When Domestic Terrorists Go Mainstream
Lessons from the "pro-life" movement
Some calming green before the truly depressing read below
Last week’s attack on the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. by marauding Trump supporters was an absolute horror. But it wasn’t new or unprecedented. White supremacist terror has been a through-line of American history; even worse, the terrorists have managed to radically distort their legacy, painting their defeats as virtuous.
The primary lessons here come from America’s long history of racial injustice and white terrorism. But I want to add another layer that I think can help us understand exactly what happened last week, what might be done about it, and how it can get even more dangerous: The history of the violent anti-abortion movement.
Self-proclaimed “pro-life” terrorists have killed 11 people since 1993; since the late 1970s, they’ve committed thousands of serious crimes, including bombings, kidnappings, assaults, arsons, anthrax threats, and clinic invasions. While the most recent murder in a clinic was 2015, when Robert Dear gunned down three people in a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, and while the most well-known is the 2009 murder of Dr. George Tiller as he attended church in Wichita, Kansas, the bulk of deadly anti-abortion violence happened in the 1990s.
These attacks were not isolated events or the acts of lone wolves; they were part of a large-scale coordinated effort to attack abortion clinics, the people who worked at them, and the women who relied on them. In 1991, the often-violent anti-abortion group Operation Rescue kicked off its “Summer of Mercy” in Wichita, targeting Tiller’s clinic, as well as others across the country. They blockaded clinic doors, preventing women from accessing a procedure to which they were legally entitled; they threatened providers, and successfully harassed some out of performing abortions. Tiller continued to be a primary target of the anti-abortion movement for the next 18 years, with Fox television host Bill O’Reilly excoriating “Tiller the Baby Killer” 29 separate times on his top-rated show. Tiller was shot in both arms in 1993 but survived. The anti-abortion movement succeeded in murdering him in 2009.
Operation Rescue had a telling slogan: “If you believe abortion is murder, act like it’s murder.”
Here’s the thing: Whatever they say, most self-identified pro-life people do not actually believe abortion is murder. They may not want to admit it, and they may avoid thinking about it, and they may have sincere moral objections to abortion, but very few people genuinely think that ending a pregnancy is tantamount to murdering a three-year-old. How do I know? Well, for the most part, even folks who want to outlaw abortion do not want (or do not say they want) to charge women who abortions with pre-meditated murder. Some do — truly, the anti-abortion movement welcomes all kinds — but the leaders of the anti-abortion movement are careful to skirt the question of what a woman who ends a pregnancy should be charged with. The current fad is to say that women who have abortions are victims; the women shouldn’t be charged with crimes, but the doctors should. This is of course sexist, infantilizing, and illogical. But it’s both convenient and revealing: I doubt many “pro-life” people would say a woman who hires a hitman to kill her three-year-old should go free.
There’s also the simple fact that those who claim life begins at conception are remarkably uninterested in preserving that life outside of the context of abortion. More than half of fertilized eggs — lives that pro-lifers would say are the equivalent to you or me or an infant — naturally don’t implant in the uterine lining and are flushed out of the woman’s body. But there’s no effort to figure out why; there’s no effort to save these millions upon millions of lives that are lost every year.
A pro-lifer would say that this isn’t inconsistent, that there’s a difference between acts of God — a fertilized egg not implanting — and the intentional act of ending a pregnancy. But here in the real world, we prosecute murder and we spend billions of dollars researching and treating a great many natural causes of death. If a naturally-occurring disease were wiping out half of all of America’s five-year-olds, I very sincerely doubt we should shrug and say, well, it’s an act of God.
But that’s what the pro-life movement is doing with regard to all of the fertilized eggs that die naturally. The only explanation is that, deep down, most people who say life begins at conception realize that there is a profound moral difference between a fertilized egg and an infant. It doesn’t mean there is no moral reason to care about what happens to embryos and fetuses, or that embryos and fetuses should be accorded no moral status; but it does mean that the founding claim of the anti-abortion movement — that life begins at conception and any fertilized egg should be treated as a person with all of the rights that born people hold — is a great deception.
(As an aside, especially in the U.S., you don’t see nearly as much hostility to, say, I.V.F. and fertility treatments as you do to abortion — the fundamental objection really seems to be women deciding for themselves not to become mothers, or not to have additional children).
So how does this all tie back to anti-abortion violence and the violence at the Capitol Building?
The 1990s were the first big peak of extreme anti-abortion rhetoric, which was quickly followed by extreme anti-abortion violence. That Operation Rescue slogan — “If you believe abortion is murder, act like it’s murder” — was instructive: What would you do if you truly believed that more than a million babies were being legally murdered in the United States every year? (The number of annual abortions in the United States is much lower now, thanks mostly to long-acting contraception, which most major pro-life groups also oppose, but the abortion rate was at an all-time high in the 1990s). Most us like to believe that if we were living through one of history’s greatest atrocities, we would risk life and limb to help save innocent lives — even, perhaps, if it meant killing someone who was committing mass atrocities; surely if it meant destroying the location where the atrocities were being carried out.
This is what Operation Rescue told its followers: You are living through one of human history’s greatest atrocities. And this message was amplified by every single “pro-life” organization in the country, which were quick to use words like “murder,” “baby-killing,” “holocaust,” “genocide,” and “atrocity” to describe abortion, even if they did not explicitly tell followers to hurt women, doctors, and clinic workers. It was amplified by pro-life Republican politicians. It was amplified by conservative pundits and talk radio show hosts.
Most people who identified as “pro-life” nodded along with the rhetoric but didn’t actually do much other than vote Republican. Thousands, though, got violent: They attacked and vandalized clinics; they chained doors shut; they set off bombs; they mailed anthrax; they harassed and demeaned women (including publishing photos of women entering reproductive health clinics); they harassed doctors so badly at their homes and workplaces that several took to wearing bullet-proof vests and others quit; they very predictably eventually murdered people. They took seriously the call: “If you believe abortion is murder, act like it’s murder.”
Noting that powerful movement leaders were sending out the call, and mainstream politicians were tacitly endorsing it, doesn’t diminish the culpability of the foot soldiers; thousands of individual members of the anti-abortion movement chose to commit horrific acts, while thousands of others either turned away from the movement as it descended into violence (and a few eventually saw the deep misogyny underlying it), or simply refused to heed the call. But the inflammatory power of that rhetoric, in my opinion, adds culpability to those who knowingly and intentionally inflamed their masses of followers. The leaders of the anti-abortion movement — at the time, mostly men — ratcheted up their rhetoric about genocide and murder, and encouraged their followers to take matters into their own hands. Right-wing media, including conservative radio and Fox News, repeated these talking points for decades, further inflaming the issue and placing targets squarely on the backs of the abortion providers they identified by name. The Republican Party establishment encouraged and enabled them — mainstream GOP politicians came to their events, attended their marches, sang their praises, and pushed their legislation. No member of this vast ecosystem is as culpable for anti-abortion violence as the person who pulls the trigger, but they each hold significant responsibility nonetheless. And the right-wing anti-choice ecosystem is so well-connected, and has been for so long, it’s a deceitful dodge to say that those who attack clinics and doctors are fringe extremists, wholly unrelated to those who do their bidding in Congress.
We understand this is other contexts. Charles Manson didn’t kill any member of the Tate or LaBianca households. Many leaders who preside over mass killings, or who encourage atrocities and human rights violations via their radio shows or other media, don’t personally carry them out.
The attack on the Capitol Building operated much the same way as anti-abortion violence, and it sprung from the same source: A racist, misogynist right-wing movement, incited to even greater violence by intentional and politically-motivated lies.
Ilyse Hogue, the president NARAL Pro-Choice America, has written an entire book about this; there’s also a podcast on the topic, and Episode 5, about how the anti-abortion fringe isn’t all that fringe, is particularly instructive. We’re seeing similar forces at work in Trumpism today: Leaders who lie with abandon, rely on intentionally inflammatory language to whip their followers into a frenzy, and then deny any culpability when the wholly predictable occurs. This is the playbook of the anti-abortion movement, anti-abortion terrorists, and “pro-life” Republicans. It’s the same dynamic, the same set of relationships, the same enabling of violence and then milquetoast condemnation of it.
Republican politicians weren’t held accountable for their role in the ecosystem of anti-abortion violence. Neither was right-wing media — Bill O’Reilly, for example, never paid a price for using his show to essentially get a doctor murdered. Of course, anti-abortion violence was mostly impacting women — and bad women at that, women who were choosing not to carry a pregnancy to term — and threatening the people who helped them to make their own reproductive decisions. So the demands that Republican politicians and right-wing media be held accountable mostly came from feminists with little political power. A handful the most serious criminal offenders were arrested. But for those who encouraged and enabled them, there was no accountability to be had.
So in this moment of disgust at yet another act of right-wing violence, this time an assault on our seat of democracy, it’s useful to consider how the anti-abortion movement evolved after the 1990s, and especially after the murder of Dr. Tiller. In short, the violent tactics served only a limited purpose. Yes, some clinics were temporarily shuttered. Yes, they instilled fear into women and health providers alike. Yes, many doctors did not get trained in how to perform abortions; many avoided the topic out of fear for their own safety. And it’s no small cost that people were maimed and killed.
But strategically, the violence was a dead end. It provoked pretty significant backlash, and damaged the public’s perception of the “pro-life” movement. The movement’s savvier actors realized that, and they shifted gears: Instead of angry middle-aged men screaming “baby killer” at teenage girls outside of clinics, they turned old lady “sidewalk counselors” into the face of clinic harassment. They invented health concerns, telling the public that abortion is dangerous, despite all of the evidence concluding that it’s safer than a shot of Penicillin, and certainly safer than childbirth. They championed the work of “crisis pregnancy centers” as alternatives to Planned Parenthood, despite the fact that those facilities often don’t employ any health care workers nor offer any actual health care, and have fought in court for the right to flat-out lie to women. They eased off the “baby killer” rhetoric in favor of the factually false but softer-sounding “abortion hurts women.” They shifted resources away from clinic assaults and protests and toward working within the traditional political process — writing model legislation, rewarding or penalizing candidates, chipping away at abortion rights and access with legislation targeting whatever vulnerable spaces the Supreme Court had left open. Despite the deep ties across the anti-abortion movement, those who were eager to put a respectable face on it successfully rebranded themselves as reasonable moderates in contrast to the violent crazies. The extreme edge had moved so far right that what used to be pretty reactionary suddenly looked palatable, especially when it had a female face, claimed to have empathy for women, and wore power suits and pearls.
It worked. In 2011, states enacted a record number of abortion restrictions, making it harder for health care workers to provide safe procedures, and making it harder for women — especially poor women — to obtain them. These restrictions have undoubtedly made abortion less accessible than all of the 90s-era clinic attacks, protests, and barricades combined. But they haven’t engendered the same backlash or negative reactions among the general public. They aren’t as visually grotesque; the people they hurt are out of the public eye, and are often women the public prefers to pretend don’t exist.
The anti-abortion movement successful hewed itself to the Republican Party and to conservatism generally. It’s exceedingly difficult these days to find a pro-choice Republican politician. In law schools across the United States, anti-abortion student groups dovetail with the Federalist Society, and the Federalist Society — which channels young conservatives lawyers up the chain of right-wing patronage — has been a leader in undermining Roe v. Wade and the Constitutional rights to abortion and contraception. Donald Trump has been remarkably successful at stacking the federal courts with these right-wing anti-abortion and anti-contraception judges.
Oh and that happened too — the anti-abortion movement quietly extended its reach into opposition to contraception access, very effectively hampering the ability of thousands of American women to get birth control. This might seem odd on its face, if you know that the number-one most effective way to lower the abortion rate is making contraception, and especially long-acting methods, affordable and easily attainable. But it makes more sense when you understand that right-wing opposition to abortion rights isn’t about preventing abortion; it’s about seeing a woman’s primary purpose as maternal, and controlling women’s lives and opportunities.
Now, we have a Supreme Court with enough right-wing judges on it to overturn Roe v. Wade, or allow so many incursions into the right to abortion that Roe becomes meaningless. We have ten states that will automatically outlaw abortion the moment Roe goes. We have thousands of women who ostensibly live in a nation where abortion is their legal right, but who cannot obtain one because they are poor, or because they depend on Medicaid, or because they live in a rural area, or because they’re an immigrant, or because they are young. We’ve seen dozens of clinics shuttered because they were legislated out of existence.
This is what happens when there’s no reckoning and no accountability for a movement that relies on terrorism, deception, and violence; it’s what happens with a movement premised on control and bigotry puts on a respectable face and goes mainstream.
We have seen this movie before. We saw it in the aftermath of the Civil War, when the seditious losers were nevertheless allowed to claim heroism; even today their flag continues to fly. We saw it when violence bubbled up during Reconstruction and then exploded in the post-Reconstruction era of mass white terrorism against Black Americans, including thousands of lynchings, racist murders, land-grabs, and the rise of the KKK and then the solidification of Jim Crow laws and formal racial segregation imposed by “respectable” white politicians. We saw it when the anti-abortion movement and the religious right grew out of segregation — the core issue wasn’t abortion at all, it was white supremacy and male dominance. We saw it when the anti-abortion movement’s Summer of Mercy gave way, two decades later, to a year of more legal restrictions on safe abortion than the nation had ever seen.
This is Trumpism’s winter of rage. The violent chapter of Trumpism has not yet burned itself out. But watch out for what happens when the violence subsides. If there’s no real reckoning with how those in power inflamed that violence into being, and if there’s no addressing the core affliction, then it’s far from over and we are far from healed. It’s just that new damage begins.