The murder of Dr. George Tiller yesterday in the middle of Sunday services at his church in Kansas has been generally deplored by people on all sides of the abortion issue (some rather less convincingly than others). But it’s time to come to grips with the fact that violence against abortion providers is always a strong possibility, and is very likely to get worse.
While it’s not right to hold anti-abortion activists generally responsible for such acts of violence, there is no getting around what Damon Linker, an expert on the Cultural Right, calls the “radicalizing logic of pro-life rhetoric:”
If abortion truly is what the pro-life movement says it is — if it is the infliction of deadly violence against an innocent and defenseless human being — then doesn’t morality demand that pro-lifers act in any way they can to stop this violence? I mean, if I believed that a guy working in an office down the street was murdering innocent and defenseless human beings every day, and the governing authorities repeatedly refused to intervene on behalf of the victims, I might feel compelled to do something about it, perhaps even something unreasonable and irresponsible. Wouldn’t you?
This is the radicalizing logic of pro-life rhetoric.
I’d go a little further than Linker here. It’s important to remember that to sincere hard-core right-to-lifers, we are currently living in the moral equivalent to the Third Reich, happily conducting an annual Holocaust of murder; abortion clinics are death camps; Obama is Hitler; the Democratic Party is the Nazi Party; anti-abortion activists are the German Confessing Church or The Resistance; most Americans are either Nazis or complicit by laziness in monstrous evil. And if I shared their core premise that a fetus at any stage of development and under any circumstance is equivalent to a Jew being herded onto trains and sent to Auschwitz, and if I could somehow ignore the whole issue of the wishes and interests of that fetus’ mother, I’d probably feel the same way–pretty violently.
There’s a tendency of many pro-choice Americans to deny this “radicalizing logic,” in favor of dismissive theories that people who say they oppose abortion in all cases are just lying, or are hypocrites, or are misogynists, or are just culturally reactionary, or are terrified by sexuality. Some of them may be all these things, but there’s no reason to believe that many of these people aren’t sincere in their position on fetal life, and on the goal of ending legalized abortion as the alpha and omega of their own civic life. And so long as that is true, there will always be a significant risk of violence, particularly right now, when it’s beginning to sink in that the tantalizing possibility of overturning Roe v. Wade through Republican Supreme Court appointments is receding into the far distance.
But aside from efforts to brush away anti-abortion activists as yesterday’s news, there’s another misconception that must be addressed in the wake of Tiller’s murder: the idea that a “compromise” on abortion policy that eliminates “controversial” abortions like those performed by Tiller will make the risk of violence–yea, even the conflicts over abortion–go away. That is dangerous nonsense.
To anyone who really takes seriously the belief that (as articulated in the Republican National Convention Platform of 2008) “life begins at conception” and should be protected by law from that point, there is literally no difference in moral quality between the late-term abortions performed (where justified by health concerns) by George Tiller and any other abortion at any stage of pregnancy. And indeed, from that point of view, a woman taking a Plan B pill, if she has actually conceived (according to a very strict definition of that term), is just as much a “murderer” as Tiller, and just as deserving of violent intervention on her “victim’s” behalf, or of punishment. The only real difference is that Tiller, like every other abortion provider on the planet, is a “mass murderer,” so stopping him–by legal or illegal means–is relatively more justified and will have a more salutory effect.
But “compromising” to outlaw “disturbing” abortions like those performed by Tiller just eliminates one mass murderer among many hundreds, from the serious RTL perspective. And the whole focus on relatively rare late-term abortions or on very rare intact dilation and extraction procedures–a.k.a. “partial-birth” abortions–by anti-abortionists is just tactical propaganda aimed at the mushy middle of abortion opinion. Demonizing George Tiller as opposed to any other “mass murderer,” or for that matter, waving fetus posters, is simply intended to create a “wedge” whereby the population is “educated” in the direction of opposing abortions generally.
So for pro-choice Americans, regardless of their exact position on abortion, the idea that “compromise” can end violence or even “end the culture wars” over abortion is completely illusory and arguably immoral, if you believe that women should generally have first and final say over their own pregnancies. Sacrificing fundamental rights on the altar of phony “compromises” is, by most standards, both immoral and ineffective, as Americans learned in the long run-up to the Civil War.
So what is to be done about the risk of violence? Ann Friedman at The American Prospect suggests today that the Justice Department reactivate a task force on violence against health care providers that was created under the Clinton administration but shelved under Bush.
That makes sense. It also makes sense to pay anti-abortion activists the respect of taking seriously their radical views, and even of defending their right to express them in ways that don’t threaten or intimidate, much less shoot and kill, abortion providers or the women who have every right to obtain their services. The “radicalizing logic” of the the right-to-life movement isn’t going away and can’t be abetted short of surrender. We all need to learn to live with that reality, and try to keep the peace as best we can.