The deeply irresponsible rhetoric of the pro-life movement
Consider for a moment how this country looks to the most committed members of the pro-life movement.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings are systematically murdered in the United States, with over 51 million killed in the past 45 years. Though these killings are not perpetrated directly by the state, the government holds that private citizens have a constitutionally protected right to inflict this lethal violence on the members of a specific class of people (who also happen to be among the most innocent and the most vulnerable among us). Many of the murders are also performed by entities that receive generous amounts of public funding. More recently it has been revealed that after these quasi-public enterprises fulfill the murder requests of their clients, the bodies of the victims are dismembered and their organs are sold to help defray costs.
If this were how you saw the United States, would you not consider the country to be a morally obscene place deserving of denunciation? And would you not also be tempted to act out in violence to stop the senseless killing? And admire those with the courage to do so? I know I would.
That brings us to Robert Lewis Dear, the man who allegedly opened fire at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs last Friday, killing three and wounding nine others. Because the alleged gunman directed his violence at a clinic that provides abortion services and reportedly muttered "no more baby parts" (an apparent reference to Planned Parenthood's highly controversial fetal tissue program), some have sought to tie the suspect's actions to the pro-life movement.
Pro-lifers don't like this one bit. And understandably so. Recognizing the damage that could be done to the anti-abortion movement by linking it to acts of terrorism, the pro-life condemnation of Dear's actions has been swift, unambiguous, and (nearly) universal.
Pro-lifers are right to point out that the mainstream movement to ban abortion has never explicitly advocated violence. Instead, the movement has aimed to make slow and steady progress along multiple political and legal tracks while consistently opposing vigilantism.
Then there's Dear himself. We still don't know enough about his motives to determine whether he should be considered a lone-wolf pro-life terrorist — or if he's better understood as just another one of the lunatics who take advantage of our nation’s absurdly lenient gun laws to enact a homicidal fantasy with no political purpose at all.
That sounds like exoneration for the pro-life movement. But it isn’t.
Even if no direct link is made between the Colorado Springs massacre and the pro-life movement, members of that movement need to think twice about the deeply irresponsible disconnect between the way they talk about abortion and their (often implicit) strictures against acting out violently against abortion providers.
Is it really surprising that after months of railing against the baby killers (and dismemberers and body-parts harvesters) at Planned Parenthood, threats against and attacks on clinics are rising? Of course not. What's surprising is that there haven't been far more of them. Because if we take pro-life rhetoric seriously — if we accept that hundreds of thousands of unprosecuted and unpunished murders are being committed every year in the United States — then violence sounds like a perfectly reasonable response.
Pro-lifers typically answer this charge by claiming that they're consistent defenders of everyone's right to life, including both the perpetrators and the victims of unjust lethal violence. That's why some have claimed that the real pro-lifer at the scene of the Colorado Springs shooting was not Dear but rather a man named Garrett Swasey, a part-time evangelical pastor who strongly opposed abortion and yet was killed trying to save the lives of those taken hostage at the clinic.
That's a powerful position, albeit one that would seem to imply that the pro-life movement must embrace pacifism, placing the equal dignity of all those made in the image of God ahead of the imperative to defend the innocent and put a stop to acts of injustice when they are underway and ongoing. Are pro-lifers willing to follow through so consistently on their principles to oppose all uses of force? If not, they must confront the difficult question of when and under what circumstances it's acceptable to use violence to protect the innocent and put a stop to injustice.
On the one hand, it seems prudent to act with restraint by seeking to work patiently through established legal and political channels to stop the infliction of lethal violence. On the other hand, 51 million murders is a lot. How many is too many? Seventy-five million? A hundred million? At what point does justice demand that the slaughter be stopped by any means necessary?
And that brings us to a second line of defense for the pro-life movement — that it can't be held responsible for the acts of a handful of impatient radicals who take matters into their own hands.
That sounds sensible — at least until we reflect on how we tend to apportion blame to Salafist imams who rail against the myriad injustices perpetrated by the decadent, secular West. When one of their followers turns to terrorism, we don't hesitate to hold the cleric at least partially responsible, even if he never explicitly advocated violence. That's because we understand perfectly well how such rhetoric works — inciting acts of brutality by whipping up righteous indignation.
When members of the pro-life movement deny that they intend their rhetoric to have an analogous effect, I believe them. But that just makes me think they're being horribly naïve.
Either way, they can't fully escape responsibility for those who do fully believe it — and lash out, quite understandably, against the injustice.