Terrorism and the Pro-Life Movement


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.

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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  • invalid-0

    This Dr Tiller was just a wonderful hero for us today and its okay to kill babies for whatever reason. Oh, okay.

  • invalid-0

    It seems so paradoxical to murder someone because tyou think murder is wrong, the idea is wholly inconsistent with the “pro-life” descriptor adopted by this movement. Inflammatory rhetoric and acts of violence do have political effects. Yet, people like Tiller and his unwillingness to backdown in the face of certain death are examples of the power of advocacy. This news story has Tiller talking about why he did what he did as well as multiple viewpoints on the abortion debate: http://www.newsy.com/videos/the_killing_of_george_tiller

  • invalid-0

    It is an apt, and interesting parallel that you draw between the intimidation of abortion providers and the intimidation of Blacks in the South. We would indeed be somewhere still around the turn of the (19th/20th) century, comparatively. I hope there are some useful lessons that can be applied from that study of history, and look forward to the day when anti-abortion rhetoric is a popular and political taboo the way racist rhetoric (remember “macaca?”) is today.

  • invalid-0

    Kathleen, thanks for proving that “pro-choice” and “common ground” and “change” are myths. At least the present calls for common ground and working together. You’ve proven that the only objective of the “pro-choice” movement is to demonize pro-life people. When the next incidence of violence takes place against pro-life people, you are the one to blame. You have gone beyond heated rhetoric to pure hatred with your accusations in this piece. Scary to think just how much you hate most Americans. Hate is not a family value, Kathleen.

  • invalid-0

    I wasn’t aware that there had been any Pro-Life people assassinated for their beliefs. When did this happen?

  • invalid-0

    The pro-life movement has repeatedly characterized abortion doctors as mass murderers, has targeted their clinics, staff, clinical equipment, homes, cars, churches — they have repeatedly resorted to violence, from sabotage to death threats to shootings. Dr. Tiller’s killer hardly acted alone. He was simply the arrow that was shot from a culture and a climate of violence created by the pro-life movement.

  • invalid-0

    There are numerous ways to attempt to silence and censor the voice of critics. My opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have earned me the label “unpatriotic.” According to my critics, if I speak out against the war, I speak out against the troops. And if I speak out against the troops, I lower their morale and become responsible for whatever horrors befall them. I am also critical of the Israeli occupation of the Gaza strip (as much as the terrorism from Palestinian radicals), a position for which critics have labeled me “anti-Semitic.” Suddenly I’m a racist for standing up for basic human rights. And now, because I say publicly that abortion involves the unjust killings of human beings, I have to take responsibility for an independently acting anti-government militia man, whose ex-wife has reported suffered from symptoms of mental illness, who chose to commit a gruesome murder?

    Let’s make one thing clear. This nation’s pro-life majority is no more responsible for Roeder’s actions than environmentalists are for Ted Kazcynski or the members of the Earth Liberation Front.

    This hackneyed argument–i.e. “You’re responsible for the violence unless you censor your speech”–has been articulately rebutted:
    http://www.prolifetraining.com/Articles/rhetoric.htm

    In the past, when such abhorrent acts against abortionists were committed, our opponents would exploit and–dare I say it?–even delight in the tragedy as a means of, to quote the aforementioned link, “[scoring] cheap political points.” Let’s hope that with Tiller’s horrific murder, history doesn’t repeat itself.

  • invalid-0

    So the rhetoric spouted by the KKK had no effect on whether Black people were attacked and murdered and Hitler’s rhetoric didn’t have anything to do with whether the concentration camps filled up because even though they SAID that some people didn’t deserve to live and should be ‘eliminated’ from society, they really didn’t think anyone would take them seriously?

    Your statement that “abortion involves the unjust killings of human beings” is just a rephrasing of the ‘murderer’ slander. Dr. Tiller was performing a LEGAL service which his patients asked him to perform. Since you don’t know the circumstances of those patients, the reasons the patients were there, the health condition of those fetuses or the pregnant woemn, there is no way for you to leap to the conclusion that it was ‘unjust’ any more than you can decide whether or not a spontaneous miscarriage or stillbirth is ‘unjust’.

  • progo35

    I guess the anti war movement/left is responsible for the recent shooting of a soldier at a recruiting station…after all, some did say that our troops were no better than terrorists and killed civilians…I guess it’s okay to blame those of you supporting the anti war movement for that murder, so, if you’re going to continue to blame me and other pro lifers for Tiller’s murder, I will!

    "Well behaved women seldom make history."-Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

  • emma

    I cannot believe some of the comments around this site. An anti-choice psychopath murders a doctor who saved women’s lives every day, and the anti-choicers are whimpering about how they’re being unfairly maligned when it’s pointed out that they have violent people within their movement and that their rhetoric has contributed to the doctor’s murder.

    My god. The persecution complex, the martyrdom…it’s almost impressive.

  • invalid-0

    This. When have pro-choicers bombed churches or crisis pregnancy centers?

  • http://www.cdwow.com/CD/ROB-THOMAS-Cradlesong/product/view/9017117 invalid-0

    I would blame O’Rilley. He is not the one who did it but in a way he is an accessory to the murder. He created a public opinion that demonized George Tiller.