The Line Between Persuasion and Terror
By Ellen Goodman
The Rev. Donald Spitz of Pro-Life Virginia bellowed into a megaphone aimed at the prisoner's cell: "John Salvi, we care about you. We love you. We support you." He called the murders "a righteous deed."
Further north, here in Boston, near the makeshift shrine outside the Planned Parenthood clinic where the devastated fiance of 25-year-old Shannon Lowney came to place his flowers, a different message came from an antiabortion leader.
Cardinal Bernard Law called for a moratorium on clinic protests. "It's my judgment that it would be good to refrain from such manifestations at this time. We need to restore a sense of calm."
Which will it be then? War or calm? What is the next step for the movement opposed to legal abortion?
We've now seen the fourth and the fifth murders in a series of assaults on doctors, escorts and now clinic workers. This is a safety crisis for those who care about protecting a woman's right to abortion. But it's a moral crisis for the movement that has called itself pro-life, a movement that has inherited the wind of its own escalating rhetoric.
One day after Shannon Lowney and Leanne Nichols were murdered at work, the New Year's message on the National Pro-Life Newsline spoke of abortion clinics as death camps and doctors as contract killers. On that same day a sobered Philip Lawler, spokesman for Operation Rescue here, described himself as "stumped and frightened" at the violence.
It's true that the antiabortion movement didn't pull the trigger. The suspect, called "John-boy" by his family, appears to have been a desperate, angry son who fought bitterly with his parents on Christmas. But the would-be hairdresser with the pro-life bumper stickers, with the photographs of fetuses, with experience as a clinic protester, seems to have skidded down a road paved with the language and logic of "pro-life philosophers."
So the movement to prohibit abortions comes to a crossroad of its own. It won't do to simply disavow the murderers in their midst as aberrations. It won't do for Cardinal Law to merely call a temporary halt to the protests. (When, sir, should they start up again? Three weeks? Three months?)
It's time for those who regard themselves as responsible opponents of abortion to permanently cut the ties that make them allies of extremists. It's time to turn their energy and resources to fighting their own violent cohorts. And it's time for them to draw an explicit line between persuasion and terrorism, between protest and assault.
I don't doubt that most antiabortion leaders are appalled by murder. But what about threats, what about clinic burnings, what about stink bombs, what about harassment, what about videotaping, what about thrusting picket signs in the path of women, screaming in their faces, writing down their license plates?
Before we accept the pleas for calm as legitimate, a checklist is in order. Before we accept the title "antiabortion moderates," we have to hear them turn on the extremists as everyone's enemies.
We know that there are people of strong moral conviction on both sides of the abortion debate. Those who oppose the legal right to abortion have every right to picket, to lobby legislators, to organize politically, to vote, to change minds. But they don't have the right to overrule law by terror. That's the line that must hold.
In the next few months, the pro-choice forces will look to the government to shore up the safety crisis. If hospitals were being bombed instead of clinics, then we would find the resources to protect them.
But the antiabortion forces have to look inward to resolve their moral crisis. In an era when too many personal demons are politicized and too many activists in the world turn to violent acts, they have to publicly uphold the case for nonviolence.
On Jan. 22, the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion will be commemorated again with marches and rallies. Who will be the protest heroes of the day? Michael Griffin? Paul Hill? John Salvi?
The test for the movement that calls itself pro-life will be whether its leaders have the conviction and courage to excise the fringe and oppose the militants as what they are: outlaws.
© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post