On May 31, 2009, abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was shot in cold blood inside his Wichita, Kansas church. The suspect, Scott Roeder, reportedly cites his antiabortion views as a motive. On September 11, 2009, Jim Pouillon was shot in cold blood in front of Owosso, Michigan High School while engaged in an antiabortion protest. The suspect, Harlan Drake, reportedly stated an objection to Pouillon’s use of aborted fetus photos in his protests outside the school.
Drake also allegedly killed Mike Fuoss, a gravel pit owner, who upset Drake for undisclosed reasons. Last week, Tonya Johnson, an Arlington, Tennessee schoolteacher in her eighth month of pregnancy, was shot to death with her baby. The suspect is her boyfriend, Terence Nelson, who reportedly was enraged at her refusal to have an abortion.
Pro-lifers and pro-choicers in the U.S. are bickering over whose side has the most martyrs and whose has the most blood on its hands. This is disrespectful towards the dead. It is also unfortunate and unnecessary and could even set the stage for further homicides. Unfortunately we cannot join together in raising the dead. Yet there are many other and better responses that both "sides" can together have to abortion war killings.
We can listen more respectfully and profoundly to one another and our self-definitions. In response to Pouillon’s murder, or that of Tonya Johnson, many pro-choicers feel a deep, visceral sense that this action is dissonant with their movement and their values. This is exactly how peaceful abortion opponents —the vast majority— feel about the killings of abortion providers. No one wants to be blamed for or associated with actions they deem antithetical to their most cherished values.
And if neither “side” is about killing those who disagree, what, then, are pro-lifers and pro-choicers each about, as they themselves see it?
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Pro-lifers say they are about respecting life, which can and often does encompass respect for women’s right to make non-abortion choices. Pro-choicers say they are about fostering sexual/reproductive choice, which to their view is crucial to respect for life, especially women’s lives.
In other words: there is a lot of overlap possible here. If we approach one another not only without weaponry, but with active, outspoken disavowal of weaponry, we are all the more readily to discover and build upon those areas of overlap.
We can– and must!–cooperate in the prevention of further homicides. Living as I do in an urban neighborhood with
rampant gun violence, I cannot help but relate all the abortion war killings over the decades to the larger picture of gun violence in the U.S., to the thousands of deaths and injuries annually. Bringing up gun control in the context of abortion may have the sound of pouring gasoline onto an already raging fire. I do acknowledge that this is
tricky. There are many pro-choice liberals who support gun control and pro-life conservatives who oppose it. There are also pro-choicers who invoke gun rights out of respect for personal choice, and pro-lifers like me who support gun control out of respect for life.
But no matter how tricky it may be, if we all agree that killing one another is not the way to address our disagreements, we must therefore assume the responsibility to prevent further killings. Even if we are not personally
responsible for the homicides themselves in any way! That means personally committing to alleviate the reality of gun violence, or, as some would have it, the reality of people who abuse their Second Amendment freedoms.
Now, I passionately advocate gun control and my vision of reverence for life goes beyond humans, born and unborn, to eco advocacy, vegetarianism, and a general opposition to hunting and fishing. But no doubt, along with
like-minded pro-lifers, and pro-choice gun control advocates, there are also avid hunters, fishers, and gun bearers, both pro-life and pro-choice, who ask the same question as I do: How did people like suspects Scott Roeder, Harlan Drake, and Terence Nelson get their hands on guns? How is it that their plans for violence were not thwarted in time?
Even those of us who are sickened beyond measure at even the thought of wounding or killing must deal with such questions.
We can find reciprocally acceptable ways to disagree with one another. Not killing one another is the most basic
and necessary form of nonviolence between pro-choice and pro-life. But the practice of nonviolence towards one another hardly stops there. Nonviolence needs also to be present in our speech towards one another. Without treading on one another’s freedoms of speech and association, pro-lifers
and pro-choicers need to work out a better understanding of how to express our disagreements.
How to begin or continue in that process?
Pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike have had quite parallel reactions to Jim Pouillon’s killing: a combination of horror over his murder and profound objection to his particular
means of protesting abortion. No doubt to the immense relief of pro-choicers, I am one of many pro-lifers who object to the indiscriminate brandishing of giant, bloody fetus photos in the public space. Yes, disturbing images are
a valid part of many political causes, including the peace movement, and eco advocacy/animal rights. Pro-choicers themselves sometimes resort to coat hanger imagery to convey the urgency of their cause.
I am not advocating legal censorship by any means, but I personally think it is better, in general, for activists to offer people a choice about whether, when, and where to view such images. Fear and disgust are not the only or even the most positive ways to appeal to people’s hearts and minds anyway, especially in a culture that is so deeply polarized and already saturated to
the point of desensitization with graphic images.
Even as I am sickened by Pouillon’s murder, even as I oppose abortion, and even as I understand the desperation and despair of some protestors who feel that no one really cares enough about a matter of life and death…I would recommend something different for people who wish to protest abortion in any sign-holding kind of way—by no means the only way to take real action. They can stand quietly under placards that non-judgmentally offer substantive help with preventing and going through with difficult pregnancies.
And they must be fully prepared to give such help at every level from the individual to the global—whether they pass
out condoms; offer to personally pay a woman’s back rent or offer her an open adoption of her child; give referrals to sound programs, including ethically run pro-life pregnancy
centers, that aid with basic needs like food, clothing, shelter, and health care; gather signatures in support of prenatal care coverage, birth mother’s rights, or UNFPA funding; and/or do something else. I know many pro-lifers who commit such deeds constantly, but behind the scenes. Pro-choicers who truly believe in choice also are deeply engaged in creating and offering the other choices.
Since the shooting, Pouillon’s son James M. Puillon has come forward and stated that the murdered protestor was not motivated by concern for the unborn, but by hostility and violence towards women, including his late ex-wife. If this characterization is indeed true, it raises another, connected issue around bringing anti-abortion beliefs into the public sphere.
Pro-life and pro-choice do have valid disagreements over the exact parameters of universal human rights in regard to abortion. But even as we apply a universal human rights approach differently, we can agree that hatred of women has no place on either; whether the misogyny hides behind an allegedly pro-life but woman-blaming “concern” for unborn children, or whether it hypocritically seeks to clothe male coercion and violence in the rhetoric of pro-choice.
When we agree on the importance of women’s rights, we can cooperate on alleviating such unfortunately widespread problems as the heightened rate of domestic violence during pregnancy. We can and must ensure that no more pregnant
women and their babies suffer injury and even death, whether the perpetrators have the motive of coerced abortion or another motive.
We can and must draw on wisdom such as that gathered by the kNOw MORE campaign of the Family Violence Prevention Fund, which documents the links among domestic violence and reproductive health dilemmas like unintended pregnancy, abortion, and unsupported motherhood.
The rights and well-being of women from a universal human rights perspective, open to people of all faiths and none, must be central to abortion discourse, or we will go nowhere.
We may not agree precisely about the nature and status of prenatal lives, or about the roles of abortion in female lives and welfare, but we are disagreeing within a shared and humane framework that highlights commonalities. As a pro-lifer, I am also well aware that if one wishes to help the unborn, then one must attend abundantly and simultaneously to the needs of the already born too, especially women. Pitting the unborn against the born, as if
prenatal lives just simply floated around in the air somewhere and then mattered no more after their purportedly invisible, inert mothers birthed them…that does not help a soul.
A universal human rights approach also brings something else quite valuable to common ground. Throughout almost all the world–most thankfully, in my personal, abolitionist view—this framework rejects the death penalty as a solution to societal problems and conflicts, whether it is administered by vigilantes or through legal due process.
cannot claim to have all the answers. But I do know that if pro-lifers and pro-choicers get further and further caught up in ad hominem arguments over who is more bloodthirsty, we will harden even further against one another. Meaning that violence becomes more likely to happen again in the name of the abortion war, even if we fervently hope that it does not.