Election 2016

How the Anti-Choice Movement Paved the Way for Trump's Rise to the Top of the GOP

Making a conservative case against Trump, Ross Douthat descends into denial about anti-choice violence.

Photo Credit: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

In a stunning piece titled “From Roe to Trump” in Wednesday’s New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat serves up a revisionist history of the anti-choice movement, holding up its alleged pacifism as the rationale for conservative opposition to the presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump. There are plenty of reasons for anyone of any political stripe to oppose Trump, but to accept Douthat’s premise of the anti-choice movement as some peaceable kingdom of fetus protectors is to live in upside-down land. For, if any cultural movement paved the way for Trump, it is the one that seeks to deprive women of agency over their own bodies.

Douthat does a neat trick of trying to separate what he calls the “mainstream pro-life movement” and the anti-choice extremists who incite with violent rhetoric those who do physical violence.

I’ve sat at evangelical gatherings in which anti-abortion violence is either dismissed as not so bad, or smugly chuckled over, as during a 2007 “Reclaiming American for Christ” conference at the late Reverend D. James Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, when former right-wing “It Girl” Ann Coulter (now a Trump supporter) suggested that abortion clinic workers killed by anti-choice murderers could be said to have had “a procedure with a rifle performed on them.”

It’s precisely that kind of rhetoric that helped open the gates of American politics to Trump, and that so-called “principled conservatives” are guilty of having tolerated. Where were the “principled conservatives” who called out Fox News host Bill O’Reilly for having repeatedly described George Tiller, a physician who provided late-term abortions, as “Tiller the baby-killer”?

Tiller is now dead, shot in his own church by an anti-choice murderer. Apparently, an anti-choice extremist could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue, and principled conservatives would still support those who rhetorically aided and abetted him.

Since the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion, 11 people have been murdered by anti-abortion extremists.

Between the years of 1977 and 2009 in the U.S. and Canada, according to statistics compiled by the National Abortion Federation and summarized by Wikipedia:

[P]roperty crimes committed against abortion providers have included 41 bombings, 173 arsons, 91 attempted bombings or arsons, 619 bomb threats, 1630 incidents of trespassing, 1264 incidents of vandalism, and 100 attacks with butyric acid ("stink bombs"). The New York Times also cites over one hundred clinic bombings and incidents of arson, over three hundred invasions, and over four hundred incidents of vandalism between 1978 and 1993.

All of these acts of violence were of a piece with a rhetoric of violence, and the appearance of a woman-shaming rabble on the sidewalks in front of abortion clinics, staffed by so-called “sidewalk counselors” who stalk women on the way into the clinics and accuse them of killing their babies. How more perfect a cultural preparation for the likes of Trump—who calls women names, sexually shames them in public, and has called on “Second Amendment people” to provide a solution to a Hillary Clinton presidency—could one imagine?

When anti-choice Republicans, especially those claiming a religious belief as justification for their argument, are confronted with Trump’s many personal moral failings, they often say they’re willing to look past all that philandering and cursing and divorcing and pussy-grabbing because of the fate of the Supreme Court, which they dare not leave in the hands of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Douthat argues against voting for Trump by asking conservatives to model their opposition to Clinton on what he casts as the gentler, incremental approach of the anti-choice movement, and wraps it up in the “just war” theory put forth by the Roman Catholic Church.

Fine, let’s look at the Catholic Church’s involvement with anti-choice groups. In 1989, New York City Archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor welcomed the group Operation Rescue to his church. The group was then headed by Randall Terry, who would go on to stage blockades of Tiller’s Wichita, Kansas, abortion clinic in 1991, described this way in The New York Times:

Demonstrators stand on both sides of bustling Kellogg Street, holding signs that say, “Babies Killed Here” and “Tiller's Slaughter House,” waving to the drivers of Mack trucks and minivans that honk their horns in support as they pass.

At times it has taken 40 police officers, some on horseback, to keep the clinic’s doors open. And even then, John Cowles, Dr. Tiller’s lawyer said, “protesters shoved their way through and crawled beneath them.”

Catholic clergy were reported by the Times to be well-represented among the protesters.

Don’t come to me with tales the church’s supposedly pacific response to Roe v. Wade. It just simply outsourced the hate speech to the very extremists from whom Douthat would like to separate himself. As late as 2009, when I learned that Randall Terry was on the speaking agenda for a conference taking place at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., the church refused to denounce either Terry or his associates, even after Terry called the murdered Tiller “an evil man who reaped what he sowed.”

The primary driver of the Donald Trump campaign is misogyny. Trump may not always have been anti-choice, but he’s happy to jump on the bandwagon. After all, constraining women is all of a piece with the contempt he’s shown for them throughout his campaign. And the hate-mongering rhetoric he flings has ample precedence in the bullying speech and tactics of the anti-choice movement.

Just as movement conservatism created the conditions for Trump’s candidacy (with its racism, nativism, homophobia, and misogyny dressed up in states’ rights principles and moral outrage), the anti-choice movement modeled a way of moving in the public sphere for Trump’s campaign—by making false assertions in shocking and often violent language.

And that “mainstream pro-life movement”? Its leaders are lined up behind Trump. Just look at the people who form his Pro-Life Advisory Council: Marjorie Dannenfelser, who leads the ironically named Susan B. Anthony List, Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America, and Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, who is also a Republican campaign strategist. These are people who lead significant anti-choice organizations—the moralists who are OK lining up behind a candidate who as all but admitted sexually assaulting women.

So, if Douthat can’t bring himself to vote for Trump, good on him. But don’t pretend the anti-choice movement holds some moral high ground as an example of high-minded principles advanced by the Roman Catholic bishops. Randall Terry and Donald Trump are cut from the same cloth; Trump may have learned a thing or two from Terry, who has known the support of the church fathers. In the world of misogyny, there is no decency.


Adele M. Stan is a weekly columnist for The American Prospect. Follow her on Twitter @addiestan.

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