Last Wednesday the Institute of Politics hosted the most ambitious panel in recent ARCO Forum history at the Kennedy School of Government. The topic was abortion, and the four panelists were leading figures on both sides of the debate. The panel was billed as a search for common ground, but despite the efforts of student organizers, the debaters failed to utter more than familiar fighting words.
It didn't help that the majority anti-abortion crowd (apparently brought in from all over the state) applauded loudly after each statement made by their two speakers, no matter how trivial. Neither did the armed guards and police barricades create a comfortable atmosphere for compromise. But mostly, it was the fierce denial of the motivations and causes of anti-abortion extremists that fed the distrust and anger on both sides.
Attacks against abortion providers and clinics have been a constant occurrence in the last 15 years. There have been over 2,000 documented cases of violence against abortion providers since the passage of Roe v. Wade 28 years ago. Given this record of unrelenting violence it is no wonder that abortion activists find it so difficult to speak in a conciliatory and cooperative tone with those who share the same cause as these criminals do. And as much as non-violent anti-abortion activists deplore the actions of the fringe, in numerous subtle ways the leaders of the anti-abortion crusade encourage and even justify the violent actions of their ideological kin.
Bill Baird, director of the national Pro-Choice League, brought up the issue during the panel, preconditioning any meaningful dialogue with the end of anti-abortion violence. While Baird was neither the most eloquent nor the most convincing speaker on the panel (that award was definitely earned by Planned Parenthood President Gloria A. Feldt) his point is fair. While abortion-providers and other abortion rights activists are under constant threat of violence and targets of intimidation, it will be near impossible for them to converse meaningfully with anti-abortionists.
Although both anti-abortion panelists said that they abhorred violence against abortion providers, the way in which they described killers like Paul A. Hill (who shot to death Dr. John Britton and his armed guard James Barrett in a Pensacola, Fla., women's clinic) belies their words. Both the president of Feminists for Life Serring M. Foster and Dr. Bernard Nathanson called killers like Hill mentally insane, although Hill and others are on death row, not in mental health facilities. Their statements ignore the fact that more mainstream anti-abortionist leaders whipped Hill and other killers into a violent frenzy prior to their acts. The anti-abortion leaders who characterize abortion providers as "baby-killers" and encouraging their followers to pursue intimidation tactics against them, send the message that violence is an extreme, but justifiable measure.
Additionally, during the panel Nathanson compared murderer Hill to John Brown, the abolitionist who died trying to start a war against slavery a few years prior to the Civil War. While Nathanson said of people like Hill, "I consign them to the lunatic fringe," his comparisons of Hill to Brown makes Hill seem like a martyr for a cause that will soon draw the whole country into battle. In fact, Hill would see this comparison as a compliment. He proclaims from his website, "Now is the time to defend the unborn in the same way you'd defend slaves about to be murdered!" Nathanson is clearly cementing the image of Hill as a hero in both Hill's and his would-be followers' minds. Most students in the Forum seemed not to note the comparison, but it is precisely the kind of comment that strikes fear into the hearts of abortion providers and activists.
It is too bad that the spokespeople for anti-abortionists take these rhetorical easy-outs because they reflect poorly on the vast majority of anti-abortionists who condemn violence. Their tactics prevent meaningful dialogue with abortion activists, who understandably find it hard to engage in civil discourse with Nathanson, and others like him, who insist on heroizing those who have declared literal war against clinics across the nation.
Harvard students have shown by bringing these panelists to discuss this issue to campus that they want to discuss this volatile issue responsibly in the hope of finding common ground. But the acts and speeches of leaders like cannot help but inform our campus discussions--indeed, that's why he and Foster were invited to Harvard in the first place. I cannot hold hope for true reconciliation until the violence, and the violent rhetoric, ceases.