Responding to fatal shootings at two Massachusetts clinics, California's key anti-abortion leaders Monday proclaimed their intolerance for violence and promised to inform on any activist overheard threatening abortion providers.
"For the first time, there's going to be a rift in the pro-life movement," said Teri Reisser, executive director of the Right to Life League of Southern California. "How can there not be? We will not embrace those who talk of justifiable homicide in our ranks."
Like other speakers at Monday's news conference, Reisser drew a delicate distinction between moderate "pro-life" adherents, who condemn the killing of abortion providers and human fetuses with equal vigor, and fringe "anti-abortion" militants, who believe deadly force is an acceptable tactic in the all-out war against abortion.
The latest slayings--of two clinic receptionists in Brookline, Mass.--have sparked intense debate among anti-abortion activists nationwide.
Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston has called for a temporary halt on demonstrations at abortion clinics, to let passions on both sides cool. A few extremists have supported the attacks. And mainstream anti-abortion leaders have denounced the killings--although many have described abortions themselves as equally bloody, vicious and senseless.
Seeking a firm, united response to the Brookline shootings, 15 of California's top anti-abortion activists gathered at a Southland summit last week.
They pledged to snitch on activists caught plotting against abortion providers. They signed a mission statement that rejected "lethal and destructive measures . . . as a means to end abortion." And they challenged their foes in the abortion-rights movement to join them in an anti-violence summit.
But abortion-rights activists immediately denounced the temperate rhetoric as hypocrisy.
They called on anti-abortion leaders to renounce not only the brutal shooting of receptionists, but also the reams of literature that call abortions "baby killing," reproductive-health clinics "abortuaries" and doctors "child slaughterers." Until anti-abortion leaders give up such inflammatory rhetoric, they said, the terror in abortion clinics will continue as the self-proclaimed moderates incite the fringe militants to violence.
"This insanity is something their policies and their rhetoric have caused," said Tammy Bruce, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women. "This is not about a couple of nuts with guns. It's domestic terrorism. And the organizations that spoke (at Monday's news conference) are . . . consistently using rhetoric that makes people feel they can stick a shotgun in the face of a woman and blow her head off."
Marcela Howell, director of the California Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, also rejected the idea of a summit--especially one based on the premise that both sides are equally responsible for violent actions.
"There is no violence on our side," Howell said. "If they stop walking around with Wanted posters with doctors' pictures on it, that would go a long way to changing the violent atmosphere they've created. They can bring their rhetoric down a lot."
So far, however, local anti-abortion leaders show no sign of softening their tone.
In the mission statement released Monday, they called the "killing of unborn human beings" and the "killing of abortionists and their staffs" equally loathsome. And they accused abortion-rights activists of throwing stink-bombs in churches, spraying graffiti on anti-abortion strongholds, and roughing up "sidewalk counselors" who stand outside clinics urging women not to go through with abortions.
As for the calls to temper anti-abortion rhetoric, Susan Carpenter McMillan of the Women's Coalition said angrily: "They want us to stop saying the truth."
For all the unanimity expressed Monday, the anti-abortion groups remain deeply divided about which strategy to pursue as they press their common agenda.
The loose "Coalition of Pro-Life Organizations" formed last week includes groups with divergent tactics: the Right to Life League, which focuses on counseling women before and after abortions; Operation Rescue, which emphasizes civil disobedience by picketing abortion clinics; and Hispanics for Life and Human Rights, which aims to distribute anti-abortion literature in the Latino community. Other members include Crusade for Life and California Collegians for Life.
It took three hours for leaders of the various groups to come up with a mission statement.
"This was really soul-searching, emotionally tugging," Carpenter McMillan said.
The 15 representatives finally succeeded in uniting behind an anti-violence platform. But they acknowledged that even the strongest pleas for peace will not deter anti-abortion extremists from expressing their views with bullets.
And they blamed the bloodshed not on their own rhetoric, but rather on federal laws restricting clinic blockades and other forms of protest.
"Any time the government seeks to oppress public protest . . . you have a situation where there's no reasonable way a reasonable person can express himself," said Joseph Foreman of California Missionaries to the Preborn.