The Right to Choose Under Siege
WITH THE RECENT bombings of the abortion clines around the country, the controversy surrounding this divisive issue has jumped form the back pages of women's magazines and conservative journals onto the front page and the top of the evening news. Discussions on abortion are more volatile than they have been since the Supreme Court affirmed a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy in 1972. The 71,000 "profilers" who marched in Washington on January 22, the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, were a forceful indication of the strong attention now being paid to abortion. President Reagan took heed of the crowd and addressed the marchers directly, saying "I Want you to0 know I feel these days as never before; the momentum is with us."
Reagan also added a caution: "We cannot condone the threatening or taking of human life to protest the taking of human life by way of abortion." He was referring to the bombings and arson attacks which damaged 24 clinics in eight different states last year in addition, there have been numerous incidents of telephone and mail threats to clinics and vandalism of clinic property. Though no casualties have yet to be reported, there seems reason to believe that the explosions may be far more dangerous in the future. James Simmons, arrested in connection with three Christmas-day bombings in Pensacola Ha. Admitted that damage to one of the facilities may have been far more serious: "I had a gas can I was support to set beside the bomb, but beside the bomb, but I forgot it and left it in the car." While investigating a small blast at the National Abortion Federation headquarters in Washington this past July, police discovered an unexploded bomb that could have leveled the entire building had it gone off.
There has been some debate as to whether or not such incidents constitute terrorism. While no evidence which might link the bombings to one central organization has been uncovered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), which is currently carrying out the investigation, many pro-choice activists continue to insist that the alarming number of attacks last year could not have been a coincidence. But the entire question of whether or not they bombings fit the category "terrorism" has become insignificant in light of the fact that a large investigation is being carried out--500 agents from BATF have been assigned to the case--and-arrests and convictions are beginning to be made. In addition, the attacks have been condemned both by "pro-life" and "pro-choice" activists as a vigilante obstruction of a woman's constitutional right and as extremely damaging to a movement which likes to call itself "pro-life." Even President Reagan. Whose silence on the attacks had led many to believe the issues was being ignored by the Administration, finally came out with a statement on January 3 condemning "all such violent anarchist activities."
Whether the attacks are "terrorist" or not, they are indicative not merely of the violent zeal with which some pro-liters approach abortion, but of what the actual debate on abortion has come to in this country a dangerous silence broken periodically by a bomb blast and the sound of fire sterns. Also filling this brandishing graphic photographs and drawings of aborted fetuses barricading clinic doors, harassing patients and workers and even calling abortion patients at home who are about to enter the facilities. There has been no sweeping condemnation by pro-life activists of such protests which have also risen sharply in the past year. Yet this form of protest is damaging in much the same way as the bombings are, for both serve to obstruct a woman's constitutional rights by adding an unwarranted burden of fear and hostility upon a decision which is, in and of itself difficult, difficult frightening and emotionally traumatic.
The bombings, the violent protests outside facilities which perform abortions and the harassment of patients all point to the absence of civilized debate on abortion. The rhetoric of life activists has proceeded, threateningly, from appeals to protect the life of the fetus to sell righteous accusations which brand all those who do not accept their appeal "murderers." In a television interview last March, New York Bishop John J. O'Connor said, "I always compare the killing of 4000 babies a day in the United States, unborn babies, to the Holocaust." Responding to this charge at a news conference held this summer. Alfred Moran, executive director of Planned Parenthood said. "To take the position that American women who are having abortions are comparable to the people who perpetrated the Holocaust, is frightening, and I think it's irresponsible." Moran also added that "The Church, anti-abortion and Presidential rhetoric of the abortion issue has created a climate which incites terrorism-acts of violence that repeatedly endanger the lives of clinic staff And patients."
THE "IRRESPONSIBILITY" of abortion rhetoric relates to two different issues, and an understanding of both is crucial if productive dialogue on abortion is to continue. One level, the charge that those who have or perform abortions are murderers places the responsibility for abortion on those few who have been most seriously affected, or are most, directly involved with the decision to terminate a pregnancy. The fact that harassment and violent attacks-have been levelled at the literal end-points of that decision--the clinics--is symptomatic of an irresponsible evasion of the more complicated social conditions which have brought women to these facilities in the first place--an evasion of the fact (some might say necessity) of abortion in this society. The social circumstances which surround abortion range from broad historical and economic patterns (such as the increased role of women in the work force and the marked decrease of family size in urban industrialized societies) to those conditions which more obviously relate to abortion in the United States today (such as the inadequacy of sex education programs and of aid to single mothers). To focus the abortion debate upon woman and fetus is to ignore the social complexity of the issue and to deny the social realities of which abortion is only one effect.
In addition, when the debate is reduced or oversimplified into a question about the status of woman and fetus, the issue of abortion is effectively turned into a competition between opposing views (about the rights of women, the rights of the fetus) removed from the contest of community of society. And once this contest is excluded from debate rhetoric, the principle of toleration which governs opposing viewpoints in society is also excluded. The debate over abortion is no longer a debate but a two sided monologue where neither siode listens to the other because so much "pro-life" rhetoric seems to exclude the social condition under which abortion has become a problem. And in excluding this, an awareness of society as a community--where opposing views must be tolerated and heard if the members-of that community are to live with one another in peace-is also exclude.
The pro-life movement believes that Roe VS. Wade was a mistake, but to direct the rhetorical force of his protest against women as murderers is not to state a view, but to level an irresponsible accusation. It is not surprising that some individuals have acted, violently upon such an accusation. The words of the pro-life movement can be as powerful and potentially destructive as bombs-perhaps more so because they threaten not a mere building but the very foundations of a civilized society the foundations which provide a ground for debate on controversial issues in a principle of toleration.