OpEd: Planned Parenthood shooter shows that politicians should choose words carefully

“Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.” – Buddha

Put simply, words matter.

Whether you are trying to help your child navigate growing up, or convince a family member that you are right, how we communicate to each other shapes the world around us. Unfortunately, words can also hurt us and shake our confidence. And in extreme cases – like the recent tragedy in Colorado – words can also move people to violence.

The attack at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs left three people dead – a police officer, an Iraq war veteran and a mother of two. Moments after the attack, the shooter, Robert Lewis Dear Jr., uttered “no more baby parts,” a line that dominated media discussions for months. This past Wednesday Dear affirmed his motives, shouting in court,“I’m guilty. There’s no trial. I’m a warrior for the babies.”

Dear’s actions are in part the result of a smear campaign against Planned Parenthood waged by the anti-abortion group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP). Despite the highly edited content of videos released by CMP, and the fact that Planned Parenthood was cleared of any wrongdoing by every state that investigated it, politicians, including Utah’s own Governor Gary Herbert, acted based on accusations rather than investigating the validity of CMP’s propaganda videos. Acting to his own personal and political agenda, Governor Herbert has attempted to cut funds to Planned Parenthood without any showing of wrongdoing on Planned Parenthood’s part.

Conservative lawmakers launched a crusade to defund Planned Parenthood. They held multiple hearings, turning the whole affair into a series of sound bites about “baby parts” to help politicians increase their conservative bona fides. Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s president, Cecile Richards, was even forced to testify in front of the House of Representatives in a sham hearing that had nothing to do with enforcing the law, but was a politically motivated witch-hunt.

Utah Rep. Mia Love has been especially outspoken in the media about her ideological stance toward Planned Parenthood. Love certainly didn’t hold back her inflammatory rhetoric when she asked in a nationally broadcast interview, “Have we become so desensitized that we can laugh about killing babies, harvesting body parts to sell like commodities on the street?” Nor did she show concern for the violence her words may incite – “The fact that they are actually taking brain tissue from live babies, I mean, these are American babies.” It is unclear why Love felt it necessary to refer to “American” babies if not to incite further emotional reaction while riding the current wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The culture of violence against Planned Parenthood – an organization that provides safe, legal medical procedures and services (abortion was 1% of all services provided last year) – has become so extreme that antiabortion activists applauded Dear’s actions on social media while the attacks were still underway. Comments ranged from calling the shooter a “brave hero,” to saying any woman who was there for an abortion that day and who was killed “deserved it.”

Public officials need to be accountable for their choice of words and must know that violent rhetoric can lead to violent acts. When we dehumanize people – when we paint them as monsters – we make it easier for others to do them harm. Our elected leaders should think twice before infusing violent language into speeches and ads, particularly in situations when their audiences are already prone to hostility. Elected officials must send a clear message to all Utahns that words influence, for good and ill. Words matter.

Lauren Howells is the Policy and Advocacy Director for the Alliance for Better Utah.

See the OpEd in the Salt Lake Tribune HERE.

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