The Two Cultures of Life
On May 31, 2009, Scott Roeder walked into the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita and killed George Tiller, the abortion doctor, who was passing out bulletins for the morning service. Roeder put a .22-caliber pistol to Dr. Tiller’s forehead, shot him point-blank, stood beside him until he collapsed, and then ran. In the days following the murder, we were told just enough about the killer to imagine him as a familiar kind of American character. He had been caught in the ’90s with the makings of a bomb. He had been investigated by the FBI for connections to the Freeman movement. He subscribed to the right-wing newsletter Prayer and Action News. He drove a 1993 powder blue Ford Taurus. When he was captured, police found an envelope on the dashboard, on which was written the telephone number of Cheryl Sullenger, senior policy adviser for Operation Rescue, an antiabortion group that had bombed clinics in the ’90s. We were told that Roeder was most likely the author of an ominous post to Operation Rescue’s website a few years ago, a post that read, in part, “Bless everyone for attending and praying in May to bring justice to Tiller and the closing of his death camp.”
Dr. Tiller’s clinic, Women’s Health Care Services, was one of only three in the country where women with health- and life-threatening pregnancies could get late-term abortions. For more than two decades, it had been seen by pro-lifers as a site of genocide. In 2002, Operation Rescue’s president, Troy Newman, had moved the organization’s headquarters to Wichita to focus its full arsenal of direct action tactics on Tiller’s clinic. For seven years, the group publicized the names and addresses of clinic workers, blanketed their neighborhoods with postcards of bloody fetuses, followed them around town in SUVs, paced with crosses on the sidewalks in front of their houses, and performed “exorcisms” on their front lawns. Bill O’Reilly called the doctor “Tiller the Baby Killer” when he excoriated the “death mill” on his Fox News show, which he did during twenty-nine episodes from 2005 to 2009 — this according to the Daily Kos website, where clips are collected under the title “O’Reilly’s Jihad.” As Democratic pundits were eager to point out after the murder, Roeder’s feelings about George Tiller’s death camp were, among antiabortion conservatives, common enough.
Even so, Roeder was called, by Kansans for Life president Mary Kay Culp, a “lone nut,” and by his brother, “crazy”; Operation Rescue president Troy Newman said Roeder had never been a member of the organization. Dr. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, was shocked by Roeder’s “act of vigilantism.” Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, said he wasn’t even “part of the pro-life movement.” On the left, many called him a “terrorist” (Ben Schwartz in his Huffington Post blog: “Where is the right-wing pro-torture faction when it comes to waterboarding a domestic terrorist who happens to be a right-wing American?”). Terrorists are always part of a cell, and numerous news sources picked up KMBC-TV’s report that “people often came and went from his house.” The more that conservatives disowned Roeder, the more liberals treated him as a symptom of Republican desires. “Who’ll be the next target of O’Reilly and Beck’s ire,” worried Daily Kos’s Markos Moulitsas on Twitter, “to get gunned down by a domestic conservative terrorist?” But while the media and the blogosphere split into predictable camps over the question of whether Roeder was a lone vigilante or O’Reilly’s pawn, everyone agreed on one thing: for a pro-lifer to murder an abortion doctor was the worst kind of hypocrisy, an obvious contradiction of the pro-life tenet that, as Charmaine Yoest put it, “The foundational right to life . . . extends to everyone.”
In the same month that Roeder walked into Tiller’s church with his gun, a Gallup poll found that, for the first time, a majority of Americans — 51 percent — identified themselves as pro-life. Twenty-three percent of respondents said they believed abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. If the rhetoric of major pro-life groups like National Right to Life is any indication, members of this majority are used to understanding abortion as murder. The most prominent and mainstream pro-life voices, including Dr. Dobson, frequently compare abortion to the Nazi holocaust. If pro-life activists are fighting what they genuinely believe to be genocide, “hypocritical” is not exactly the right word for Roeder’s violence. Rather, it has a chilling logic. Why not fight a holocaust with murder, if it means saving millions of lives? In fact, why don’t more pro-lifers do what Roeder did?
Yet most of our 150 million plus pro-lifers don’t even approve of the coercive tactics of Operation Rescue, much less believe that the engineers of the genocide — abortion doctors, med school instructors, the leaders of NOW and Planned Parenthood, and pro-choice politicians like Obama — should be assassinated. And if Roe v. Wade were overturned, what should be the penalty for getting, or performing, an abortion? In states where pro-life legislators have proposed abortion bans that would challenge Roe v. Wade, or passed “trigger laws” that would go into immediate effect should Roe v. Wade be overturned, the penalties for doctors have been a fine or a prison sentence of a few years, and for their clients, nothing at all.
When activists like Roeder break the movement’s rules, it reveals, for a moment, this uncomfortable contradiction between pro-life rhetoric and practice. It’s tempting to think, then, that pro-lifers don’t really mean it when they call abortion “murder” and “genocide.” I think they do, and that if we want to understand the way that abortion wedges US politics into an eternal binary opposition, we should assume that they do, that abortion is murder, for them, albeit a very particular kind of murder — not criminal, exactly, but religious. Abortion works, for pro-lifers, like a sacrifice, abhorred by its celebrants even as they depend on it for meaning.