Who Are You Calling Baby Killer?

Carol Mason

Before it was used as an anti-choice accusation, the phrase "baby killer" was hurled at American soldiers returning from Vietnam in the 60s and the 70s.

National Advocates for Pregnant Women posted a video that challenges the
accuracy and morality of calling abortion a holocaust or genocide. They point
out that even "mainstream" anti-abortion groups and reporters use this inflammatory
language. Another ubiquitous anti-choice slur is "baby killer." Regardless of our stance on reproductive issues,
we all now recognize the phrase as carrying an antiabortion message. So the
origins of "baby killer" may surprise people who don’t remember the sixties. Looking
into those origins is as important as challenging the idea of abortion as
holocaust or genocide, and offers another lesson in the education that Sarah
Seltzer called for earlier this summer when she asked, "Where
does anti-choice extremism come from

Before it
was used as an anti-choice accusation, the phrase "baby killer" was hurled at American soldiers returning from Vietnam
in the 60s and the 70s. News of atrocities such as My Lai, where defenseless
civilians — including children — were massacred, filled the airwaves. To
learn about American men killing children was a devastating thing for our
country to understand, and it didn’t help that the United States was defeated
to a humiliating degree in Vietnam.  We
were supposed to be the good guys, and the Vietnam War suggested that we
weren’t good morally or militarily. It took a long time for America to heal
from the wounds of this defeat, to shed the disgrace of being baby killers
overseas. Isn’t it interesting to consider, then, that one way of reclaiming
our sense of being a moral nation was to replace the idea of American men
killing innocent children in Vietnam with the idea of ending abortion, which was
portrayed as American women killing innocent children?  It was a big switcheroo: "baby killer"
stopped meaning men killing in Vietnam and started to refer to women
purportedly killing in the womb.

One man’s story illuminates the
relationship between mourning the loss and defeat of the Vietnam War and
fighting women and reproductive health care providers in the abortion war. As
James Risen and Judy Thomas reported in Wrath
of Angels
, John O’Keefe was the anti-choice strategist who staged some of
the first clinic sit-ins in the 1970s and inspired the many blockades that
closed down clinic after clinic in the 1980s. According to Risen and Thomas, O’Keefe
was the "father of rescue," the man whose experiences and writings paved the
way for Operation Rescue, the group with the paramilitary name that closed down
clinics and harassed women trying to enter them.  

O’Keefe had been badly disillusioned
by the Vietnam War, especially when his brother, Roy, was killed in it. Many
anti-war activists who were organizing against the Vietnam War did so because
they protested the destruction of Vietnamese
land, villages, and people, footage of which was nightly shown on television
news programs. But when his brother died, O’Keefe protested the war because of
"the killing being done in Vietnam,
like the killing that resulted in Roy’s death." O’Keefe’s principles of
pacifism then took a turn away from the concerns of war and toward what he perceived
as another realm of baby-killing. In the process, it appears that he became less
concerned with worrying about what kind of killing Roy may have done as a
soldier, and began to worry about a choice his friend Suzanne had made.

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Suzanne, a nurse, discussed her choice
to have an abortion "in a straightforward way with O’Keefe and seemed convinced
that she had made the right decision," according to Wrath of Angels. "What O’Keefe heard, however, was" not someone who
had taken advantage of the new state law that made the abortion legal. Because Suzanne
talked with O’Keefe for "a full hour [and] could not drop the subject," he
presumed that it was because she wanted his "approval of her decision." This
puzzled and troubled O’Keefe, who had never questioned the Catholic stance
against abortion and began reading everything he could find about it.

"Soon the story of her abortion
clicked with O’Keefe’s emerging beliefs on death and pacifism," wrote Risen and
Thomas. He became convinced that she was a mother, her child was dead, and she
had no way to grieve for the child. She never said those things, but O’Keefe
believed she was in denial and that she had been talking about the subject with
him as a substitute for mourning her baby. O’Keefe equated her with the
Vietnamese soldier who had killed his brother: they were both badly scarred by
death and killing."

O’Keefe’s logic paints both Suzanne
and the Vietnamese soldier as pathologically disturbed. In O’Keefe’s
understanding, just as the Vietnamese soldier killed Roy O’Keefe, so did Suzanne
kill her child. Just as the Vietnamese soldier and Suzanne are equated in
O’Keefe’s logic, so, too, are the U.S. soldier and the unborn child. With these
equations, O’Keefe’s focus shifted from soldiers suffering the trauma of a war
that included mass killings of civilians to American women like Suzanne who are
supposedly psychologically "scarred" and "in denial." O’Keefe then adopted
civil disobedience as a way to oppose abortion. In the late 1970s, he staged
sit-ins and explained in an influential 1978 pamphlet called A Peaceful Presence that, "unlike those
used in the civil rights movements, anti-abortion sit-ins were not symbolic."
In other words, he articulated the idea that disrupting the business of women’s
clinics was tantamount to actually "saving lives" and "rescuing" babies. Doesn’t
that sound just like what a hero does – save lives and rescue people? O’Keefe’s
anti-war pacifism and protest couldn’t save his brother, but he was adamant
that he was saving babies by sitting in front of a women’s clinic.

O’Keefe’s story suggests that the
emergent militancy of antiabortion forces was part of what Susan Jeffords
called the "remasculinization" of America after Vietnam. It is not only
veterans who were said to have suffered a crisis of masculinity as a result of failing
in Vietnam. The entire country was forced to re-think what it means to be a
good American man.  Movies like Rambo focused on what Vietnam had done
to our boys. "Real men" found a new war through which to revive their American
manhood. People stopped calling Vietnam vets "baby killers" and started applying
the term to women who terminate pregnancies. Forget the swamps and jungles of
Indochina. The womb was the new battlefield. 

Anti-choicers, such as the late Life Advocate editor and novelist Paul
de Parrie, who celebrated the murder of abortion providers and clinic workers
in the 1990s made this link clear. Women were, according to de Parrie,
supposedly "suffering from the now familiar Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
often seen in Vietnam War vets." Anti-choice organizations still claim this
even though (as Reagan’s Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, made clear) there is
no credible research proving it. Nevertheless, they "confirmed that ‘Vietnam’
for these women" – and for the men who began killing for life – "was an
abortion table," wrote de Parrie. 

Given this history of "baby-killer," it should
come as no surprise that nowadays it is more common to hear anti-choicers say
abortion is torture. The same switcheroo dynamic may be at work. It is
difficult for us to own up to the American-made torture that occurred in
Guantanamo Bay, for example. By exposing and fighting the so-called torture of
abortion, people may regain a sense of moral goodness about themselves and
their country. More than mere appropriation of war-time rhetoric, this tendency
for antiabortionists to scapegoat others for what is being done in their name
was established long ago.

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