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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.