Gender

The Dangerous Lies of Anti-Choice Extremists

Every person who trots out vicious nonsense and misinformation about abortion played a part in the murder Dr. George Tiller.

One of the most contentious issues now in the news, in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. George Tiller, is how much moral culpability the anti-choice movement bears for motivating the man who took Dr. Tiller's life.  I've had innumerable discussions with folks who are confused about the extremism and anger that characterizes the "right to life" movement, people who mistakenly believe that it's a mostly harmless group of rosary-shuffling grandmothers who, at worst, sit around abortion clinics looking doe-eyed. Or that the picketers at women's clinics could be reasonably described as peaceful.  Discrediting these myths isn't fun or easy, but something that fell into my lap in the past week coincidentally turns out to be quite helpful in convincing people that the anti-choice movement, rather than being composed of generally good-hearted folks who just have a thing for fetuses, is in fact composed of hard-hearted sexist ideologues.  I've got my hands on a 113-page training manual (PDF) for protesters working for Justice For All, an anti-choice organization that targets college campuses (in keeping with the anti-choice obsession with singling out young, middle class women, whom they wish to preserve as symbols of virginal innocence).  Don't worry. My sources got this manual the old-fashioned way, by asking.

As a long-time observer of the anti-choice movement, I thought I'd really seen it all in terms of lying, phony sanctimony, and heated rhetoric that will push anti-choicers to commit violence, but still, reading this manual, titled "Abortion: From Debate To Dialogue," was distressing.  The book assumes that its protesters will be sent into a field where they actually have to engage arguments instead of merely yelling abuse and scaring women seeking abortion care.  Since my scanner is slow, and time is limited, I didn't turn all 113 pages into a PDF, and since much of it is just Q&A sections and scripture, I didn't feel I had to.  But I did grab some interesting pages on arguments to make and rhetorical strategies to use against pro-choicers who try to engage anti-choice activists. 

What I first learned was that Justice For All has no problem instructing its activists to use deception to lure people into a conversation.   In the section titled "Why Don't You Pass Out Condoms and Promote Birth Control?," the authors tacitly admit that sensible people might be put off by the anti-choice movement's willingness to increase the abortion rate by standing as firmly against contraception, especially the birth control pill, as they do legal abortion.  So instead of allowing members to admit their hostility to all forms of contraception, they instruct them to conceal their beliefs until a target has been softened up to hear about their true message--sexual abstinence for all not trying to procreate--through a series of dodgy, misleading arguments, including misinformation about how the birth control pill works.

This tactic is a mainstay of the  anti-choice movement: it shows one face to the initiated, and another to the public, especially on the topic of contraception.  Once you realize this, the movement's half-hearted denunciations of Dr. Tiller's murder, coupled with the enthusiastic return to calling Dr. Tiller a monster, become all the more chilling. 

Throughout the handbook, you find a willingness to ignore or outright deny inconvenient facts.  The section "What If The Mother's Life Is In Danger" is particularly outrageous, in light of the fact that it spreads many of the lies that led directly to Dr. Tiller's assassination.  Dr. Tiller performed a number of medically indicated late term abortions, and anti-choice attempts to use legal persecution to catch him fudging the ugly realities proved fruitless.  Despite this, Justice For All encourages its activists to believe they know better than medical doctors what constitutes a medically necessary abortion, and the handbook claims there is only one instance where a pregnancy can threaten a woman's life.  Conveniently, the one dangerous condition they'll admit exists (and consider a justifiable reason for an abortion) happens to be the one that is most likely to threaten her future fertility--the ectopic pregnancy--so they can rest easy knowing that even if a woman's life is saved through abortion, she's paid a steep price. Other dangerous conditions caused by pregnancy--eclampsia and placenta previa being the two biggies--are dismissed as myths used to get away with abortions.  Other life-threatening illnesses like cancer are ignored, and it's assumed that a woman's health is certainly an acceptable sacrifice for a pregnancy.

This casual disregard for women's lives is acknowledged as a credibility-wrecking problem in another section "Women Will Die in the Back Alleys with Coat Hangers."  It's clear that Justice for All activists have convinced themselves that making abortion illegal actually doesn't hinder access to safe abortions (!), but followers are instructed to pretend to concede that illegal abortion is dangerous, to gain credibility. (Which means they have to pretend to believe what they don't, but ironically what they don't believe is true.  It's a rabbit hole of deceit and misinformation.) The important thing is creating the illusion of concern for women's lives, apparently, and the manual even offers a small section titled "Sound Bites For Showing Concern," which the activist is supposed to use to soften up the target before comparing an elective abortion (most commonly performed in the first trimester) to shooting a toddler.  One does wonder when reading this section if Justice for All offers role-playing classes so you can practice your "concerned" face when someone brings up the problem of women who are mutilated and die due to illegal abortion.

Shocking as all this is, perhaps the most shocking is the section addressing what Justice For All believes about the motivations of doctors who perform and women who obtain abortion, in a section titled "Abortion Isn't Genocide!"  Yes, they believe that abortion is genocide, and their rationales for this belief depend on a bunch of out-of-context quotes suggesting that terminating a pregnancy is exactly the same thing as targeting a people for elimination.  People commit genocide because they hate the group in question, so the implication (barely implied, and almost directly stated) is that doctors and women who have abortions do so because they hate fetuses.  Not because the woman can't go through a pregnancy for a myriad of personal reasons.  Not because the doctor is trying to help the woman.  No, because pro-choicers hate fetuses.

This is the sort of vicious lie that led to Dr. Tiller's assassination.  Realistically speaking, Dr. Tiller was a good man who loved children enough to have four of his own, who joyfully celebrated the pregnancies of women who wanted to be pregnant,who opened his home to women who wished to give their babies up for adoption, and who mourned the loss of very much wanted pregnancies with his patients who had to terminate. In the eyes of his detractors, Dr. Tiller was a genocidal monster who killed fetuses because he hated them.

That is why every person who trots out this nonsense about how abortion is "genocide" played a part in Sunday's tragedy.  You paint good, moral, righteous man who lived by his principles, even in the face of grave danger as an irrational monster who gets his kicks by killing babies, and the people who believe you will feel they have to do something.  Even if that something is murder.

Amanda Marcotte co-writes the popular blog Pandagon. She is the author of It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.