How the right plays with murder: The antiabortion movement's cycle of violence

Antiabortion activists in Albuquerque are using the same rhetoric and tactics that led to Dr. Tiller's killing

Published September 10, 2013 4:41PM (EDT)

               (AP/Orlin Wagner)
(AP/Orlin Wagner)

Antiabortion activists are descending on Albuquerque, N.M., picketing not just clinics but the city's Holocaust Museum, and targeting local abortion providers as "killers." Despite the rhetoric, the protests are so far nonviolent. But if the past is any guide, we may be headed for something worse.

That's because the activists currently amassing in Albuquerque are affiliated with the very groups whose actions have a propensity to lead to the killing, assaulting, harassing and attempting to murder clinic workers.

The Albuquerque protests are organized primarily by Operation Rescue and Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust. Their main target is the Southwestern Women's Options clinic, one of the few providing late-term abortions to women in need.

The focus on Albuquerque echoes the targeting of Wichita, Kan. Beginning in the early 1990s, antiabortion activists set their sights on Wichita because it was home to the medical practice of Dr. George Tiller, one of the few physicians in the Midwest who performed late-term abortions. Over the summer of 1991, antiabortion activists, largely organized by the group Operation Rescue, flocked to Wichita to assault Dr. Tiller's clinic and two others. Over six weeks there were 2,600 arrests. While antiabortion activists had committed acts of violence before, 1991's "Summer of Mercy" turned it up a notch. Since 1991, there have been 17 attempted murders of abortion providers. One of those providers was Dr. Tiller, who was shot twice in the arm outside his health center in 1993. Eight clinic workers have been killed, starting with Dr. David Gunn and two clinic receptionists, Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols, in 1994, and extending through 2009 when Dr. Tiller was shot to death at church.

Every clinic bombed or burned, and every clinician assaulted or killed, had been previously picketed, targeted or assailed by antiabortion groups like Operation Rescue and the Army of God. Operation Rescue issued "Wanted" posters of abortion providers, often listing their home addresses. Several of the doctors listed on the posters, including David Gunn, George Patterson, John Britton and George Tiller, were killed by antiabortion zealots.

The individuals who commit acts of violence against abortion providers and clinics often have ties to antiabortion organizations. James Kopp, who killed Dr. Barnett Slepian in New York, worked alongside Operation Rescue's then-leader Randall Terry, driving with him from New York to Atlanta to begin the 1988 protests that put Operation Rescue on the map. In Atlanta, Kopp was jailed along with Terry and several Operation Rescue volunteers who went on to commit acts of violence: Rachelle "Shelley" Shannon, who shot Dr. Tiller in 1993; John Arena, who used butyric acid to attack abortion clinics; Normal Weslin, the founder of the radical group the Lambs of Christ; and Andrew Cabot, who reportedly called a man charged with murdering abortion providers a "hero."

Many of the murderers of abortion providers had some affiliation with the group the Army of God. Nearly all of the murders were condemned by mainstream antiabortion groups. But those groups didn't reconsider their rhetoric, organizing or tactics; they only amped them up.

Here's how this works: The more radical antiabortion groups rally their supporters around a small handful of doctors and clinics who they've decided are particularly bad. They use offensive, overhyped language to impress upon their (often very religious, sometimes young) followers the urgency of the situation, telling them that they are literally the only bulwarks standing between life and death for thousands of babies. They compare abortion clinic workers to Hitler, to Nazis, to mass murderers. Right-wing radio, blogs, news shows and other media pick up on those talking points and disseminate them to wider audiences.

While that's happening, more mainstream antiabortion organizations and Republican political leaders capitalize on that energy to introduce antiabortion legislation, anti-contraception legislation and a slew of other laws intended to make abortions harder to get and birth control harder to access. Some of the radical antiabortion leaders transition into positions of power in more mainstream groups, or are elected into political office. What were once far-right views -- for example, that contraception is the same as abortion -- make their way into the mainstream, and are adopted by large contingents of the Republican Party. While radical positions are being mainstreamed, some of the more extreme activists who have spent years hearing that abortion providers are Nazis but the U.S. government won't do anything about it decide to take the next logical step and bomb a clinic or kill a doctor. The mainstream antiabortion organizations shake their heads in disapproval. Then they support the grass roots in rallying their extremist troops all over again.

In response, pro-choicers have to play at all levels. We're doing clinic defense. We're battling bills in state legislatures and in Congress. We're trying to support doctors, some of whom have been bankrupted by antiabortion forces, and many of whom have been terrorized off the job. We're trying to raise money to help low-income women afford abortions. We're trying to sound the alarm at the fact that the antiabortion strategy is to incrementally chip away at abortion rights, realizing that the American public is going to wake up one day and there will be few privacy rights left. There isn't a whole lot of energy left to go around to push for proactive pro-choice policies. So pro-choicers remain on defense, perpetually trying to prevent antiabortion groups from scoring more points, passing more legislation, and making life even more difficult for women. Sometimes we block their progress, but sometimes not. In the aggregate, they end up with the advantage.

That is the antiabortion ecosystem. It gives the more mainstream players plausible deniability when violence occurs, while allowing the radical actors to keep pro-choice activists and clinic workers in a state of fear. It's a multi-pronged onslaught that dismantles abortion rights and terrorizes providers out of working. It's not a handful of crazies shooting doctors, bombing clinics and blocking healthcare access. Shooting doctors, bombing clinics and blocking healthcare access are all necessary parts of the bigger picture.

Wichita is a good example. The Summer of Mercy brought out pro-lifers en masse, and a lot of them never left. Doctors were genocidal Nazis guilty of crimes against humanity. Wichita was "Auschwichita." In 2003, Operation Rescue moved its headquarters there to continue the assault. Today, Operation Rescue operates out of a building owned by the group "Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust."

Dr. George Tiller's clinic was the primary target of the Summer of Mercy; two years later, he was shot. His clinic was picketed by antiabortion protesters for the next decade and a half. He was listed on antiabortion groups' "most wanted" lists. In 2005, Kansas's antiabortion attorney general Phill Kline began investigating Dr. Tiller, eventually charging him with 30 misdemeanors; they were all thrown out by a judge. Kline's successor filed 19 more charges, of which Dr. Tiller was universally acquitted. Operation Rescue and its policy director (and convicted felon) Cheryl Sullenger followed the case closely, giving information about it to antiabortion activist Scott Roeder. Kline's investigation of Dr. Tiller was so overly zealous and politically motivated that Kline was tried before a Kansas Supreme Court ethics panel, and a disciplinary panel recommended he lose his license to practice law because of his “dishonest and selfish” actions. Dr. Tiller was also the subject of 28 segments on the right-wing television show "The O'Reilly Factor," with Phill Kline as an occasional guest, where Dr. Tiller was repeatedly referred to as "Tiller the Baby Killer." U.S. Rep. Robert Dornan also used the phrase "Tiller the Baby Killer" on the floor of Congress.

In 2009, Scott Roeder gunned down Dr. Tiller in church. Cheryl Sullenger's phone number was found on the dashboard of his car. The same antiabortion groups that compared Tiller to a mass murderer and complained that the U.S. legal system wouldn't prosecute him quickly wrote his murder off as "vigilantism." Bill O'Reilly said that Dr. Tiller's murder should be condemned, but added that "Every single thing we said about Tiller was true, and my analysis was based on those facts." Robert Dornan, having lost reelection, went on to work at the American Life League, one of the largest pro-life organizations in the United States. Sullenger and Operation Rescue went after Tiller's successor, Dr. Ann Neuhaus, exploiting a loophole in Kansas law that allows anyone to file a complaint against a doctor; they nearly bankrupted her.

With lessons learned from Wichita, Sullenger, Operation Rescue, Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust and a variety of other pro-life groups are now in Albuquerque. They're picketing at Albuquerque's Holocaust Museum, demanding that it add an exhibit dedicated to American genocide (no, not the real one). They're calling Albuquerque "America's Auschwitz."

Just as they did with Tiller and other assassinated abortion providers in advance of their murders, activists are passing out fliers with the faces of Albuquerque abortion providers on them, with the text "Killers Among Us." Naturally, these activists deny they're courting violence.

But here's the thing: If antiabortion groups actually believe what they say, then vigilante violence is a logical response. How many of us wish that someone would have taken Hitler out when they had the chance? Would many people argue that it would be wrong for private citizens to off Nazis, especially given that the German government supported them and they committed their crimes legally? Wouldn't most of us like to think that we would take steps, even extreme ones, to stop genocide if we could? If a Holocaust survivor had the chance to kill a Nazi and prevent him from continuing his crimes, would we fault her for taking it? Not all of us believe it would be morally acceptable for a private citizen to assassinate Hitler. But it's nonetheless recognized as a legitimate moral dilemma; we understand that large swaths of the population believe killing Hitler would have been morally acceptable, even righteous, and that those folks may have a legitimate point.

The point isn't that antiabortion activists are right to kill abortion providers. The point is that they can't have it both ways: It cannot be that abortion clinic providers are the moral equivalents of Hitlers and Eichmanns, committing mass murder and crimes against humanity, and also that it's 100 percent wrong to kill them. Antiabortion activists cannot use language like "Holocaust" and "genocide" and "mass murder" and "Nazi" that is intended to incite violence, knowing that many Americans believe it morally acceptable to kill mass murderers or genocidal maniacs or Nazis, and also have any cause to believe that they are not inciting violence and vigilantism. Antiabortion groups cannot look at the historical ways violent rhetoric has been followed by real-life violence and still claim that they have no intention of anyone getting hurt.

While clinic workers and pro-choice activists are busy stemming the tides of potential violence, from engaging in clinic defense actions to buying bulletproof vests to seeking out legal protections for providers, antiabortion organizations are also leading the legislative charge in Albuquerque. They're trying to outlaw certain types of abortion in the city itself, knowing they can't pass similar measures in the Democrat-dominated state Legislature. Even if they succeed, the legislation is likely unconstitutional; nevertheless, pro-choice advocates will have to spend enormous amounts of money and time fighting it, and the case will likely go on for years before it's resolved. The Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Ordinance mirrors the national Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, sponsored by prominent Republicans in Congress and championed by the National Right to Life Committee.

Legally requiring that a woman carry a pregnancy to term against her will is in itself an act of violence against the female body. Insisting that doctors are genocidal murderers who must be stopped at any cost incites other acts of violence. Antiabortion political leaders benefit from the fear and anxiety these acts of violence cause.

That's why antiabortion groups aren't just trying to change the laws in Albuquerque, they're protesting at the Holocaust Museum, and using terms like "killers" and "genocide." That's why you don't hear more mainstream antiabortion groups condemning or even criticizing such actions.

Why would they? Terror, violence and harassment may turn off much of the American public, but those tactics work to a point -- at a cost that antiabortion groups seem happy to live with.

By Jill Filipovic

Jill Filipovic is a writer and attorney living in New York. She is a columnist at the Guardian and the editor of the blog Feministe.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abortion Albuquerque Anti-abortion George Tiller New Mexico Wichita