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As someone who studies the antiabortion movement, this time of year always has a particular importance. Yesterday marked 48 years since the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade. The annual March for Life will take place next weekend, though this year people will gather online rather than in Washington, D.C.
In addition to thinking about the legacy of Roe v. Wade and the ongoing debate over reproductive rights, I’ve also been thinking about the antiabortion movement’s role in recent events. In the last week, I started seeing articles that detailed antiabortion activists’ involvement in the events at the Capitol on January 6th.
One described the presence of antiabortion activists at the insurrection. Another noted that a West Virginia lawmaker who participated in the riot got his start harassing abortion clinics. Yet another explained the movement’s long history of extremism. Obviously, the antiabortion movement was not the main motivator of the Capitol riot and plenty of pro-lifers denounced it. Still there are enough similarities and crossovers to make it concerning.
The history of antiabortion extremism is one I’m very familiar with — as a grad student, I wrote my first research paper on antiabortion terrorism and subsequently researched the escalation of the movement’s direct action tactics, which culminated in Operation Rescue’s big demonstrations in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
There are troubling antecedents in the antiabortion movement — rhetoric and tactics that foreshadowed the violence we saw on January 6th as well as the fallout of unchecked incendiary rhetoric. It should really come as no surprise that some antiabortion activists enthusiastically participated in the events at the Capitol, given the movement’s own history of violence, intimidation, and inflammatory rhetoric.
We can trace this history back several decades. In the 1980s, the antiabortion movement was frustrated. They’d helped elect their pro-life champion, Ronald Reagan, but despite some legislative victories, abortion was still legal. Roe v. Wade hadn’t been reversed, and all proposed legislation to add a constitutional amendment banning abortion had failed. A growing contingent within the movement was turning to nonviolent direct action to more decisively oppose abortion, and perhaps vent frustration at the slow pace of change.
Rhetoric surrounding abortion was also ratcheting up. Francis Schaeffer’s Whatever Happened to the Human Race? had presented audiences with stark images and dire warnings about abortion’s impact on society and had convinced them of the urgent need for action. Antiabortion activists doubled down on this rhetoric and frequently compared abortion to the Holocaust. If you’re comparing abortion to the Holocaust, it’s easy to justify escalated action to stop abortions, using whatever tactics are necessary. In this telling, right-to-lifers were the righteous defenders of the most just cause. Coupled with grisly images purported to be aborted fetuses and a good dose of misinformation, this rhetoric escalated the sense of urgency for many in the movement.
Motivated in part by this amped up rhetoric, direct action at clinics soon gave way to greater violence in the 1980s and 1990s, even to the bombings of clinics and the assassinations of doctors and staff. The bombings and murders were the big news. Actually they were the culmination of years of smaller acts of violence — arson, vandalism, harassment, and stalking to name just a few.
One summer in the archives, I spent weeks reading reports and firsthand testimony of doctors and staff at Planned Parenthoods and other women’s clinics across the country. Their testimony spoke to the daily dangers they faced, the harassment at their clinics and their homes, acts of arson and other vandalism, and the traumatic toll it took.
Again, it shouldn’t be surprising that people with ties to that movement were present at the Capitol on the 6th and found ways to justify their actions that day. The antiabortion movement and its supporters have long relied on inflammatory rhetoric and misinformation. And too often some activists have used that rhetoric to justify violence. It’s a troubling legacy — one that needs to be faced and grappled with.
There has been a tendency to disavow rather than truly examine how the rhetoric and tactics of the movement might have crossed the line and contributed to violence. For many in the movement, the ends always justify the means.
I’ve long thought that people opposed to abortion have used this political position as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card — nothing else really matters as long as a person has the “correct” stance on this one issue. The movement’s supporters argue for the purity of their motives and the righteousness of their cause, but overlook the ways their rhetoric can lead to violence and the legacy of extremism in many parts of the movement.