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In a follow-up to my last post, today we’re taking a deeper dive into the bad behavior of right-to-lifers. The story I told last month was pretty out-there, and unfortunately it’s not an outlier. In fact, it’s actually on the tamer end of the spectrum of what I encountered in 6 years of research on pro-life activism.

Bad behavior in the pro-life movement is nothing new. There has always been a subset of activists for whom the ends justify the means whether those means be shock tactics meant to disgust or horrify, harassment and intimidation of patients, doctors, and clinic staff, or even violence, arson, and murder.

Really, it’s no wonder pro-choicers don’t often want to dialogue. In many cases, they have good reason not to trust pro-lifers given that one of the defining aspects of the movement has been a willingness to push boundaries and excuse, enable, or even incite bad behavior.

We can find examples of such behavior in the earliest years of the movement. In an incident eerily similar to the one I detailed in last month’s post, several right-to-lifers disrupted a lecture by Bill Baird on birth control and abortion in New York in the early 1970s. One woman brought three jars with her that she claimed held the remains of “aborted babies.” She interrupted Baird’s lecture to give him the jars to the great shock and dismay of many in the audience.

The lecture also featured a macabre incident involving an attendee who was “dressed in a death mask and black shroud.” During the lecture, he “occasionally squeezed the stomach of a doll he held on his lap” so that “the toy cried out ‘Mama.’” Towards the end of the lecture, he slowly dismembered the doll.

These shock tactics were mild in comparison to other incidents I uncovered. In the course of researching antiabortion terrorism, I discovered NARAL’s records from the mid to late 1970s which chronicled incidents of harassment, arson, vandalism and other acts of violence at clinics providing abortions and other family planning services. NARAL pieced together that, rather than isolated incidents, there was a pattern of violence and harassment at clinics across the country. Here’s some of what they described:

● A clinic in Fort Worth burned to the ground, a gasoline can found in the smoldering ruins
● A firebomb thrown on the roof of a clinic in Kalamazoo that thankfully failed to ignite
● A clinic technician in Cleveland who had an unknown chemical substance thrown in her face
● An arsonist who set fire to the administrative offices of Planned Parenthood in St. Paul
● A man with gasoline and a torch who set fire to the reception area of a clinic in New York in broad daylight while 40-50 patients and staff were in the building
● Picketers who tracked license plate numbers of anyone visiting a clinic in Cincinnati
● Repeated acts of vandalism at a clinic in Appleton, Wisconsin
● Threats to kidnap the children of Planned Parenthood board members in Minnesota

Why the uptick in such incidents in the late 1970s? Many pro-choicers pointed to increasing numbers of pro-lifers willing to engage in confrontational protests and civil disobedience at clinics themselves. Though many right-to-lifers spoke out against violence, they rarely condemned nonviolent direct action or civil disobedience at clinics. After the fire that damaged Planned Parenthood’s offices in St. Paul, for example, one pro-life leader offered a half-hearted apology: “It may have been an upset pro-lifer pushed beyond the point of endurance. We can never condone such actions, but more and more deeply distressed citizens are considering civil disobedience as the ultimate personal act to save even one life.”

But despite these apologies it seemed bad behavior only begat more bad behavior, and the acts of violence by pro-lifers escalated over time. What started out as acts of arson and vandalism in the late 1970s grew to include kidnapping, bombings, and even murder by the early 1990s—what many scholars now identify as antiabortion terrorism.

In my dissertation, I gave a lot of credit to right-to-lifers who did not resort to tactics of harassment, intimidation, and violence, but we can’t ignore the fact that bad behavior has been a near constant from the start. We can trace it from the earliest uses of confrontational shock tactics in the 1970s to the harassment, intimidation, and violence at clinics in the 1980s and even to the recent shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado in 2015.

Pro-lifers must reckon with this history, this legacy of bad behavior and at times outright violence that have all too often been a defining feature of pro-life activism. They must also reckon with the fallout of this ends-justify-the-means approach, because after all, that is how PEACE activists justified ending the dialogue between pro-lifers and pro-choicers in the late 1970s, how individuals justified vandalizing clinics and harassing doctors, staff, and patients, and how some even justified unspeakable violence in the name of the pro-life movement.

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She earned her doctorate in history from Boston College, Her research explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence in subsequent years. Though she swore she'd move back to the Midwest after grad school, Allison still resides in the Boston metro area and now works in academic advising at Tufts University.


  • mstair says:

    “All human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit still in a room.”

    … I would add … “and pray” …

    – Blaise Pascal (1622-1623)

  • mstair says:

    sorry, date typo
    – Blaise Pascal (1622-1662)

  • Jessica Groen says:

    Thank you for this essay and for the work you are putting into your larger scholarly project, Allison. A local Christian high school where I used to work was connected with a pro-life presentation in recent years which included the distribution of rubber fetus props to students. Some teachers noticed a few students swinging them around during class, or using them as stretch/stress aides. This is disturbing on so many levels. Fetuses, by definition, are wholly connected to, surrounded by and nourished by the uterus they develop within. They don’t exist separately from the uterus, in reality or in prop form. This prop supports the fallacy that fetuses are just the same as babies, just smaller. It is so disrespectful: to the human women that are disconnected and erased from the prop, and to the actual biological process of gestational development. Pro-life rhetoric cannot be ethical if it does not consistently honor the vital connection a fetus has with the human body/ living person who exists on the source and provision side of the umbilical cord.

    • Beth Jammal says:

      The point is, that aborted babies are not connected to and nourished by a uterus. it is a violent and painful end to life for the child.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Would any of the contributors on this blog be willing to publicly agree with Ben Sasse’s Senate bill that would restrict infanticide? How about the contributing pastors here?

    I’m really curious to see if any of you would be willing to take a stand for the protection of newborn humans that survived an attempted abortion.

    How about third trimester abortions? I know, this is very controversial, but these aborted humans could have lived apart from their mothers.

    People with a leftist worldview seem to have an inability to identify evil. They will focus on little evils, such as inappropriate displays in press conferences in the 1970’s or high school kids playing with rubber models of unborn infants, but cannot (will not?) confront true evil, such as the Abortion Industry.

    Any takers? Please?

    • Steve says:

      Marty, are you willing to concede that Sasse’s proposal is based on a misunderstanding and also not a tad naive?If so, I’d be willing to concede that killing babies is bad. In fact, I’d let you off he hook and say it again: killing babies is bad.

      PS Sasse also wimped out and didn’t join other Republicans in pushing back against a disasterous president calling a human emergency a security emergency. I could suggest he refused to call true evil evil but I wouldn’t want to hyperventilate. Wimped our is sufficient for me.

      • Marty Wondaal says:

        Killing babies is bad. Thank you for letting me off the hook.

        So… what exactly is the true evil you are referring to in the last part of you comment? Be specific.

        • Steve says:

          Marty, the “true evil” would be the human emergency of Mexican immigrants fleeing social ills. The point is that one can take any socio-political issue and make it sound like one’s own opinion is the righteous one, like you did with “…but cannot (will not?) confront true evil, such as the Abortion Industry” and in so doing hyperventilate and push conversations to the brink of shut down mode. This is typical pro-lifer language. Why according to you are leftists less able to identify evil simply because they take another view on the question of abortion? I ask as one with anti-abortion views (not pro-life as the term paints one into a difficult corner). Can you see how you contribute to what even conservative Justice Bork himself called the explosive politics of outrage?

      • Marty Womdaal says:

        To answer your question:

        I don’t think Sasse misunderstood anything nor is he naive.

        And – hyperventilate? Be better.

        I assume most Twelve contributors are watching NCAA games today, but would any of you please respond to my request from this morning?

        • Steve says:

          Marty, then why can’t Sasse stand up to Trump and join with members of his very own party and tell him he’s calling something that’s not a security emergency a security emergency? He wants us to believe he’s all about being on the right side of stopping social ills (infanticide) but sits down when it comes to a human emergency (wall).

  • Steve says:

    What has always fascinated and bothered me is the wholesale adoption of such worldly views and practices lifers have made. Worldly ideology is bad when the other guy with another political view does it, admirable when it’s about babies.

  • Jason says:

    In what ways is the Right to Life movement different from other political movements? Can we not talk about Climate Change until Environmental Activists “reckon with the history of bad behavior” of the fanatics in their ranks? Should African American Civil Rights activists be held to this standard? I am unaware of a movement right, left or otherwise that hasn’t had its share of extremists who sometimes employ unsavory tactics.

  • Michael Todd says:

    While there are certainly misguided, insensitive, and even criminal pro-lifers we must not use such as a distraction or excuse for the evil of abortion. There has been no genocide in the world even close to that of abortion. The most dangerous place for a kid in America is not the inner city or the southern border but in his or her mother’s womb. We’re no better than the ancient Canaanites who entreated the favor of Molech through child sacrifice. We’ve merely removed the middleman in our quest for personal gain.

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