COLUMN ONE : Abortion Foes Test the Limits : Is the use of even deadly violence justified? Mainstream opponents denounce attacks on clinics and doctors. But a vocal faction says this is the only effective tool it has.
And now this from the provocateurs of the anti-abortion movement:
John Brockhoeft, serving seven years in prison for bombing a Cincinnati abortion clinic, writes in his newsletter:
“I had to make sure before I approached the abortuaries at night with gasoline or explosives that I was walking in love, not just anger. . . . Left wing, liberal-types hate my guts. . . . (T)he nice little things they say about me are all absolutely true: I’m a very narrow-minded, intolerant, reactionary, Bible-thumping fundamentalist . . . a zealot and a fanatic! . . . The reason the United States was once a great nation, besides being blessed by God, is because she was founded on truth, justice and narrow-mindedness.”
Michael Bray, who served 46 months in prison in connection with 10 bombings of abortion clinics and offices of abortion-rights groups, reports this in his Capitol Area Christian News in Washington, D.C.:
“Grand Rapids, Mich. One week following a stink bomb attack, the Planned Barrenhood (sic) office of this city was sprayed by gunfire. About 15 shots from a handgun brought $20,000 in damages. Now $20,000 divided by 15 equals $1,333.33 per bullet. A pretty good deal. We commend the stewardship of resources.”
Shelly Shannon, before being charged with shooting and wounding Wichita physician George Tiller outside his abortion clinic, sends a letter to the editor of a monthly anti-abortion magazine:
“Let’s pray no one gets hurt, but this is a war and we have to be realistic.”
The road has come to a fork in the fight against abortion in the United States.
A powerful and pious logic is taking hold among some of the most determined crusaders across America: If abortion is murder, isn’t any use of force justifiable to stop it? And isn’t this violence working--spreading fear among abortion providers and causing their retrenchment?
Both sides in the weary struggle say this idea is the dry kindling for what could be a new blaze of religious violence and zealotry.
Many Americans are aware of two recent shootings of abortion doctors, the March slaying of David Gunn in Pensacola, Fla., and the August wounding of Tiller. And many Americans, regardless of their leanings on abortion, surely joined in revulsion at the deeds. Many Americans also probably accept that the shootings were the work of individuals--social aberrations who were drawn too close to the flame.
But what many Americans may not be aware of is that these shootings have brought forth a spirited self-examination among those who have devoted themselves to the battle against abortion--and from the most militant has emerged a chorus of voices for a fresh and emphatic piety in which the end entreats all means.
Violence itself is by no means novel in the anti-abortion crusade. But such open, didactic advocacy of its virtues is.
Call this the work of the radical fringe, the maniac margin. Or are they the leading edge ? Like all else in the battle over abortion, your choice of words reveals your prejudice.
Andrew Burnett, publisher of the Life Advocate, a 3,700-circulation monthly magazine based in Oregon, is a recent convert to the new hyper-militancy.
In an editorial, he writes: “The question then for each of us is, do we really believe our own rhetoric? The death of an abortionist (Gunn) has caused me to re-examine my own convictions. Was his life really more valuable than the lives of his thousands of victims? When you examine your own convictions, I pray that God will encourage you to take an even stronger stand and be willing to do even more to protect the lives of those we say are precious in God’s sight.”
In Pensacola, Paul J. Hill, excommunicated as a Presbyterian minister for his embrace of force, distributed a 13-page manifesto after Gunn was killed:
“You can no more deny your responsibility to defend the unborn with force than you can deny the good Samaritan’s responsibility to aid the wounded and dying traveler. . . . (A)ll able-bodied men who are men indeed should rise to serve the cause in one form or another. . . .”
More typically, there is a qualifier to the preachings, either to hold off the police or assuage the soul: I don’t do it myself but I no longer can condemn it in others.
“What’s happening is that those who live by the sword now face dying by the sword. Violence begets violence, and abortion is the ultimate violence,” says Joseph M. Scheidler, one of the grandfathers of the militant wing of the anti-abortion movement and the head of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League.
“Personally, I don’t think violence works. I’m not one of the ladies in pink--I’m not a wimp. But I’m not with the arson and bomb squad, either. Guys I’ve worked with for years and shared my views are saying, wait a minute, maybe it’s time to get a little more forceful. I used to be able to sit around a table and without any prevarication at all say these were nonviolent people. I can’t any more. I’m somewhat surprised at how many are saying we have to go ahead with this holy war.”
Large or small, no one knows with certainty the numbers of people being drawn deeper into lawlessness by these urgings.
According to the National Abortion Federation, more than 500 clinics have been vandalized since the late 1970s, and another 200 have been bombed, set afire or were targets of attempted destruction. In the last 10 days alone, fire bombings hit family planning and abortion-related facilities in Bakersfield, Peoria, Ill., and Lancaster, Pa. Earlier this month, an abortion clinic in Newport Beach was damaged by a small bomb, and its manager said that she later received a telephone threat that her car and house would be next.
Until just recently, clinic bombings were dropping in frequency from a high in the mid-1980s, while the number of attacks using foul-smelling and almost impossible-to-neutralize butyric acid sharply increased. More than 85 physical assaults have been reported to police.
But even these statistics are considered incomplete.
Only this summer did the Justice Department’s criminal division begin an inquiry into growing anti-abortion violence. “We are taking a look at the issue . . . it’s very much in the preliminary stage,” says spokesman John Russell.
What they will find, both sides say, is a campaign that is working. “Isolated acts with sweeping consequences--that’s the whole point of terrorism,” says Curtis Boyd, a physician who operates an abortion clinic in Dallas and serves on the board of the National Abortion Federation.
In recent weeks, a Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., clinic’s staff tried to reopen after a firebombing only to be locked out because the landlord said he received repeated death threats. A Baton Rouge, La., clinic closed because its retired doctor could not be replaced, and a fire bombed clinic’s staff in Missoula, Mont., says it cannot find anyone to rent it new space.
Meanwhile, physicians who perform abortions say that they are increasingly outcasts in the medical profession. A survey conducted by the Alan Guttmacher Institute in 1988, the most recent such study, showed an 11% decline in the number of abortion physicians in six years.
Tomorrow’s generation of doctors also finds itself targeted.
Life Dynamics, an anti-abortion group in Texas, said that it mailed copies of an anti-abortion “joke” pamphlet to 33,000 medical students around the country.
Called “Bottom Feeder,” the cartoon book lampooned abortion doctors with eight pages of bathroom-style jokes, including a couple with violent suggestions: “Q: What would you do if you found yourself in a room with Hitler, Mussolini and an abortionist, and you had a gun with only two bullets? A: Shoot the abortionist twice.”
Life Dynamics described the resulting national furor as a publicity bonanza. “Had we known it would work as well as it did, we would have done it sooner,” the group said in its Update publication.
Researchers say that there has been a decline in abortion training for medical students in the last half-dozen years. In 1991, according to a study done by Trent MacKay of UC Davis, only 12.4% of medical schools provided first trimester abortion instruction as part of the required curriculum. Another 56.4% offered optional training.
Abortion rights leaders say the fear of violence threatens to accomplish what politics, litigation and public persuasion all have failed to do--reduce access.
“It doesn’t matter if abortions are legal if a woman can’t get one,” Boyd said.
Certainly, the embrace of force, if only on the fringe, has defined a shift in the politics of the anti-abortion movement.
The militant clinic blockaders--those who picket doctors at home, stalk their spouses at work, print “wanted” posters with the names of doctors and publish the phone numbers of clinics to encourage harassing calls--had been thought of as the radical edge of the anti-abortion movement. Some of them, for their unwillingness to talk openly about going further, now find themselves being recast as moderates.
America’s better known and larger anti-abortion groups have decried the extremes of violence and those who embrace it. But the tone of some of their recent commentaries indicates that they are on the defensive.
The largest anti-abortion organization of all, the National Right to Life Committee, says that violence is never justified in achieving its aims. And it is outspoken in its view that the news media are giving too much attention to the radical advocates of force in a deliberate and biased effort to marginalize the entire cause.
“The media bear some responsibility for fostering acts of violence by not carrying NRLC’s denunciation of violence,” wrote the organization’s community director Nancy Myers Piccione after what she felt was short-shrift given to mainstream anti-abortion group denouncements after the Gunn and Tiller shootings.
In an interview, Piccione said that she rejected the very idea of this story as a smear on the anti-abortion movement. As for the potential for further violence in the cause, she said that the media will bear some of the burden if martyrs emerge on the fringes to lead other zealots on to greater violence.
She called the shooting of Gunn and Tiller “isolated acts” and said that the press does not report on violent acts by fringe elements of the opposing side.
But isn’t the terrorism by anti-abortion militants proving effective?
“Morally, I wouldn’t get into that discussion,” Piccione said. “It wouldn’t matter if it was effective, we would reject it anyway.”
These kinds of comments bring sneers from increasingly brazen militants of the cause.
“The popular expression of the pro-life movement is on the downswing,” says Joseph L. Foreman, a Presbyterian minister who helped found Operation Rescue and now leads the Milwaukee-based Missionaries to the Preborn. “The transcendent question being forced upon the pro-life movement is, do you really think this is murder? You know it would be right if your family was defended from murderers by someone using lethal force. Why not a fetus? To say that it’s not murder is to buy the line of the abortionists--that the fetus isn’t quite as human as a human.”
Judging from the tone of their own publications, the most radical of the anti-abortion groups trust the press even less than do mainstream abortion opponents.
In fact, these groups have estranged themselves in large measure from virtually all the institutions of society--the established church, the government, the courts, the police and the mass media in all forms.
Scholars who have studied group violence suggest that social estrangement resulting from fundamentalist beliefs describes an age-old pattern that can be seen elsewhere in a turbulent world: A group committed to a “higher ideal” develops an “us versus them” view of life, and begins incrementally to devalue “them.”
Today, that pattern seems clear enough in the literature of the most militant individuals opposing abortion: Clinics are called “abortuaries” and their doctors are “child-slaughterers.” A guest editorial in Life Advocate concluded, “Dead babies since 1973--30,000,000. Dead abortionists--1.”
What happens next in the typical cycle is described by Ervin Staub, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of the book “Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence"--a powerful ideology consumes members of a group and becomes the overriding consideration in their lives.
“Usually in such groups or movements there is an evolution--individual leaders change and the norms of the group change. They come to see themselves more and more as people who are willing to do whatever is required to accomplish their goals, more extreme things,” he says.
“They devalue the enemy ‘them’ more and more. It is an evolutionary process that makes increasing violence possible, and I would say probable.”
One of America’s foremost experts on the subject is Dallas Blanchard, chairman of the sociology department at the University of West Florida and author of “Religious Violence and Abortion.” Ten days before the killing of Gunn, Blanchard publicly predicted that it was only a matter of time before anti-abortionists took up arms.
And will the violence increase? “Yes,” he says. “I expect the bombings will continue and we’ll probably have more shootings.”
Blanchard has studied the profiles of those apprehended for violent acts against abortion clinics and providers.
They are split about 50-50, he says, between longtime activists who have grown frustrated at their lack of success through other means and those who have only a short involvement with the movement but who are hungry for martyrdom and celebrity.
“I think the violence in the future will continue to come from both directions,” he says. “The dam has a hole in it now.”
Times researcher Doug Conner in Seattle and special correspondent Dan Baum in Missoula, Mont., contributed to this story.