After Dr. Tiller's Murder Where to for Abortion Rights?
Millions of people are deeply agonized and righteously outraged by murder of Dr. George Tiller, a man who provided life-saving and life-enhancing abortions for women even late into their pregnancies.
The day after Dr. Tiller was murdered I attended an emergency gathering at Union Square in New York City. Hundreds packed the park on just hours notice. Many who were just walking by joined in. A 45-year-old Black woman spoke defiantly about her three abortions, describing how she had been in no position to care for a child and expressing anger at those who say abortion is a sin. A 65-year-old Jewish woman shared memories of dangerous illegal back-alley abortions. Young people of all nationalities, male as well as female, stopped to listen and dozens stepped forward to hold posters of Dr. Tiller and the word “hero.”
Similar scenes continue to unfold around the country and give just a taste of the potential reservoir of support for abortion rights that has long been dormant.
To a very large degree, the future of abortion and of women's lives depend on whether this reservoir is called forward to fight for a radical cultural shift and the expansion of abortion rights, or whether they are left on the sidelines as abortion is chipped away at and women's lives are foreclosed.
One sure way to squander this tremendous reservoir is to direct people's attention towards further reliance on politicians and the repressive apparatus of the state. Yet, already calls are emerging for laws to further criminalize anti-abortion activism, to strengthen enforcement of existing laws, and to support “pro-choice” politicians.
First, while many of the actions of the anti-abortion movement do fit any objective definition of “terrorism” (targeting civilians for political aims), the whole “fight against terrorism” is really the means through which the government has carried out vicious repression. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has rounded up thousands of non-criminal immigrants. It not only abandoned, but unleashed violence against, people trapped in Hurricane Katrina. And it has spied on and set up people who protest the government. It was in the name of “fighting terrorism” that torture was legalized under Bush and is being covered up under Obama.
None of this can or should be strengthened or relied on to protect the rights of women. But, even if you were willing to ignore all this, the fact is relying on the state has never worked.
The anti-abortion movement has been able to work through the state to pass countless restrictions on abortion access (parental notification, mandatory waiting periods, etc.) and to bring seemingly unending legal suits against providers. Yet, the state has never consistently prevented or prosecuted those carrying out violence and terror against clinics and doctors.
This is not merely because the ruling structures of the U.S. (the courts, legislature, even the military command) have been packed with maniacally anti-abortion Christian fundamentalists. More fundamentally, those Christian fascists have been allowed and encouraged into power by the U.S. ruling class as a whole who sees the maintenance of patriarchy and tradition as essential to the country's stability and cohesion. This is all the more so – even under Obama – as the U.S. continues its highly unpopular wars and torture and is experiencing profound economic and demographic shifts driven by globalization.
The services that Dr. Tiller provided were not only essential for women's lives, they were also perfectly legal. Yet, Dr. Tiller became the victim not only of relentless harassment and violence, but also of ongoing legal persecution. Most recently, Dr. Tiller was bogged down in years of legal battle over 19 charges of alleged medical misconduct. That these charges were completely bogus and eventually dropped does not erase the emotional toll and huge financial burdens Dr. Tiller was forced to endure.
Meanwhile, blatant violations of the federal Freedom to Access Clinic Entrances law (FACE) at Dr. Tiller's clinic occurred almost daily by ant-abortion protesters. Yet the state rarely interfered. Dr. Susan Robinson, a colleague and friend of Dr. Tiller's, recounted on Democracy Now how Dr. Tiller had met with the city attorney about this double-standard: “I asked him about this...He did not say when it was, and he didn’t say who it was. But he said, 'And they said to me, we would rather be sued by George Tiller than by the anti-abortion people.'”
To get right down on the ground: the state allowed Scott Roeder to assassinate Dr. Tiller. Roeder was reported to the FBI for vandalizing a women's clinic twice just in the week before Dr. Tiller's murder. Yet, despite the clear violation of FACE, and despite the clear warning sign of potential greater violence, the FBI did nothing. Roeder remained free to kill.
The lesson to draw is NOT that there should be more reliance on law enforcement. It is that there needs instead to be a powerful mobilization of pro-choice people from below, relying on ourselves to reverse the whole culture and dynamic in this country.
We must revoke the cover of “moral legitimacy” of fascist thugs like Bill O'Reilly (who routinely called Tiller a “baby-killer”) and Randall Terry (who's Operation Rescue ran a Tiller Watch webpage) who set an atmosphere for this killing. And we must reverse the demobilization of pro-choice people who've been told to rely on ineffectual law enforcement and to seek “common ground” with religious fanatics.
We must re-seize the moral and ideological high ground, declare abortion on demand and without apology, and go on the political offensive out in the streets and once again to the clinics.
There can be no “common ground” with a movement that bombs clinics, kills doctors, and shames women. More fundamentally, there can be no “common ground” because, at its core, the question of abortion is entirely bound up with one's view of women. If you believe women should be equal to men and live full social lives, then it must be their decision – and theirs alone – whether and when to bear children. If you are driven by the biblical mandate that a woman's duty (as penance for some alleged “original sin”) is to obey men and to bear children, then you will be driven to restrict not only abortion but also birth control. It is no accident that there is not a single “pro-life” organization that upholds birth control. What “common ground” could possibly be found with that?!?
Everyone seems convinced these days that polarization is a bad thing. Not so. The current polarization is very, very bad. The one where anti-woman fascists are unleashed and allowed to claim the moral high ground and pro-choice people are relying on the mealy mouthed “common ground” of Obama is deadly and getting worse.
But a different polarization – one where people had to decide if they are for forcing women to bear children against their will or for women's full emancipation – would be very, very good.
I believe that when people get clear on the stakes they, in their great numbers, side with women. Even those who today feel conflicted or even negatively towards abortion can be won to change their views – if they are challenged.
I saw this at Notre Dame when Obama gave the commencement speech. While hundreds of fanatical Christian fascists protested, there was no organized presence of the pro-choice movement other than myself and a handful of other supporters of the Revolutionary Communist Party. This defensiveness of the pro-choice movement had its echoes in the students and community members who had come out on their own. At first, they hesitated to even admit they were pro-choice, opting instead to hold signs supporting Obama and the graduates or simply asking the anti-abortion fanatics to go away. When we unfurled our banner, “Abortion on Demand and Without Apology!” many kept their distance.
Then they interacted with both sides. The anti-abortion crowd scolded them that women should “keep their pants up” and actually lectured that the “last time women were allowed to have free will they ate the forbidden fruit” and got humanity kicked out of the “garden of eden.” Our side discussed how essential abortion is to women's full equality. As the day went on, the students and community members got more defiant and more and more joined us.
I am also a living example of how polarization on the right terms is tremendously clarifying and unleashing. I was 15 years old and living in a small city in Minnesota when the first abortion doctor was killed. Although I was pro-choice, I was still Christian and hanging out with the Young Life club. I sympathized with my friends who were “pro-life.” Mainly, I didn't think our differences mattered. Then I heard my friends empathizing with the man who had killed the doctor. “Not that I approve of violence,” they'd say, “But I can understand his motivation. He did stop babies from getting killed.” All of a sudden, I had to decide whether I could be passive as doctors were hunted and people I had thought were reasonable empathized with this.
I will always consider myself lucky that I ran into people who were clear unapologetic about abortion. They helped me understand scientifically why a fetus is a subordinate part of a woman's body, not a “child.” They helped me understand how the right to abortion is essential to women's liberation. And they gave me a positive way to express the outrage I was feeling. They had posted up signs calling on people to defend the last abortion clinic in North Dakota when it was under siege. I signed up. I learned a great deal. I have never been the same since.
Right now, millions who thought they didn't have to concern themselves with the “abortion wars” are being forced to tune in. What voices, what clarity, what challenge will they hear?
It is possible to discern already that relying on Obama and seeking “common ground” will lead only to further disaster. Relying on the state – its courts, its police, and its FBI – will only squander our potential power in mass resistance and strengthen a highly repressive apparatus that has never served women.
This is the moment to raise our voices for abortion on demand and without apology as an essential part of the full emancipation of women. It is time to draw forward the reservoir to fight for the world we want to live in.