Terrorism and the Pro-Life Movement

Kathleen Reeves

Violence is inherent to the pro-life movement in the way that it was inherent to the preservation of segregation in the South.

For me, one of the many reasons the murder of George Tiller is
heartbreaking is that it’s the first such killing in over ten years. Anti-abortion-fueled murder had come to seem like a bad dream. I even thought, sometimes, that we wouldn’t lose any more doctors this way—that the worst was over and that the world was changing. I see how foolish I was. The anti-choice movement is well-organized, strong, and just as poisonous as ever. And unfortunately, this kind of terrorism is effective, as Matthew Yglesias points out (hat tip to The Moderate Voice):

In general, I think people tend to overestimate the efficacy of violence as a political tactic. But in this particular case, I think people tend to understate it.

These killings occur after years of threats, harassment, and, in some cases, previous attempts. They are not crimes of passion and the killer is generally not insane or attention-seeking, as assassins sometimes are. They are unequivocally intentional.

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Violence is inherent to the pro-life movement in the way that it was inherent to the preservation of segregation in the South. African-Americans understood that certain, simple acts endangered their lives. What they chose to do about this varied, but they all understood it. Some did what they wanted to do and got away with it, others were punished, and many remained quiet. In the same way, many in the medical profession—doctors, nurses, physician’s assistants—will not go near abortion. For some, it’s a matter of personal belief. But I find it hard to believe that very many people who dedicate their lives to health care are morally opposed to helping women who, very simply, need their help.

I recently spoke to a friend who’s studying to be a doctor about the way abortion is discussed and handled in the medical community. Only about a quarter of the anesthesiologists where she studies—at a liberal university in the Northeast—will participate in abortions. Even within the medical community, abortion is highly stigmatized. This is intimidation, achieved through terror.

In both the civil rights and the abortion rights movements, violence became more prevalent and organized in response to political gains. In the case of the civil rights movement, this happened most clearly during Reconstruction, after the passage of the thirteenth through fifteenth amendments, and again beginning in the 1950s. In the abortion rights movement, Roe v. Wade galvanized the opposition and led to the formation of the modern pro-life movement, which has, in turn, bred terrorists.

The mainstream pro-life movement takes issue when it’s associated with this kind of violence. They may distance themselves from the killings, they may not believe in the use of violence, but this terrorism is inherent in their rhetoric, as Cristina Page points out. It is true that in the wake of the killing, most prominent anti-choicers have avoided the appalling insensitivity of Randall Terry, who said,

George Tiller was a mass-murderer. We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God. I am more concerned that the Obama Administration will use Tiller’s killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions. 

On the day of Tiller’s death, most of his foes refrained from calling the status of his soul into question. But they did precisely this every day leading up to his death. Like extremist movements around the world, the contemporary pro-life movement insists on the supremacy of its moral judgment, even where privacy and the right to bodily autonomy is threatened. Like mid-century segregationists, the pro-life movement dedicates its efforts to intimidation. Just as many of these prominent segregationists disavowed violence and, eventually, denied any connection to terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, today’s prominent pro-lifers disassociate themselves from violence when violence happens. But they are not only implicated in this violence, they have orchestrated it. As Frank Schaeffer writes,

The same hate machine I was part of is still attacking all abortionists as "murderers." And today once again the "pro-life" leaders are busy ducking their personal responsibility for people acting on their words. The people who stir up the fringe never take responsibility. But I’d like to say on this day after a man was murdered in cold blood for preforming abortions that I—and the people I worked with in the religious right, the Republican Party, the pro-life movement and the Roman Catholic Church, all contributed to this killing by our foolish and incendiary words.

I am very sorry.

We need to start acknowledging that the pro-life movement is an extremist movement not just at its extremes, but at its center.

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