A fire that destroyed a Planned Parenthood health clinic in Knoxville, Tenn., last week was arson, the city’s Fire Department said Thursday, as federal and local investigators tried to identify who was behind the early morning attack.
The Fire Department received a call about the fire at around 6:39 a.m. on Dec. 31, when the Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi clinic was closed for renovations. The investigation is the second in the past year to focus on a crime against the clinic, which provided birth control, cancer screenings and medication abortions.
Investigators are still searching the burned remains of the single-story building for evidence, a task that has been made more difficult by snow and rain, said Mark Wilbanks, the Knoxville Fire Department’s assistant chief.
Chief Wilbanks said on Friday morning that the investigation, which includes support from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, was currently focused on identifying potential suspects. Investigators have offered a reward of up to $10,000 for those who can provide information that would lead to the prosecution of anyone involved with the arson.
In January 2021, someone with a gun shot at the clinic and shattered its glass front door.
A spokesman for the Knoxville Police Department, Scott Erland, said in an email Friday morning that the shooting case remained unsolved and that no suspect had been identified. The Federal Bureau of Investigation said it was assisting with that investigation.
The investigations into the January 2021 shooting and December’s arson case are separate for now, Chief Wilbanks said.
Ashley Coffield, the president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood for Tennessee and North Mississippi, noted that the shooting took place on the same day as the 48th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, the decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.
Opponents of abortion providers have protested at clinics for decades, and the issue of abortion rights remains intensely controversial. In December, the Supreme Court seemed poised to uphold a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Such a decision would be at odds with Roe v. Wade, which prohibited states from banning abortion before fetal viability, currently around 23 weeks. Ms. Coffield said on Friday that protesters routinely demonstrated outside the organization’s regional health centers, but that they were not violent.
Ms. Coffield said the organization was not intimidated. “We are on the same track that we were on before the fire, which is, we are planning to expand in Knoxville,” she said.
The Knoxville health clinic provided care to about 4,000 people in 2021, according to the Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi. This included 2,402 patients for birth control and S.T.D. testing, 815 abortion patients and 724 patients for gender-affirming hormone therapy.
The clinic is still providing transition care and birth control refills by telehealth, and encouraged patients to contact it for help seeking other care. There is one other clinic in Knoxville that provides abortions.
When the fire tore through the building on the morning of New Year’s Eve, the clinic was near completing a $2.2 million renovation that Ms. Coffield said would have expanded its existing services and enabled them to provide surgical abortions.
The State of Abortion in the U.S.
The renovation is a complete loss, but Ms. Coffield and the organization’s chief development officer, Aimee Lewis, said their morale had been boosted by the supportive messages and donations they had received since the fire.
Ms. Lewis said that there had been more than 250 donations since last Friday, and that a group of donors had committed another $150,000 in the past few days.
Ms. Coffield said the money would accelerate rebuilding efforts, though she was not yet sure how long that process would take.
Health clinics that provide abortions have been targeted by protests and violent attacks across the United States for decades.
In February 2021, a teenager pleaded guilty in federal court to throwing a lit incendiary device at a Planned Parenthood building in Delaware. In September 2020, a Missouri man was sentenced to five years in prison for arson at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Columbia, Mo.
The arson in Knoxville took place the same month that the Supreme Court considered a case that could be critical for the future of abortion rights.