happen in order to send the message that they will continue to serve the people who need them, regardless of efforts to stop them.
"Right away, after the shooting happened, we said to ourselves and our community, We are resilient. We will not let this event define us," Cowart said.
So far, it hasn't. And with that kind of unbreakable optimism and commitment to heath, it won't.