we forever go to extremes over abortion?
May 31, Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed while serving
as an usher at his church in Witchita, Kan. The OB/GYN was
one of only a few doctors nationwide who openly provided late-term
abortions, which resultingly established Tiller as a target
of radical anti-abortion groups. His clinic was the site of
daily protests, and in 1993 he survived an assasination attempt.
Anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder has been charged with
first degree murder and aggravated assault in connection with
Tiller’s death has thrust the 36-years-long debate surrounding
abortion rights provided under Roe v. Wade back into
the political forefront. The following two pieces offer perspectives
on the clandestine support network for anti-abortion violence,
and the nature of the abortion debate and how the author thinks
it could be transformed for the better.
Are Not Alone
to media characterizations of “lone nuts,” evidence shows
that people who commit anti-abortion violence typically are
backed by an underground support network
been more than a decade since I’ve covered a murder of an
abortion provider. But I can’t say I was surprised by the
horrifying news of Dr. George Tiller’s May 31 killing. The
threat has been ever-present, sometimes quietly, sometimes
dramatically. Abortion providers and abortion rights organizations
remember well how Clayton Waagner spent nine months threatening
to shoot clinic workers and mailing anthrax threats to hundreds
of clinics and abortion rights organizations in 2001 and 2002.
Now, newsgathering on Tiller’s murder is intense, and there
is much that can’t be known about the circumstances. But,
as the coverage unfolds, those searching for clear-cut justice
at the end of this ghastly murder shouldn’t hold their breath.
Political crimes like the assassination of Tiller are messy
affairs. That has certainly been true in the case of the 30-year
history of anti-abortion bombings, arsons and assassinations.
Media coverage of these crimes over the years has tended to
be partial and not particularly well-informed. But times have
changed, and we are already experiencing a deluge of mainstream
press and blog coverage.
Here are a few things to help a reader sort through the likely
frustrations of an investigation of a political crime in a
white-hot media environment.
Few major anti-abortion crimes are carried out by lone nuts.
In fact, the known perpetrators have historically been neither
nuts nor alone. The crimes are generally well-planned and
involve a number of people who provide varying degrees of
support before and after the fact, witting or unwitting.
Tiller was the victim of a previous assassination attempt
in which he was wounded in both arms. His assailant was the
then-Oregon-based Rachelle “Shelly” Shannon, a longtime anti-abortion
militant who had previously protested at Tiller’s clinic and
knew the layout. In the wake of her arrest, the feds dug up
from her backyard the first real evidence of the existence
of the underground Army of God in the form of the Army
of God Manual, which detailed how to engage in attacks
on clinics and staff. Shannon had traveled the west in a remarkable
crime spree, squirting butyric acid into clinics (which produces
a horrifying, unbearable stench) and committing a series of
arsons. Among her unindicted co-conspirators was a couple
who provided a safe house on her journeys, as well as gas
cans later used in the arson.
Prosecutors do not always have enough evidence to prove that
such people are witting participants in the crimes. But this
is no surprise. We are familiar with such underground networks
from real and fictional stories of criminal gangs and covert
intelligence operations. People understand that information
is often on a need-to-know basis and, often, the less one
knows, the better for everyone.
[On April 10, 2003, Darryl McGrath reported in Metroland
on the conviction of James Kopp for the 1998 murder of Dr.
Barnett Slepian in Buffalo. McGrath’s story also reported
that a New York city couple, Loretta Claire Marra and Dennis
Malvasi, had been accused by federal authorities of harboring
Kopp in their home and helping him flee the country. Several
months after the Metroland story, Marra and Malvasi
pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy, were sentenced
to time served, and were released.]
Tiller’s death will be ruled, legally speaking, as a homicide
or murder, and the criminal case will necessarily be based
on a set of forensic evidence. Such findings may or may not
determine whether the suspect, Scott Roeder, acted alone and
why. But premature conclusions that the alleged shooter acted
alone are just that, premature.
This was no ordinary high-profile murder. This one was politically
charged, and may fairly be called an assassination. Tiller,
after all, has been a prime strategic target of the full range
of the anti-abortion movement for a generation. His clinic
has been bombed, burned and vandalized (as recently as early
May) in addition to the previous attempt on Tiller’s life.
Unsurprisingly, the Army of God is celebrating; stating at
the top of its Web site: “The lives of innocent babies scheduled
to be murdered by George Tiller are spared by the action of
American hero Scott Roeder. George Tiller the Babykiller reaped
what he sowed and is now in eternal hell.”
Political statements of pro-choice and anti-abortion groups
also demonstrate the political context of this crime. Pro-choice
groups immediately denounced the inflammatory rhetoric against
abortion providers in general and Tiller in particular. Anti-abortion
leaders are worried that the murder will reflect poorly on
Tiller was a mass murderer and we cannot stop saying that,”
Randall Terry, the former head of Operation Rescue told the
Associated Press. Terry said he was now concerned that the
Obama administration “will use Tiller’s killing to intimidate
pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and
actions.” (Operation Rescue was the premiere militant direct-action
group of the 1980s, conducting massive and often violent protests.
It has since fractured and consists of smaller, but no-less-dedicated
groups around the country.)
Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition told the
AP, “I’d hope they wouldn’t try to broad-brush the entire
pro-life movement as some sort of extremist movement because
of what happened in Wichita.”
Anniversaries are important to those engaged in long-term
revolutionary struggles, including those on the American far
right. Tim McVeigh, for example, blew up the Oklahoma City
federal building in 1995 on the anniversary of the federal
assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.
It may be no coincidence that Tiller’s assassination occurred
on the sixth anniversary of the capture of Eric Rudolph, who
was convicted of pipe bombings at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics,
a gay bar, and two abortion clinics. Rudolph’s bombing of
the clinic in Birmingham, Ala., resulted in the death of an
off-duty police officer and the horrible maiming of a nurse.
(The pipe bombs were packed with nails, which functioned as
This context becomes significant because Roeder, the suspect
in Tiller’s killing, was, according to a McClatchey newspapers
report, affiliated with the “Freemen,” a far-right movement
that does not recognize the legitimacy of the government of
the United States and whose members declare themselves “sovereign
citizens.” These people, in turn, provided the hard core of
the militia movement in the 1990s.
In 1996, Roeder was arrested while driving a car without a
license plate (sovereign citizens don’t believe in such things
as driver’s and marriage licenses). Officers found bomb-making
materials in the trunk.
Many of the proponents and practitioners of anti-abortion
violence, such as those affiliated with the antiabortion Army
of God, have emerged from this stew of extreme far-right movements.
As the legal case against Scott Roeder gets pressed in the
days and weeks ahead, all of this will be in the air; but
only so much of it will make its way into court evidence.
Clarkson is the author of Eternal Hostility: the Struggle
between Theocracy and Democracy and, most recently, editor
of Dispatches from the Religious Left: the Future of Faith
and Politics in America. This article first appeared on
years of trench warfare on the abortion issue has solved nothing—what
if both sides decided to show some empathy and seek some common
Jan. 22, 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared by a 7–2
vote in Roe v. Wade that state laws banning abortion
violated citizens’ rights to privacy and due process of law,
and May 31, 2009, when an anti-abortion extremist murdered
OB/GYN and abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in the foyer
of his church, America has endured 36 years of argument over
the abortion issue, which has sunk to the level of a Punch-and-Judy
show more often than it’s risen to the level of sober debate.
Two dogmas—each spurning the other’s most basic premise—have
fought a trench war over abortion in America’s statehouses.
In consequence, abortion rights are neither wholeheartedly
maintained nor abolished outright: Access to abortion is freighted
with onerous, sometimes outrageous conditions (such as requiring
a girl molested by her father to gain his consent, as in Mississippi
and North Dakota), and clinics and hospitals that offer abortion
services are scarce where teen and out-of-wedlock pregnancy
is greatest. Nobody is satisfied. Nobody wins.
Meanwhile, over these 36 years, the terms of the argument
haven’t changed a bit, except to become more polarized, emotive
and extreme. It’s insane to expect that any progress will
come from the all-or-nothing thinking that both sides in this
argument display. We need to reframe and renew the debate
in terms that address the interests of everyone involved.
There are two chief obstacles that we need to overcome. The
first is the demonization of those who hold opposing views.
Each side’s belief that the other is impossible to reason
with is a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that we can choose
to back away from—but both sides have to make that choice.
Extremism thrives when moderate points of view are suppressed;
we can’t let the assassination of Dr. Tiller scare us into
In Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries,
the author Naomi Wolf, a steadfast supporter of abortion rights,
describes being invited by the conflict-resolution organization
Search for Common Ground (sfcg.org) to participate in its
Project for Life and Choice, “a weekend of discussion and
deliberation” among writers and activists both for and against
abortion rights. Wolf recounts that she saw anti-abortion
activists “as motivated primarily by the desire to repress
women for religious reasons . . . wishing to ensure that women
suffer through pregnancies they do not want and bear children
they cannot support,” while noting that the anti-abortion
participants saw abortion rights supporters as “antagonistic
to the nuclear family, sexually promiscuous, or anti-mother
ideologues . . . callous about the suffering or death of innocents
[and] actively hostile to all religious faith.”
Yet by the end of the weekend, both groups had acknowledged
a shared interest in solving “the problem of millions of unwanted
pregnancies in America” and had proposed meaningful concessions:
making contraception more available, and providing information
at abortion clinics about adoption possibilities and organizations
that help support mothers and newborns. Just one weekend of
sincere talk and mutual respect was enough to produce a foundation
that could be built upon.
The second obstacle is resistance to hearing the opposing
message. The “pro-choice” side, which argues for preserving
women’s liberty, rejects the possibility that a fetus is a
living human being. The “pro-life” side, which argues for
preserving the life of fetuses, denies that a pregnant woman
has any right that might be more important. Neither side is
willing to acknowledge the other’s basic premise out of the
fear of losing hard-fought political gains and the hope of
eventually achieving total victory. This denial that the other
side might have a point prevents the “debate” from
ever being more than a shouting match.
I’ve believed for some time that the best way to make headway
on abortion is a dialectical approach. Originating with Socrates
and refined by Hegel, this approach proposes that a thesis,
or idea, gives rise to an antithesis, or contradictory
idea, and that the tension between them is resolved by a synthesis
that reconciles their essential truths. In America, we’ve
never achieved—or even seriously sought—a synthesis between
“pro-choice” and “pro-life” views. What if both sides are
right in the positive and wrong in the negative? What would
it mean for us to recognize both a woman’s right to
liberty and a fetus’ right to life?
An abortion rights advocate might object to characterizing
a fetus as a human being, arguing that an early-term fetus
is nothing but an insensate “blob of tissue” (a loaded description).
But a human fetus, with the right nourishment and in the right
environment, will grow on its own, whether its mother wills
it or not, into a fully formed infant and, eventually, an
adult. The argument that early-term fetuses lack consciousness
or physical features that would distinguish them as human
is a nonstarter; the truth is in the DNA.
An abortion opponent willing to grant that a woman doesn’t
forfeit her human rights and become a walking incubator upon
becoming pregnant might nevertheless argue that life trumps
liberty in every circumstance. But clearly, we do hold one
person’s liberty dearer than another person’s life under certain
circumstances. Suppose I’m holding you captive, for no reason,
in an empty room. Most people would agree that, if your only
way to escape was to kill me, you’d be justified in doing
so—your right to liberty supersedes my right to life. A more
visceral example is that of a person defending herself to
the death against a rapist. Is there any violation of human
liberty more absolute than rape? What about the American Revolutionary
War, in which 52,000 were killed to gain the freedom of 2.8
million? The phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”
is a creation of literary rhythm, not a statement of precedence.
The question is whether abortion constitutes one of those
circumstances where one’s right to liberty trumps another’s
right to life. This is another instance where clear thinking
is foiled by loaded language, in this case the anti-abortion
characterization of a fetus as a “baby.” A fetus is not a
baby, any more than a toddler is a teenager; it’s an earlier
developmental stage. This is relevant, because we acknowledge
certain limitations on children’s legal rights based on their
developmental stage, so it stands to reason that fetal rights
should be limited further.
Suppose that a developing fetus accumulates the full rights
of a newborn gradually, starting from zero at the point of
implantation; at some point along the way, we might say, the
fetus’ accrued right to life comes to outweigh its mother’s
right to liberty, while before that point, the mother’s right
to liberty prevails. Both rights being acknowledged, the essential
question then becomes how to find that point. If we can get
this far, then we can treat the issue matter-of-factly, as
a conflict between the rights of two parties, and pursue the
outcome that promises the greatest overall security, health
and happiness. This is, in fact, fairly close to the position
taken by the majority in Roe, but this historical fact
gets lost in the black-and-white terms of the abortion debate
As Americans, we should look for ways to construe human rights
more broadly and generously rather than excuses to deny them.
The Declaration of the Rights of the Child states,
“The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given
opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to
enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually
and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions
of freedom and dignity.” While a fetus is not a child, the
justification for granting these rights to children (“Whereas
the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity,
needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal
protection, before as well as after birth”) does apply to
fetuses as well. At the same time, it’s absurd and unconscionable
to categorically deny a pregnant woman’s entitlement to equal
protection under the law, her right to determine the course
of her own life, and in some cases her own life or health
for the sake of some sacrosanct status granted to the fetus
she carries. Pregnancy and parenthood demand substantial sacrifices,
and these should never be made unwillingly.
The absence of empathy in our discussion of abortion leads
us to deadlock. “Both sides offer positions without nuance,”
Wolf writes. “The pro-choice lobby crafts policies that go
further on the abortion-on-demand spectrum than most citizens
wish to go; the pro-life lobby crafts policies that go further
on the no-abortion-for-any-reason spectrum than most citizens
wish to go. Why should the national debate not more closely
reflect the ambiguities about the issue that most thinking
Americans actually feel?”
In place of “ambiguities,” I’d say recognition of complexity,
understanding that the party with whom we identify more closely
is not the only one with vital interests at stake. A reconciliation
of respect for liberty and respect for life is the only thing
that will let us move forward as a nation on the issue of
abortion. If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep
getting what we’ve always gotten: unnecessary abortions in
some places, unwanted pregnancies in others, and the occasional
licensed medical practitioner being shot in the head. Should
we look forward to another 36 years of this?
Ammann is a former Metroland editorial staffer. He
lives in Freeport, Ill.