I can’t remember when or why I initially friended the American Life League on Facebook, but here they are, popping up in my newsfeed periodically to tell me about the many and varied ways the premarital sex-having-sluts of America are murdering their young en masse, guided predominantly by the heathen-begloved hand of Planned Parenthood, which gleefully holds secret abortion parties behind closed doors.
Perhaps it’s rude or callous of me to admit that part of the reason I haven’t un-friended the American Life League is because I find their posts somewhat funny. Or quaint? Even comforting? I can’t put my finger on it–all I know is that I used to be a pro-life Republican, myself, and there’s something about the ALL Facebook page that’s a little bit like going back and reading your diary from junior high, even the pages with the awful angsty poetry.
But mainly the reason I can’t un-friend the American Life League is because I don’t want to miss another opportunity to comment on their periodic What Would You Do?-style posts that ask followers what they might do, personally, if horrific things happened to them–horrific things like a doctor who performs abortions living in their neighborhood, or Planned Parenthood having a booth at the county fair. Truly, nightmares abound:
I’ve taken advantage of a couple of opportunities to add my two cents–I mean after all, they did ask. So “If I found out my next door neighbor was an abortionist …” I wrote that “it would be none of my damned business?” And “If I went to the county fair and found out Planned Parenthood had an information booth, I would … ” I told them I’d “keep eating my funnel cake and check out the pig races, maybe grab a deep-fried Oreo. After that I would hit the midway and try to win a big stuffed animal. I’m scared of ferris wheels so I wouldn’t go on that, but probably I would ride Techno Power, because man is that thing fast!”
I’ll be real with y’all: there’s nothing like a little light trolling to make the minutes until happy hour tick away a little faster. Unfortunately, there’s also nothing like someone throwing a homemade bomb at a North Texas Planned Parenthood clinic to make me wonder if there’s something more to those What Would You Do?-style posts. Something a little more sinister.
Here’s what happened: in late July, someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the front door of the Planned Parenthood clinic in McKinney, Texas, which is an affluent far-north suburb of Dallas, the kind of small town with an adorable and artsy town square, highway-flanking McMansions and a lot of SUV’s. It happened at night, and no one was injured. There was no serious structural damage, either. Just another blip on the busy radar of “pro-life” folks committing violent acts, including murder, against abortion providers.
Except, of course, that the McKinney Planned Parenthood clinic doesn’t provide abortions. Now, that doesn’t prevent an American Life League commenter from saying, “The clinic in McKinney (which isn’t too far from where I live) is obviously hiding the fact that they perform abortions yet don’t want to admit it.” And it doesn’t prevent the American Life League from not correcting that commenter even though they think a Forbes blogger writing about ALL protesters and the bombing in the same post is a “lame attempt to tie firebombing Texas PP clinic with ALL.” I’m just saying–if I were the ALL and I wanted people to think I didn’t condone anti-choice violence, I’d probably at least say something like “Even if they are providing abortions in secret, it’s still not okay to bomb them, y’all.” Instead of staying silent when a commenter basically says Planned Parenthood was kind of asking for it.
Why do I even care that the ALL didn’t really bother to engage with this commenter? Because the ALL regularly encourages people on their Facebook page, through these What Would You Do? posts, to speak out about what individual action they would take if pro-choice people and organizations live their lives in the same world anti-choice people and organizations live in.
Not what they would do if pro-choice people set up camp outside their anti-choice houses and businesses and protested their anti-choice beliefs. Not what they would do if pro-choice people tried to ensure that all pregnant women had abortions. Not what they would do if pro-choice people followed anti-choice activists around in their cars to track their movements. No, they’re asking what they would do if pro-choice people did things people have a right to do, which is set up a booth at the fair, among a gazillion other booths, or live in a house on a street, among a gazillion other houses.
Am I the only one who sees a link between the American Life League-goading Facebook followers into sharing their anti-choice savior fantasies and, well, firebombing a Planned Parenthood clinic? No, it’s not direct, but I do think it’s there if we look at the idea of vigilante justice and how people inclined toward that kind of behavior might be encouraged to make it happen in practice. Yes, many times American Life League commenters respond to these What Would You Do? posts by saying they’d do little more than pray, or show off their pro-life t-shirt.
But some responses are more forceful and intrusive. Even vaguely threatening. Commenters talk about waving a pregnant belly in people’s faces, or parading their kids by in some kind of bizarre attempt at using children as little human guilt trips. Others talk about taking information pamphlets and throwing them away. Knocking on doors repeatedly to try and change folks’ minds. Turning yard signs into billboards. One commenter wrote an especially chilling response to what he’d do with a neighbor abortion doctor: “Best I not say….”
To be clear: I am not saying the American Life League had anything to do with this bombing in McKinney, or any bombing or instance of anti-choice violence whatsoever. There is certainly no evidence to support that. None at all. Zero. While the group does protest clinics, there is no evidence that suggests they had anything to do with protesters seen at that Planned Parenthood on the day of the bombing.
But there is evidence to support a mindset that seems dangerous to me: one that encourages individual people to take independent action to impose themselves upon the freedoms of law-abiding, own-business-minding people. It brings to mind the saying: “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” With these What Would You Do? posts, the American Life League is encouraging folks to perceive the line between fist and nose as remarkably thin. Maybe non-existent.
I am not saying that anti-choice activists do not have a right to lawfully protest and speak out in favor of a cause they believe in, or that they should not donate money and time to organizations they believe speak for them and their beliefs and their families. They can and should do that as American citizens, just as pro-choice activists, or any other kind of activists, should do–peacefully and respectfully, and without harm. However, I see a difference between, say, a Walk For Choice rally or Pro-Life t-shirt week and a group encouraging individuals to personally ensure some kind of justice is done, or action is taken, against other–again, law-abiding, demonstrably unobtrusive–individuals or small groups on their property or to their property. Like, for example, a neighbor or couple of volunteers at a county fair booth. Just as one doesn’t have to befriend every neighbor, one doesn’t have to visit every booth at the fair. One can proceed to Techno Power without trying to save a soul.
Of course, the soul-saving is to some degree part of the problem. Evangelical Christianity is, by definition, predicated on bringing other people into the fold. In fact, most denominations of Christianity encourage and even require this of their followers. Spreading the “good news” is part and parcel of calling oneself a Christian. A negative side-effect of that is the extent to which many Christians consider other people’s personal lives–especially their sexual lives and health–the group or church’s business as a whole. What I learned about bodily autonomy, for example, in my nice, liberal church youth group was that I didn’t really have any: “I spent my formative years believing my body, my life and my choices were not my own, but a kind of joint property between myself, God, my parents and my church friends and family.”
When people believe there is no body–no physical body–that they do not have a right to manage or attempt to manage based on what they believe to be the word of God, it seems to me that there is very little that stands between shouting a Bible verse, throwing away an STI information pamphlet and “Best I not say ….”