Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Cost of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients, and the Rest of Us
Maybe I’m wrong, but in my understanding of war, combatants will do whatever it takes to destroy the opposing side. And that’s not what has happened in the conflict over abortion. Instead, one side, the anti-abortionists—from the Army of God to the Lambs of Christ, from Operation Save America to The National Right to Life Committee—have organized a multitude of campaigns to stop what they call “the murder of innocents.” Diverse tactics, from the ballot box to the bullet, have been used.
The damage has been horrific: Eight people (half of them doctors) have been killed since 1993 and there have been 17 attempted murders, 175 arsons, and 41 bombings since 1977. In the first four months of 2009—before the assassination of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas—the National Abortion Federation logged in 1411 harassing emails, phone calls, and letters; three bomb threats; five suspicious packages; 40 instances of trespassing; and 11 attacks by vandals.
Then there’s the legal stuff. Legislation has been passed in virtually every state to limit when abortion is permissible and require clinics to jump through a multitude of hoops to offer services. This has made the procedure hard to access, especially for women not living in or near major cities. Add in a constant barrage of ballot measures to outlaw the procedure or give personhood status to the fetus, and it’s not surprising that the antis have made inroads in getting people to question the efficacy of the procedure.
And providers? For their part clinicians have defended their turf, obtaining court orders to bar protesters from screaming in patient’s faces, installing state-of-the-art security devices, and working to pass legislation to protect reproductive freedom from further incursions. But war? Not even a skirmish. Instead, the lion’s share of clinicians have dedicated themselves to offering high quality medical care to women, not on retaliating against the anti’s for their belligerence and menace.
Indeed, not a single anti has been assassinated (yes, anti-abortion protester James Pouillion was killed in Michigan last September, but his murder was part of a shooting spree by a deranged gunman) or harmed by pro-choice forces. Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPC) have not had their locks glued shut or been attacked with butyric acid. They have not received letters filled with white powder claiming to be Anthrax. CPC staff have not been followed and berated as “murderers” while buying milk. Their children have not been taunted in the schoolyard because of their parent’s vocation. So I take issue with Carole Joffe’s conception of the “abortion wars.” What we have, instead, is mono-dimensional, a one-way fight aided by religious dogmatists hellbent on imposing their worldview on women and families.
Despite this fundamental disagreement, Dispatches from the Abortion Wars is often riveting. Joffe’s insights into popular culture, alongside her analysis of the recent barrage of ballot initiatives, are spot on in explaining the growth of negative attitudes about abortion. As she notes, the continuous introduction of restrictive legislation reinforces the idea that the surgery is contentious. What’s more, when something is seen as controversial, people tend to back off, fearing schisms they’d rather avoid. “It is a fear of controversy, more than actual moral opposition, that mainly accounts for the stigmatizing situation of abortion today,” she concludes.
If that’s true, it’s time for pro-choice forces to take the offensive, not in war—we can’t descend to the anti’s level—but by defending abortion as the sound moral choice of more than one-third of U.S. women of reproductive age.