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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.

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She recently graduated from Boston College with her doctorate in history. Her dissertation, Rallying the Right-to-Lifers: Grassroots Religion and Politics in the Building of a Broad-Based Right-to-Life Movement, 1960-1984, explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence.

14 Comments

  • RLG says:

    Wow, Allison. What an article and what an insight. This takes us right back to the Holy Wars of the past (recent and distant), often with Christians of different stripes facing off against each other but also including large populations of different religions fighting for dominance. Isn’t it good to be a Christian today? Maybe so, maybe not. Thanks Allison for shining a light into the dark corners of Christianity. “Onward, Christian soldiers!”

  • Gloria McCanna says:

    Thanks for this history lesson on the actions and beliefs surrounding the so called right to life movement. A good one to keep on file.

  • Nolan Palsma says:

    Alison
    The last paragraph sums it up for me. “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.”
    That one issue is an obsessive for some. It is mind boggling! I get the sense that some of those who are against abortion feel that it is only contraception. There is more to the story. Thanks for the article!

  • Tom says:

    Just one thing I would appreciate knowing from Allison: are you pro-life or pro-choice? You might say it doesn’t matter, but to my mind that fundamentally affects the lens through which I read this piece and others you’ve posted.

    Then, a couple of comments – I could go on a very long time, but won’t:
    + 65,000,000 human lives snuffed out seems like a apt comparison to the Holocaust. Based on the simply arithmetic, you might say it’s 10 times worse.
    + Abraham Lincoln and John Brown were both right about slavery even if John Brown’s approach to resolving the issue was both wrong (probably) and ineffective from a practical political perspective.
    + you paint with a very broad brush here; be careful. Unless you are ready to apply the same thinking to this summer’s racial justice uprisings and the associated rioting.

  • Pamela E. Adams says:

    Allison, I agree with you and I am a strong anti-abortionist person. I have one adopted child and half of my grandchildren are my grandchildren through adoption. One of my biological sons has adopted four children in addition to his five biological children. That makes eight of sixteen grandchildren. I agree that abortion is wrong but so are so many other things in this world. We are doing many sinful things but to just focus on one and to exclude other actions is WRONG from a Biblical view point. Let us fight against abortion but also fight against the other sins that are predominant in our culture.

  • Ronald Dykstra says:

    Allison,
    Your title speaks volumes. “The Legacy of Antiabortion Extremism”. Broad brush is an incredible understatement. How about checking the bio’s of those arrested for involvement with the pro-life movement before labeling the entire event as pro-life extremism? And amen to Tom’s comment on the comparison of the Holocaust with our horrific abortion numbers. My heart aches for the thousands of patriotic people mis-labeled and mid-judged by this article.

  • Mary Jo Liesch says:

    Thank you! I am so grateful to all the writers in this blog.

  • Ken says:

    Allison, your title is apt despite the naysayers. You were faithful in looking at the extremism of a position.
    Further, I find it sad that those who are outraged by the 3,000/day deaths by abortion too often cannot muster any outrage about the complete failure of our nation to deal with the coronavirus, which at the moment is taking 4,000 lives per day. Ditto the outrage regarding issues like gun control, capital punishment, war, and so on.
    And, finally, I’d be curious what the gender breakdown is regarding extremists opposing abortion. Are they predominately male, as were the capitol extremists?
    Oh, and if it matters, I’m pro-choice/pro-life. I strive to live my life in such a way that people will choose for life, in any and all circumstances.
    Thanks for your column.

  • Steven Skahn says:

    I share your revulsion at those who use the anti-abortion issue to justify violence. But I think that a weakness in your discussion is that it fails to identify the real problem. Having strong feelings about abortion is not the problem. Nor is thinking that the issue can be in some ways can be compared to the Holocaust. I think Francis Schaeffer did a wonderful thing in awaking the evangelical community to the importance of this issue. The problem is not that developing strong feelings about abortion is getting on some slippery slope that leads to violence. The problem is arises when we fail to–using a sermon title of Schaffer’s–do “The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way.” Those who use justify violence in opposing abortion have stopped following Jesus.

  • Gary VanHouten says:

    Thank you, Allison.
    “The antiabortion movement and its supporters have long relied on inflammatory rhetoric and misinformation.”
    Boy, you got that right!

  • Dean Koopman says:

    This article firmly establishes the paradoxical minimization of humanity that has engulfed all sides of the abortion argument.
    One side (pro-abortion) invalidates the humanity of children up to and now beyond childbirth while the other (pro-life) rejects the humanity of those who would do and support such acts. All the while our government diminishes our liberties in the name of domestic tranquility while enraging all of us through a teeter-totter of conflicting Executive memorandums a the political parties rise and fall in approval.
    One final corollary to the paradox.
    How has no contributor to this blog not questioned the reduction of Francis Schaeffer’s scholarship and preaching to mere “rhetoric”?
    Apparently for humanity to be devalued, everything else must have been devalued first.

    • Tom says:

      Agree with you wholeheartedly Dean! I did not mention in my comment above because then the ‘comment’ becomes an entire essay, but three other things occurred to me while reading this.
      First, the rule that when the tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail – translated to this essay, I guess if you’ve invested much of your life into investigating the wrongdoings of the pro-life movement, then you see those wrongdoing expressing themselves everywhere no matter how far the stretch – this case is a major stretch; just guessing that the “articles that detailed antiabortion activists’ involvement” appeared in left-leaning, pro-abortion publications (unless someone can prove me wrong).
      Second, she acknowledges the frustration of the pro-life movement in accomplishing change in the 1980’s, but does not acknowledge that it was the Supreme Court that took the issue out of the political process in a poorly reasoned decision; thus the powerlessness that results in an extremist response.
      Third, abortion and the value of life IS the fundamental moral issue of our time, just as slavery was in the 1800’s. I have long felt that one of 30 to 40 years from now, we will find ourselves in one of two situations: either we will value human life and abortion will have been, perhaps not abolished, but much diminished; or, it will have become normal to kill off the old and sick, euphemistically telling ourselves that it is for their own good when the reality is there’s just too much trouble and cost in caring for them. We will not be somewhere between those extremes, and if you think this cannot happen, then pay some attention to what is already happening in Canada and in parts of the United States.

  • Ann Conklin says:

    Thank you for your research and insight, Allison.
    To those using the term “pro-abortion” in the comments, I would ask you to reconsider your word choice. Words matter. I am aware of no one who is pro-abortion. Many faithful people are, however, pro-choice AND anti-abortion. The two are not mutually exclusive.

  • Michael says:

    Can someone point me to thoughtful, fact-filled, resources on the faith community’s conversation on abortion? Because typically, either side is so bent on scoring points, there’s mainly a lot of heat and little light shone on this fraught subject. Do we agree on the statistics in these days of alternative facts? Are there places where one can find accurate abortion numbers; when in the pregnancy they are done (by percentages); do anti-abortion laws enacted help curtail abortions or do they simply drive them underground (and make more dangerous); where is the conversation on when “life” begins (from the moment of conception or ??? and who holds to these different views and why); do abortions go down more in Democrat or Republican administrations; and so on. Is there a relatively straight-forward, non-biased place a discerning Christian can get this kind of information? Please?

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