Siege highlights security used in abortion clinics

Published Nov. 29, 2015

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — As heavily armed police entered the Planned Parenthood clinic here to hunt down the gunman and rescue those trapped inside, they had an advantage that seemed like something out of the movies. Officers in the command center outside the clinic were able to tap into security cameras throughout the complex, watch the siege unfold and give precise instructions to officers inside.

"We could see where the suspect was," Mayor John Suthers said in an interview. Officers also knew where different groups of staff members and patients had taken cover, he said, and were able to judge when it was safe to rescue them.

The advanced camera system was just one sign of the increasingly elaborate security measures that abortion clinics around the country have adopted.

According to discussions overheard on police scanners on Friday, when the attack occurred, at least one woman retreated to a protected "safe room." The clinic also had a supply of bulletproof vests.

"Abortion clinics need to take extraordinary security measures that aren't necessary for other health care facilities," said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, the professional society for clinics, doctors and hospitals that perform abortions.

"That can include bulletproof glass and safe rooms as well as cameras and lighting and security protocols," she said. In Colorado Springs, she added, "the staff were well-trained and saved a lot of life."

The facility had a security guard on duty Friday morning but he left after the day's patients had arrived and his shift ended, said Vicki Cowart, president of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains.

Cowart also said the gunman had never gotten past the waiting room. After the initial shots were fired, an employee hustled patients and staff members through a security door to the back of the clinic, she said.

Planned Parenthood officials declined to discuss their security measures in any detail, for fear of giving tips to would-be attackers. But they said the measures were extensive.

Since 1977, when more extreme elements in the antiabortion movement began attacking clinics and personnel, eight doctors or staff members have been killed, according to data collected by the National Abortion Federation. There have been an additional 17 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 186 arson attacks and many thousands of violent threats or other illegal acts against abortion clinics.

Security measures at many clinics have been strengthened in the past five months, since antiabortion activists released covertly taped videos purporting to show that Planned Parenthood was engaged in the illegal sale of fetal parts. The claims have been disproved, but have led to vitriolic verbal attacks and what those working in abortion clinics, not only those run by Planned Parenthood, consider to be an especially ominous atmosphere.

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The perceived level of threat differs according to location, but in some cases, clinic officials said, doctors have been provided with 24-hour armed guards.

The national federation called for a special meeting in August of a standing Justice Department task force on violence against abortion clinics, Saporta said. For years, clinics have turned over information about credible threats to the task force, which includes the FBI and other law enforcement groups.

Even as they seek ways to forestall or mitigate attacks, clinics and their staff members try to keep security measures as unobtrusive as possible, hoping to preserve a warm and safe atmosphere for patients who are often already facing stress.

"We're still health care providers and we want our patients to feel safe and welcome, said Dr. Nancy Stanwood, an OB-GYN at the Yale University medical center who also works in an abortion clinic.

"It's a balancing act," she said.