US anti-abortionists' terror campaign claims another life

By Kathy Newnam

One of the few remaining US clinics that provided late-term abortions will close in the wake of its owner’s murder, the slain doctor’s family said on June 9. Dr George Tiller was shot dead in his church in Wichita, Kansas, on May 31. His clinic, Women’s Health Care Services, was one of only three remaining clinics in the US to provide abortion services in the third trimester. This made him and the clinic a long-standing target of the anti-abortion movement. The clinic had been picketed since 1975 and was bombed in 1986. In 1993, Tiller was shot in both arms.

Since 1993, there have been nine murders of abortion providers and clinic staff in the US. These are not isolated incidents — it is a deliberate tactic of the anti-abortion movement in their campaign to prevent women accessing abortion. It is not only the fundamentalist religious anti-abortionists who fuel these attacks. For example, right-wing Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly has run a campaign against Dr Tiller, decrying him at least 29 times since 1995 as “Tiller the baby-killer”, “Nazi”, the moral equivalent of Al Qaeda and so on.

On June 1, long-time leader of the anti-abortion movement Frank Shaeffer, whose father was also a founder of the anti-abortion movement in the US, wrote in an op-ed piece in the June 2 Baltimore Sun: “The same hate machine I was part of is still attacking all abortionists as ‘murderers’. And today, once again, the ‘pro-life’ leaders are busy ducking their personal responsibility for people acting on their words. The people who stir up the fringe never take responsibility. But I’d like to say that I, and the people I worked with in the pro-life movement, all contributed to this killing by our foolish and incendiary words.”

This hate campaign has worked. Since 1982, there has been a steady decrease across the US in the number of clinics providing abortion. This followed a sharp rise in abortion providers after the 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court ruling which overrode state laws limiting women’s access to abortion in the first trimester. According to the US National Abortion Federation, today 88% of all US counties have no identifiable abortion provider. In non-metropolitan areas, the figure rises to 97%.

The terror tactics against abortion providers go hand-in-hand with the anti-abortion movement’s political campaign for laws that ban abortion. Between 1995 and 2008 more than 550 laws limiting women’s reproductive freedom were enacted across the US, including the misnamed “Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act” of 2003, which outlaws the use of the “intact dilation and extraction” procedure used in some abortions past the first trimester. The anti-abortionists resort to the tactic of physical violence when their political campaign is seen to be losing ground. It is no coincidence that the murder of Dr Tiller came on the back of much anti-abortion hand-wringing about the election of Barack Obama, lauded by the leadership of the US pro-choice movement as being the country’s second “pro-choice” president.

The conservative wing of the pro-choice movement, represented by groups such as the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), has continued to put its weight behind Obama and the Democrats — a strategy that has led to the continued loss of ground to the anti-abortionists. The politics of the movement are defensive, shaped by what the first ostensibly “pro-choice” US president, Bill Clinton, called for in 1992 — “abortion should be safe, legal and rare”. This outlook was reflected in the May 17 speech by Obama at the Notre Dame University, which attracted much controversy because of the anti-abortion movement’s protest at the Catholic university’s awarding of an honorary doctorate to Obama.

In his speech, Obama legitimised the anti-abortion movement, stating: “Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions. So let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies”. He went on to argue for the need to “honour the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women”.

Support for such a stance has left the conservative wing of the US pro-choice movement unable to make the case that abortion is not a social problem, but the solution to the problem of unwanted pregnancy. NARAL has even moved away from openly defending a woman’s right to control her own body — now hinging its campaigns around the idea of abortion as an issue of “privacy” for women! This plays into the hands of the anti-abortionists, who strive to create a “taboo” about speaking about abortion, thus keeping women isolated in their experiences of having or seeking abortion.

The failure of NARAL to challenge the anti-abortionists’ ideas is reflected in the US Gallup poll conducted in May this year which found that 51% of adults described themselves as “pro-life” — up seven points in a year. The poll found that 53% believe abortion should be legal only under limited circumstances. Only 22% supported abortion in all circumstances. As long as the US abortion rights movement continues to look to the Democrats for political leadership, more ground will be lost to the anti-abortionists.