In the wake of the horrific shootings at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, it is tempting to assume that the man charged with the killings, Robert L. Dear, is merely the most recent product of the right-to-life movement’s violent fringe. Yet the details of the case reveal that this case seem closer to that of the man diagnosed with schizophrenia who shot then-congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six people in Arizona than to past abortion clinic shooters.
Why? Unlike other clinic shooters, Dear has no history of pro-life activity, just numerous run-ins with the law, including allegations of some rather strange behavior that ranges from “peeping tomism” to animal cruelty. Yes, he did apparently mention “baby parts” in a long rambling interview with police, but Dear was no antiabortion crusader in the past. His former wife, in fact, stated that abortion was “never really a topic of discussion” in their household.
But aside from these suggestive biographical facts, there is another good reason to believe that Dear’s alleged actions had little to do with a larger social movement.
The violent radicalism that led to abortion clinic shootings represents a historically unique phase of the right-to-life movement, one that seems to have largely died more than a decade ago. In other words, this is not same kind of violence that colored much of the abortion debate during the 1980s and the 1990s.
Peaceful disagreement has usually characterized abortion conflict in America. The violent fringe of the pro-life movement, in fact, emerged long after the first right-to-life organization was founded in the 1960s.
Violent radicals first attracted attention in the 1980s when they began orchestrating many late-night clinic bombings that were successfully timed to avoid casualties. Many of these attackers were radical Calvinists who believed that, as members of God’s elect, they could legitimately right the sins of the world through violence.
In their book “Wrath of Angels,” Jim Risen and Judy Thomas emphasize the importance of this radical theology for such activists. These Calvinists believed that “it was appropriate for the godly man to take the law into his own hands, because his hands were the tools of the Lord.”
This theological fringe, however, did not target abortion providers for execution until the 1990s. They were controlled throughout the 1980s by the leadership of the larger “rescue” movement, which orchestrated blockades of clinics in the late 1980s and early 1990s in cites such as New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Wichita. It was a massive campaign, leading to some 33,000 arrests between 1977 and 1993.
When the rescue movement collapsed in the early 1990s, however, it isolated and frustrated the violence-prone radicals. Coalescing in the Army of God organization, these extremists quickly declared war: “We, the remnant of God fearing men and women of the United States of Amerika [sic], do officially declare war on the entire child-killing industry.”
Paul Hill, a Presbyterian minister, emerged as the Army of God’s spiritual leader. Hill and his followers emphasized a bellicose reading of the Bible by stressing the significance of Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”
A series of shootings soon followed. In 1993, David Gunn was the first casualty of the Army of God. A year later, four others were shot and killed. After a brief hiatus, two others were killed in 1998. Between 1993 and 1998, a total of seven people were killed, including three doctors, two receptionists, a clinic escort and an off-duty police officer. It was an astonishing orgy of violence.
And then it stopped. The Army of God’s violent members were imprisoned and scattered, bringing a return of peace that has characterized abortion conflict since the 1960s. The lone exception to this general trend was the 2009 shooting of George Tiller, a late-term abortion provider. Tiller’s shooting by a pro-life radical, however, may prove to be an isolated case, an echo of an extremist movement that has long since collapsed.
The shootings in Colorado Springs give us little reason to suspect that a renewed network of violent radicals is targeting abortion providers as they once did in the 1990s. And if that is correct, the Colorado Springs shootings may highlight the decline of the violent wing of the right-to-life movement, not its resurgence.
Jon A. Shields is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.