Six Degrees of Extremism: Dear Documents Show That Religious Right Rhetoric Likely Inspired Planned Parenthood Shooting

Dear also admired Paul Jennings Hill, who was executed in 2003 for murdering Dr. John Britton, a Pensacola, Fla., abortion provider, and Britton’s volunteer escort, retired Air Force Col. James Barrett.

There’s no question alleged Planned Parenthood shooter Robert Dear Jr., committed his bloody act due to his belief that abortion is murder. But recently unsealed courtroom documents reveal just how much Dear idolized a violent faction of the Religious Right.

According to the Washington Post, the shooter repeatedly recited Bible verses to the detectives charged with interviewing him and said he was “happy because his actions…ensured that no more abortions would be conducted at the Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs.”

Dear also admired Paul Jennings Hill, who was executed in 2003 for murdering Dr. John Britton, a Pensacola, Fla., abortion provider, and Britton’s volunteer escort, retired Air Force Col. James Barrett. Court documents, as quoted by The Post, say that Hill “was somebody he [Dear] thought very highly of.” He also allegedly posted comments to Hill’s official website, which is maintained by the Army of God, an extreme anti-abortion group.

The Post asserts that Dear modelled his violent anti-abortion stance on Hill’s, and this is likely true. In a piece still hosted on the Army of God’s website, Hill defended his actions shortly before his death.

“I was determined to do everything in my power to prevent John Britton from killing any children that day – or ever again,” Hill wrote. “I had made up my mind that the clinic door would not close and lock behind the abortionist – protecting him (as he had in the past) as he dismembered over thirty unborn children.”

Hill claimed his murder was justified because it prevented the deaths of “thousands of “unborn children.” It’s not a coincidence these sentiments sound identical to Dear’s. When Dear opened fire inside the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, he acted in accordance to a dogma that had been created, and then refined, by a turbulent but persistent undercurrent of the Religious Right.

Though the Religious Right tries to distance itself from groups like the Army of God, some of the anti-abortion groups and figures associated with it have troubling ties. 

Consider Operation Rescue (OR). Though this organization brands itself a mainstream alternative to terrorist groups like the Army of God, it is not totally removed from the violent fringe.

Hill was represented by a lawyer with ties to OR; OR president Troy Newman condemned Hill’s execution as “another example of the judicial tyranny that is gripping our nation.” Newman also slammed Hill’s judge for refusing to allow him to present a defense of “justifiable homicide.”

“There are many examples where taking the life in defense of innocent human beings is legally justified and permissible under the law,” he said.

Although OR claims that it eschews violence, it posted the address of Dr. George Tiller on its website shortly before he was murdered in his Wichita, Kan., church by Scott Roeder. OR’s senior policy advisor, Cheryl Sullenger, helped Roeder track Tiller’s 2009 trial. (The state had accused Tiller of violating state law on late-term abortions, but he was found not guilty.) Sullenger has a violent past of her own: In 1988, a federal judge sentenced her to three years in prison for plotting to bomb a San Diego abortion clinic with her husband.

Despite OR’s extremism, its activists remain very much a part of the mainstream anti-abortion movement. Until recently, Newman sat on the board of the Center for Medical Progress, a group best known for releasing doctored “sting” videos that purportedly showed Planned Parenthood staffers selling fetal tissue in violation of federal law. The anti-abortion movement rallied around the videos as evidence the reproductive healthcare provider was harvesting and selling “baby parts.” Dear cited the videos as an influence for his shooting spree, telling police “No more baby parts” as they arrested him.

Newman now advises presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on “life” issues.  

Dear’s statements to law enforcement are further evidence that it’s time for the Religious Right to critically re-examine the way it discusses abortion. When you frame abortion as murder, and tell your co-religionists they have a divine obligation to oppose it, you provide a ready-made justification for the Robert Dears and Paul Hills of the world.