As the national conversation on Planned Parenthood has become louder and more heated, politicians have warned that it could ignite acts of violence against clinics and neighborhood facilities.
Late Wednesday, for the second time in weeks, a Planned Parenthood center in Thousand Oaks came under attack, this time by an arsonist or arsonists who authorities believe smashed out a window, splashed gasoline inside the clinic and then ignited it.
Authorities say there’s no evidence the attack was related to the larger debate on Planned Parenthood, but said the West Hillcrest Drive facility was previously attacked by vandals six weeks ago.
No direct theats had been made to the facility or clinic workers before the fire, said Ventura County sheriff’s Capt. John Reilly.
“You're putting the community at risk when you're doing something like this,” Det. Tim Lohman said. “Whether it's the stuff that's in the news recently, we don't know.”
A few plants near the window were blackened, but the small fire had been extinguished quickly because of a sprinkler system, Lohman said.
The fire broke out about 11:30 p.m. but deputies and firefighters were quickly alerted by the building’s fire alarm. Nobody was inside the clinic at the time.
Investigators said they have pulled surveillance video from the building’s security cameras.
Planned Parenthood has been under scrutiny since an undercover video surfaced this summer allegedly showing executives discussing recovering fetal tissue from abortions for research.
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, said at a House hearing this week that the organization did not break the law.
“Planned Parenthood has been in the news recently because of deceptively edited videos released by a group that is dedicated to making abortion illegal in this country,” Richards said.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement: “The toxic rhetoric directed at Planned Parenthood has dangerous consequences. It sends a signal that using violence to close clinics and intimidate healthcare professionals and women is 'OK.' It is not.”
Jenna Tosh, chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties, said in a statement Thursday that “we are determined to reopen as soon as possible to serve the healthcare needs of our patients.”
“Our commitment today, and always, is to the health and safety of our patients and staff,” Tosh said in the statement.
The Thousand Oaks center provides more than 7,000 patients with a range of healthcare services each year, “over 90% of which is life-saving preventive care like cancer screenings, birth control, and sexually transmitted infection testing and treating,” the statement said.
Julie Mickelberry, vice president of public policy and community engagement for the local Planned Parenthood, said in a statement that attacks like this one “are designed to intimidate and harass staff and the patients who visit our health centers.”
“It's discouraging when people want to stop men and women from accessing life-saving services,” Mickelberry said.
Kevin Bock, 27, who lives down the street from the clinic , went to survey the scene Thursday.
“I'm just a strong supporter of women's rights,” Bock said as he surveyed the damage. “I know what Planned Parenthood's benefits are, and it makes absolutely no sense to me why people would do this kind of thing.”
Outside the Planned Parenthood offices Thursday, Patricio Gonzalez had set up signs opposing abortion, something he has done for two years. He tries to go out there at least two times a week. Sometimes he will stand outside for one to six hours.
Gonzalez, who wore a shirt with a cross and the words “Blessed all day every day”, said he had not seen anything suspicious. He held a white sign with the word “adoption” over a red heart. The back of the sign read: “Ask 2 see the ultrasound.”
“This is a peaceful, prayerful presence,” said Gonzalez, who lives in Thousand Oaks. “There's a way to send a message.”