It is neither incidental nor surprising that a gunman killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic on Friday. The fact that this statement is a truism is a reflection of our collective ability to recognize the abortion debate, and particularly the anti-abortion position, as a locus of terror and terrorism in this country.
While I think its fine that the police don’t want to speculate about his motives, most of the country is pretty sure we know why a middle-aged white man would open fire in a Planned Parenthood clinic. After all, not only do white men dominate anti-choice demonstrations, they are also often the face of the anti-choice movement. Since 1977, eight doctors and clinic staff have been killed. Additionally, there have been an 17 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 186 arson attacks, and thousands of violent threats directed toward health care clinics that provide abortion services.
It is beyond comprehension to me that our collective cultural xenophobia has allowed our government to develop massive surveillance techniques that seek to protect us from Islamic extremists while the very real threat to hundreds of thousands of women and their health care providers is inadequately addressed, shielded behind a veil of “free speech.”
Yes, I’m all for free speech. Yes, I like living in the United States. Yes, I’m a huge fan of democracy.
And yet, you still can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. Free speech is not absolute.
We are smart enough as a people and a nation to figure out real and credible threats and to protect our citizens from them. Yet for some reason, the Supreme Court and popular opinion seem to think that allowing protestors to harass and intimidate women pursuing their legal right to health care is okay. Our tacit acceptance of the vilification of a targeted group of people has contributed to the rise of a culture of domestic terrorism aimed at abortion providers and patients. In any circumstance other than abortion the sort of targeted abuse and harassment aimed at women seeking abortions would not be tolerated, particularly under the implicit threat of violence that dominates the anti-abortion movement.
Yes, it does seem clear that this particular gunman had “issues” with sociability. It also appears that he may have muttered something about “no more baby parts” in a rambling interview with authorities. While it is, as yet, impossible to identify who will become a “lone gunman,” it is not impossible to identify women’s health care clinics that provide abortions as clear targets of violence. The repeated targeting, harassment, and murder of doctors and clinic staff who assist women in ending unwanted pregnancies is a clear tactic of terror. It is intended to engender fear in health care professionals in order to reduce women’s access to abortion.
Abortion is legal in this country. The fact that seventy-eight percent of US Americans agree that it should be legal is a testimony to our ability as a nation to recognize that sometimes there are pregnancies that need to end.
Twenty-five years ago I was a clinic escort at an abortion clinic. I helped women navigate the hateful invectives thrown at them from self-proclaimed Christians who gathered at our clinic to bully women into changing their minds or, short of that, to at least feel bad about themselves for their moral decisions.
I, too, am a Christian. I did not recognize in many of these protestors the values of compassion, neighbor-love, charity, and solidarity that are fundamental to my understanding of what it means to follow Christ. As a Christian who believes that parenting is a sacred covenant that should only be embraced and entered into when one is ready, willing, and able to be a parent. I was there to stand in solidarity with my sisters who were making difficult decisions in the middle of stressful and complex personal situations.
As hateful as those protestors were, I never feared for my life. The culture of shaming and intimidation that existed twenty-five years ago was mean-spirited and cruel but it was not terrorism. A movement of violent extremism in the 1990s fueled a spate of clinic bombings and murders that began a reign of terror aimed at women who choose abortion and their health care providers.Four doctors have been murdered. The last one, George Tiller, was gunned down in the middle of his own church service on a Sunday morning as he served as an usher. Tiller was an amazing physician and a compassionate human being who recognized the way in which radical Christian groups sought to politicize the abortion debate and to terrorize women and health care providers. He recognized the dire circumstances of women who needed late-term abortions faced and he sought to provide access to those women in an attempt to fulfill his calling as a ob-gyn and a physician committed to caring for women’s health.
Willie Parker, is another outstanding physician and moral exemplar in the medical community. He recently wrote about how his medical career is an attempt to live out his calling as a Christian.
Ultimately, reading a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged me to a deeper spiritual understanding. I was moved by his discussion of the quality of the good Samaritan and of what made the Samaritan “good.” The Samaritan reversed the question of concern, to care more about the well-being of the person needing help than about what might happen to him for stopping to give help. I realized that if I were to show compassion, I would have to act on behalf of those women. My concern about women who lacked access to abortion became more important to me than worrying about what might happen to me for providing the services.
The culture of terror, shame, and fear that right-wing anti-choice extremists have shaped in this country is undeniable. Some pro-life Christians do denounce the violence within the movement and my fellow Patheos blogger Benjamin L. Corey recently called the movement to task to embrace a truly comprehensive pro-life ethic.
The truth is, all Christians, pro-life and pro-choice, need to change our behavior when it comes to the issue of abortion.
First, pro-life Christians need to rally behind Corey’s call and transform their movement from a culture of shaming, misogyny, and terror to a culture of compassion and problem-solving. Abortion will never be eliminated because sometimes pregnancies need to be ended, but comprehensive free-access to long-acting contraception would reduce the unintended pregnancy rate and thus the abortion rate precipitously. And yet, too many pro-life Christians oppose the very measures that would most effectively reduce abortion rates.
Second, pro-choice Christians need to speak up more loudly and more publicly in support of women’s access to abortion as part of our understanding of who we are as Christians. There are many reasons Christians support abortion – many of us do not believe “life begins at conception;” many of us approach parenting from the theological perspective of covenant relationship, something that must be entered into willingly; many of us believe that forcing women to gestate and bear children they don’t want is a violation of the sanctity of a woman’s life and the sacredness of her body. There are so many reasons Christians support a woman’s access to abortion, and yet, too few Christians speak about this issue as a matter of faith.
Clinic violence is neither random nor adequately chalked up to mentally ill lone gunmen. Violence against women who seek abortions and their providers is intentional, targeted, and intended to influence the behavior of individuals (patients and health care providers). Violence against physicians and clinics who provide abortions is intended to send a clear political message of intimidation and it creates an atmosphere of harassment and shame. This is the very definition of terrorism.
While the question of women’s legal access to abortion was settled forty years ago, our country continues to agonize over what to think about the morality of abortion. Public debates about moral questions can be important avenues for developing broad public consensus around these questions. More Christians should engage one another is meaningful discussions about how our faith informs our position on this issue. However, it is impossible for healthy public debate to occur in the midst of a climate of terror.
Its time our government – legislators, judges, and all those in a position to protect the public – stood up and addressed the reality of anti-abortion terrorism that plagues our nation.