It is three days since Dr George Tiller, specialist in late-term abortions, was fatally shot at a Kansas church, and accusations and press releases are still flying. The pro-life movement stands accused of setting the stage for the murder of Dr Tiller through its campaign against him and abortion in general. The movement is going all-out to denounce the killing and the use of violence in any form as a strategy in its struggle against abortion. But it is a tough PR challenge. Unborn children aside, pro-choice activists don’t kill their antagonists; pro-life activists sometimes do.
The fact that these killers are mentally ill, like the prime suspect in the Tiller case, Scott Roeder, or that the worst anti-abortion rhetoric comes from talk show hosts like Bill O’Reilly and not from the leaders of the pro-life groups, is held to be no excuse. The madmen would lack a target, the radio and television ranters would lack a platform, if there wasn’t a pro-life movement — or at least one that meant business. That’s the message.
But how would that message work in another context? Take Abu Ghraib, the Baghdad prison where some American soldiers tortured and abused Iraqi captives. Because Charles Graner, Lynndie England and others tormented and humiliated prisoners, should we conclude that the whole US Army in Iraq was corrupt? Or that the US Army, period, is a big mistake, and that America should never fight wars?
Or, was the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s an aberration because it led to race riots and gangs? Should there never have been institutional homes for children because in some of those places children were abused?
Every movement, if it lasts long enough, has its lunatic fringe; every institution has its bad eggs — a small number of people who, given the opportunity or the pressures, will break the rules and betray the ideals of the organisation. George Tiller’s death is the pro-life movement’s Abu Ghraib, the work of an individual who understood nothing about the cause he attached himself to, just as the guilty soldiers were unfit for their military role.
Such disasters are, however, an opportunity for the institution or cause to examine itself and see if there is anything it can do to prevent a repetition. In other words, it may be a good moment for pro-life groups to consider some of the accusations calmly rather than rejecting them out of hand. Is the rhetoric too shrill at times? Is there too much focus on individuals like Dr Tiller, to the extent of demonising them in the eyes of naïve or disturbed persons? Are groups careful enough about where they find their support?
These are difficult questions because the cause — the right of a living human being to be born — is so hugely important. And asking them does not mean that the answers have to be “yes”. President Obama appeals for “fair-minded words” from the opposing sides on abortion. Is that really possible? Can one discuss the deliberate killing of millions upon millions of our little brothers and sisters in anything other than the most urgent and even fiery terms? Let’s not forget, either, that the pro-life movement’s work extends far beyond passionate rhetoric to countless initiatives for assisting pregnant mothers.
One more thing. What about America’s famous love affair with free speech? Even those who defend abortion can see that the outcry against the likes of Bill O’Reilly contains a kind of censoriousness that would not be tolerated in connection with any “liberal” cause. Here’s a staunch pro-choicer talking:
“I fully support a woman's right to choose abortion, including late-term abortion. I also find O'Reilly's rants and those anti-abortion websites nauseating. But the best way to make the case for the right to choose is not to criminalize the speech of the anti-abortion lobby, but to inject public debate with more and more convincing arguments for abortion rights. In short, we need more "extremely vivid" speech, not less.”
Well, the pro-abortion movement (and remember, they started this whole culture war) had its moment of vivid speech — stories about back-street abortions and women bleeding to death or dying from septicemia, desperate women with drunken husbands and numerous children they could already hardly provide for… But today’s propagandists have to go to third world countries to conjure up scenarios like that. Abortion in the first world has long been a matter of mere “choice” — a word that perfectly expresses the soulless utilitarianism of its leading advocates. How it can be made more morally convincing, let alone “extremely vivid”, is hard to imagine.
Vivid language is natural to the pro-life movement because abortion is always literally a matter of life and death: the lives of others, of tiny dependent members of the human family whose lives end in dismemberment and the shedding of blood and the suddenly empty, scraped wombs of their mothers. This is simply the truth.
If the casual acceptance of this sort of killing drives some people mad, if it attracts mad people, if it provokes ranting and raving on the airwaves, if it even drives some to kill, should anyone really be surprised?
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.