The “pro-life” terrorists

June 9, 2009

Nicole Colson documents the history of a right-wing movement that, in any other context, would be called out for what it is: terrorist.

TROY NEWMAN is worried.

Newman is president of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, which for years has targeted the Wichita, Kan., abortion clinic of Dr. George Tiller. Seven years ago, the group even moved its headquarters to Wichita--the better to harass Tiller, his employees and his patients, up close and personal.

But now Dr. Tiller, one of a small number of doctors anywhere in the U.S. who would perform late-term abortions, has been murdered--shot in the face (to avoid his bullet-proof vest) as he attended church on June 1, allegedly by anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder.

And Newman is concerned about a PR disaster--since it's hard to call your movement "pro life" when it assassinates doctors.

Newman's regret, of course, isn't for Dr. Tiller. It's not for the employees of Women's Health Care Services, who still face harassment at their homes, where Operation Rescue blankets their neighborhoods with pictures of aborted fetuses.

Nor does Newman care about Tiller's patients--the women (some of them children) who were victims of rape and incest, or whose pregnancies faced medical complications and fetal abnormalities. These women and their partners were often forced to run a gauntlet of Operation Rescue protesters just to enter Women's Health Care Services and exercise their legal right to choose abortion.

Members of the ultra-conservative Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funeral for Dr. George Tiller
Members of the ultra-conservative Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funeral for Dr. George Tiller (Allison Long | Kansas City Star)

No, Newman's worry is that the murder of Dr. Tiller has ripped the mask off the "pro-life" movement and exposed an ugly truth--just behind the "respectable" front that preaches "saving babies" is a group of violent fanatics who are determined to put an end to women's right to chose abortion "by any means necessary."

IN ANY other context, a movement that carried out the kind of violence the anti-abortion movement has over the past two decades would be called what it is: terrorist. But most of the media--not to mention politicians--refuse to do so.

The double standard is striking. In May, when a group of men were accused of plotting to carry out bombings of two Bronx synagogues and to shoot down military aircraft, the media featured screaming headlines about "terrorism" on U.S. soil, and politicians promised the public would be protected. This was despite the fact that the alleged "terrorists" never had access to weapons, nor harmed a single person or engaged in a single act of violence.

The modern U.S. anti-abortion movement, on the other hand, has a long and terrible record of bombings, arsons, acid attacks and vandalism at clinics across the country--and a string of murders to answer for.

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As the National Abortion Federation Web site details, "Since the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal, there has been an organized campaign by anti-abortion extremists which has resulted in escalating levels of violence against women's health care providers."

The first reported clinic arson in 1976 has been followed by more than 200 other arsons and bombings. Beginning in the early 1990s, some anti-choice activists began injecting butyric acid--which produces a rancid, vomit-like odor--into the walls of clinics. There were approximately 100 separate acid attacks on clinics between 1991 and 1998, causing more than $1 million in damage.

Between 1998 and 2002, 654 letters purporting to contain anthrax were sent to clinics. In November 2001 (just after the September 11 attacks, and in the wake of real anthrax attacks that killed five people), anti-abortion activist Clayton Waagner sent more than 500 fake anthrax letters to various clinics. Though none of the letters turned out to contain real anthrax, clinics were shut down in some cases.

If Scott Roeder was the man who murdered Dr. Tiller, as police allege, he is far from the first to kill an abortion provider in the U.S. Including Dr. Tiller, at least four abortion providers have been assassinated by anti-choice extremists since 1993.

That year, Dr. David Gunn was shot to death outside a Pensacola, Fla., clinic. The following year, Dr. John Bayard Britton and one of his volunteer escorts were shot and killed by former minister Paul Hill outside another abortion clinic in Pensacola. In 1998, anti-choice extremist James Kopp killed Dr. Barnett Slepian in his home in Amherst, N.Y.

Clinic staff and others have also been killed or injured in attacks--like the 1998 bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., clinic, in which nurse Emily Lyons was maimed and off-duty police officer Robert Sanderson killed by bomber Eric Rudolph.

Dr. Tiller was long targeted for death by the anti-choice movement. In 1993, he was shot in both arms by Rachelle "Shelley" Shannon, who was later also convicted of multiple clinic arsons and acid attacks.

Scott Roeder himself has a history of targeting clinics. Recently, he was caught two weekends in a row--the second being the day before Tiller's murder--allegedly attempting to put glue in the locks of another Kansas clinic, Central Family Medicine. But when clinic staff called the FBI to report the vandalism (and provide a description of the suspect, complete with car license plate number), they were reportedly told by the FBI that there was nothing that could be done until a grand jury could be convened.

These actions are designed to prevent women from exercising their legal right to an abortion--and to frighten doctors and clinic staff from providing care. If that doesn't qualify as terrorism, then what does?

SOME ANTI-choice activists, like Operation Rescue's Troy Newman, condemned Dr. Tiller's murder and publicly professed that they "abhor violence." But others couldn't hide their glee at Tiller's killing.

Randall Terry, the founder and former president of Operation Rescue, staged a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where he denied that the anti-choice movement is responsible for Tiller's death--but added that Tiller "was a mass-murderer and, horrifically, he reaped what he sowed."

Regina Dinwiddie, who protested at clinics alongside Scott Roeder, told CNN that Tiller's slaying was "absolutely" justified. "He forfeited his life by taking the lives of innocent children," she said.

Talk radio host Steve Deace had the gall to compare Scott Roeder to the 19th century abolitionist John Brown. "Maybe the fact that we have a lawless society that has not protected these babies from infanticide created the Scott Roeders of the world, who in very John Brown-like fashion, illegally took matters into his own hands," Deace said.

Not surprisingly, there are warnings that more violence could be on the way. Speaking to the Associated Press from his jail cell on June 7, Scott Roeder warned, "I know there are many other similar events planned around the country as long as abortion remains legal."

Colorado Right To Life spokesman Bob Enyart told the Los Angeles Times that abortion providers "should expect that violence begets violence." In particular, Enyart had strong words for Dr. Warren Hern--a colleague of Dr. Tiller's in Boulder, Colo., who has heroically pledged to carry on providing women with access to late-term abortion.

According to the Los Angeles Times, "the constant threats with which [Dr. Hern] has lived since 1973 have transformed his life into a series of security measures: sleeping with a rifle, scanning rooftops for snipers, wearing a protective vest."

But whether they publicly denounce violence or not, there's plenty of evidence to suggest an ideological connection--if not more--between groups like Operation Rescue and the more violent wing of the anti-abortion movement.

After he was arrested, authorities searched Scott Roeder's car and found a Post-It note with the name "Cheryl" and a phone number. That number belongs to Cheryl Sullenger--the senior policy adviser for Operation Rescue--who, after first denying ever having spoken to Roeder, acknowledged speaking with him on several occasions (though never about anything substantial, she claims).

In a statement claiming that Roeder had no affiliation with Operation Rescue, the group stated, "Operation Rescue has diligently and successfully worked for years through peaceful, legal means, and through the proper channels to see to it that abortionists around the nation are brought to justice. Without due process, there can be no justice."

Yet there was nothing peaceful or legal about the clinic firebombing that Cheryl Sullenger planned in 1988. Though it was not carried out, Sullenger spent two years in prison for her role in conspiring to bomb the Alvarado Medical Center in California.

So Operation Rescue abhors violence...but employs a convicted terrorist?

Like other anti-choice groups, Operation Rescue claims to be peaceful, but it does everything in its power to make life a living hell for abortion providers and clinic staff. As a 2004 report in Rolling Stone details, the group targeted everyone connected to Dr. Tiller, however casually--using tactics that seem to invite the potential of violence without necessarily crossing any legal lines.

For example, Sara Phares, an administrative assistant at Dr, Tiller's clinic, was sent a letter by Troy Newman suggesting she should "quit her job and repent her sins." A week later, hundreds of Phares' neighbors were sent postcards with pictures of aborted fetuses that accused Phares of "killing babies like these." The cards listed Phare's phone number and home address.

That was followed by Operation Rescue protesters appearing at Phares' home, according to Rolling Stone:

They parked a tractor-trailer across the street, plastered with 20-foot-long images of dismembered fetuses. From its speakers came the kind of sweet, tinkling music that lures children from their backyards in pursuit of Dreamsicles. One protester, a somber man in a tan windbreaker with a three-foot crucifix thrust before him, performed an exorcism on Phares' front lawn, sprinkling holy water on the grass to cast demons from the property.

Such tactics are designed to skirt the line of what's legal--whipping up anti-choice sentiment and putting providers and clinic staff in the crosshairs, but allowing groups like Operation Rescue to claim they had no responsibility.

Former evangelical anti-choice activist Frank Schaeffer was one of the few who admitted that the anti-choice movement "helped create the climate that made this murder likely to happen." As Schaeffer commented on the Huffington Post following Tiller's murder:

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 on this day, after a man was murdered in cold blood for performing abortions, that I--and the people I worked with in the religious right, the Republican Party, the pro-life movement and the Roman Catholic Church--all contributed to this killing by our foolish and incendiary words.

Years ago, Troy Newman took out a full-page ad in the Catholic newspaper The Wanderer. In it, he declared: "Wichita isn't big enough for George Tiller and me." Looks like Newman finally got his wish.

IF TROY Newman and his ilk are responsible for whipping up hatred, they are aided and abetted by the mainstream media and the politicians who applaud their cause.

Few in the press (a notable exception being MSNBC's Rachel Maddow) have been willing to call out the anti-choice movement for encouraging, promoting and creating a climate where this terrorist violence is okay.

Instead, for years, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, repeatedly attacked Dr. Tiller on the air, referring to him as "Tiller the baby killer" and hurling outrageous lies--for example, that Tiller would "execute babies for $5,000 if the mother is depressed."

During a 2006 show, O'Reilly said: "[I]f I could get my hands on Tiller...well, you know. Can't be vigilantes. Can't do that. It's just a figure of speech."

After Tiller's murder, O'Reilly joined the chorus of those trying to wash their hands of the violence. Instead, O'Reilly insisted that he was being persecuted. "When I heard about Tiller's murder, I knew that pro-abortion zealots and Fox News-haters would blame us for the crime," he said, adding that the "far left is exploiting, EXPLOITING, the death" of Dr. Tiller for political gain.

O'Reilly, true to form, then reminded viewers that Tiller was responsible for destroying "60,000 fetuses who will never become American citizens."

Naturally, there was no mention of the campaign of domestic terrorism engaged in by the anti-choice movement over a period of decades. In O'Reilly's world, you're only a terrorist if you're non-white and a Muslim.

O'Reilly's attitude is hardly unique. On the campaign trail last year, for example, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin repeatedly invoked the name of former Weather Underground figure Bill Ayers as a "domestic terrorist" to try to smear Barack Obama because of his casual association with Ayers.

But when NBC News reporter Brian Williams asked Palin, with running mate John McCain at her side, "Is an abortion clinic bomber a terrorist under this definition, Governor?" she refused to say yes.

"There's no question that Bill Ayers, via his own admittance, was one who sought to destroy our U.S. capitol and our Pentagon...that is a domestic terrorist," she told Williams. "Now, others who would want to engage in harming innocent Americans, or facilities that--it would be unacceptable. I don't know if you're gonna use the word 'terrorist' there."

Such rhetoric isn't surprising given that the modern Republican Party has depended on a base in the anti-choice Evangelical Right--which openly brags about setting Republican "values."

But if the Republican Party has openly embraced such anti-choice zealots, the Democratic Party has been spineless in calling them out for it. Instead, the Democrats have constantly preached that "Middle America" wants "middle ground" on the question of abortion.

Thus, in April, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report on right-wing extremism acknowledging, in a footnote, that groups opposed to abortion might be among the extremists. That's hardly a shocking statement in light of the movement's history of repeated violent actions.

Obama's Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano defended the report at first--but after anti-choice groups protested vociferously, she said the section including anti-choice activists should not have been included.

That kind of weak-kneed response is, unfortunately, all too typical of the Democrats, who spend more time talking about finding "common ground" with anti-choice activists than fighting to defend abortion rights and abortion clinics.

Now that the anti-abortion forces have been exposed as preachers of violence and hate, in the wake of Dr. Tiller's murder, activists should seize the opportunity to push back.

Why are women's health clinics across this country forced to install video cameras and hire security guards? Why are doctors forced to wear bulletproof vests, and patients forced to struggle through a gauntlet of protesters?

If abortion remains legal, then why has the anti-choice movement been able to get away with creating a climate of terror that prevents physicians from practicing, and women from exercising, their legal rights? And why have the Democrats been so willing to accept every restriction on a woman's right to choose--from parental consent laws to mandatory waiting periods to forced ultrasounds.

This isn't "common ground." This is losing ground.

We need to build a new movement for abortion rights that fights to change the terrain of the debate--and pressures the government to hold the anti-choice terrorists accountable for their violence.

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