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.
I have a picture of myself with Dr. James Dobson, taken at a prayer breakfast the morning after the 1990 March for Life in Washington DC. It was like meeting the apostle Paul, and I was nervous. I remember waiting in line to shake his hand, fumbling my hands between pockets and hips, longing to fold far enough inside myself that no one could see me. When it was my turn, Dr. Dobson twinkled his gray eyes at me and said, “Thank you for fighting for life.” In the picture he has his arm around me and we’re both smiling happily. I am wearing a peach-and-white-striped rugby shirt, my brown hair is permed and hot-rollered, and my face is carefully made up to look like the face of some suburban girl.
I was 17 and a freshman at Calvin College, a Christian Reformed school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, three hours away from the Indiana farm where I spent my high school years, and I was not a suburban girl. The new friends with whom I’d made the trip to Washington were. They were the grandchildren of Dutch immigrants and, like almost everyone at Calvin, blond and about six feet tall. Their rugby shirts had been purchased by their industrious, credit card bearing parents in the gleaming malls of Michigan. My family rarely went to the mall. It was part of “the world” we were trying so hard to separate ourselves from that we didn’t celebrate Christmas (too commercialized), watch TV (too blasphemous), go to elementary school (too brainwashing), or clean our house very often (somehow related). I treasured my superior faith, but by this point, I might have given up even that in exchange for the knowledge these girls had of how to keep your fingernails clean past noon.
I don’t remember much of the march, except my sign, which was red and in the shape of a stop sign and said stop abortion now like everyone else’s. I remember the face of one counter-protester knotted in anger as she leaned over a barricade on Constitution Avenue to shout at us as we marched toward the Supreme Court — or perhaps this is not a memory of what happened, but of what I feared would happen. We massed on the Ellipse behind the White House, half a million strong, or so we thought, though the Washington Post called it two hundred thousand the next morning.
Thinking about abortion made me feel sick. Scott Roeder saw the same movies I did, I suppose, in different church basements: The Silent Scream, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, How Should We Then Live? We must have the same images in our minds. Babies move down a conveyor belt, and when one comes down the line missing an arm, an inspector picks it off and throws it in a bin. A thousand plastic baby dolls, black dolls and white ones, lie scattered on salt flats. The camera pans slowly along rows of laboratory cages holding white bunnies and white mice and then — human babies. Abortion, these films taught us, means treating humans like consumer products, or animals. It’s symptomatic of an ideology that masquerades as liberating and humanistic but is really sadistic, part of a culture of death.
Sometimes, even now, I think of abortion and I am back on the farm in Indiana, woken by a nightmare in my narrow, blue-wallpapered bedroom: they’re coming for us, because if the secular humanists want to kill unborn babies, they must want to take all our good lives away. Abortion meant all Christian children were going to be put in concentration camps, and I wondered if I would stand up for my beliefs when they put the gun to my head, or deny Jesus, as I had done once already in the swim team lockerroom when I was 12.
I don’t think I talked about these feelings with my new friends, though I suspect they shared them. Like any ritual, an antiabortion protest involves, for the participants, all sorts of mundane concerns: where could we get soda, which boys at the march were cute, who had lip gloss, how many more speakers, and when would Sandi Patty come on. President George H. W. Bush spoke to the crowd, briefly, by telephone, his voice crackling and indecipherable in the crisp January air. Finally, Sandi Patty sang “Via Dolorosa” and “Upon This Rock,” I think, on a stage so far away she was only a blotch of a red dress. Transparent helium-filled balloons the size of houses were tethered to the lawn; in each balloon, suspended, was a colossal fetus, floating above us, the White House, and the Washington Monument, caught between earth and heaven in its plastic womb.
The trip from Michigan to Washington had cost only $25. The campus Right to Life chapter had bused some two hundred of us undergraduates to the march and put us up in hotels. Rumor was the money had come from a couple of wealthy Michigan executives: Amway cofounder Richard DeVos Sr. and Edgar Prince, founder of Prince Automotive, both major Republican Party funders and Bush family friends. DeVos and Prince sat on the Council for National Policy and gave millions to Calvin College, Focus on the Family, the National and Michigan Right to Life committees, and countless other conservative organizations and political candidates. It was these families who had managed to arrange for two hundred college students to meet the leader of the Christian world at a breakfast where we spread white cloth napkins on our laps and ate omelets and sweet pork sausage links and bacon on real china; we were, after all, the future.
In the moment that photograph with Dobson memorializes, I couldn’t have imagined any way to be but pro-life, anything I wanted more than to fit in with the well-showered and glamorous world of mainstream evangelical Christianity. A year later, I wouldn’t be caught dead in anything but flannel shirts; I’d stop washing my hair and give up the sausage and the bacon, stop eating meat at all. I declared myself a Marxist and joined a group that lobbied our school’s administration to protect gay and lesbian faculty and students at the college. When I look at this photo now, it looks like I’m floating outside of time in that rugby shirt, standing next to a cardboard cutout of a famous man, suspended between conservatism and liberalism, Christianity and atheism, an Indiana childhood and an adulthood in which I would go east and find new victims to save and enemies to fear, though oddly it would always feel a little like fighting abortion did.
For me, what links veganism and antihomophobia and justice to abortion and what I learned from my childhood, is that if it looks like violence, it is violence. The necessary technological condition for the pro-life movement was the ultrasound machine, and it was right there on the screen: even at twelve weeks, the fetus recoiled from the suction curette. The scientific consensus was that this recoil was mere reflex, and that pain perception is impossible until the thalamus and cortex link, which begins to happen quite late in gestation. Until the mid-1980s, medical doctors didn’t use anesthesia for surgery on prematurely born babies or even infants, because their cortexes weren’t fully formed. Then a team of Oxford researchers, led by Dr. Kanwal Anand, produced evidence to argue that newborns do perceive pain, and revolutionized medical practice. Surgeons now regularly use anesthesia with newborns and preemies, who these days can survive outside the womb at twenty-one weeks. Anand argued in subsequent papers that consciousness is not necessary to pain perception, that even in the second trimester, fetuses have such highly concentrated nerve endings, and such undeveloped pain-inhibiting mechanisms, that they may feel pain particularly intensely. What “consciousness” and “perception” of pain mean is a matter of considerable scientific messiness — one most thoroughly researched and debated by the biologists, cognitive scientists, and psychologists who study pain in nonhuman animals.
But none of this mattered to us, because we could see it: the fetus opened its mouth in a silent scream. If it looks like violence, it is violence, and if it is violence, there’s a system behind it, however hidden, and the system is evil, and should be fought against. This happens to be a worldview that travels.
First thing tomorrow, you are scheduled to be strapped down while an instrument with sharp metal teeth will clamp down on your foot and, with a twisting motion, pull it from your body. When the metal instruments are aimed at you, even the catchiest chant won’t diminish the pain in your leg.
Then, without any anesthesia, your ankle and calf will be torn from your body to about your kneecap. Then the thigh, then the other foot, calf and thigh pulled apart while you watch and scream in pain. But don’t worry; the room is soundproof and no one will be able to hear you. Oh, you’re still alive. Bleeding, but not as much as you’re going to be when your right hand is ripped off your wrist. Then your forearm, then all the way to your shoulder. And then the left hand and arm. Then your torso will be ripped apart, exposing your rib cage and beating heart. The heart will stop beating just about the time your head is crushed. That’s what will happen from 9 to about 9:30 tomorrow morning.
Face it: Abortion makes Gitmo look like summer camp. And we’ve been torturing American children for 35 years now.
Janet Porter, WorldNetDaily.com, January 22, 2008
These days, despite millions of exceptions, the battle lines are clearly drawn: to be pro-life is to be conservative, which implies — at least in the standard version — a number of other positions as unrelated (and even contradictory) as they are compulsory; if you’re pro-life, you’re likely to be for capital punishment, for example, and hunting, and meat-eating, and capitalism, and processed foods, and the right to drive an SUV. But it hasn’t always been this way; at the birth of the culture wars, things were much more complicated.
In the ’70s, my parents were long-haired, corduroy-bell-bottom-wearing, antiauthoritarian biblical literalists, proud to call themselves fundamentalist Christians. They fought on the front lines of the battle to legalize homeschooling in Philadelphia not only to keep us free from the secular state’s brainwashing, but so that they could make sure my brother and I ate an organic diet, learned at our own pace, and had plenty of time to freely explore all our artistic impulses. When I was 9, they moved us back to Indiana, where they had grown up, to live on a farm among the older generation of fundamentalists, our sweet grandmothers and their friends, who worried over the acceptability of pants and makeup, who never drank alcohol or danced. In the ’70s and ’80s, evangelicalism was in its own generational battle over participation in “secular” culture and politics, and it took abortion to unite us.
There are other ways to tell the story of the rise of the Christian Right in the ’80s: it was a backlash against the sexual revolution and the use of abortion as birth control; it was about the greed of the televangelists, who built their audiences by prophesying the country’s decline; it was about politics, the free-market Republicans using religious leaders as pawns to build a conservative base; it was about race and the Christian education movement, which came under threat when the IRS stripped tax-exempt funding from segregated Christian schools.
On the ground, however — at least among white evangelicals in the North (the Southern Baptists and the black church have their own histories) — what it felt like was an intellectual revolution. Those who were surprised by the rise of the religious right had missed what we were reading, because the New York Times and other newspapers didn’t count Christian bookstores in their tallies. We were reading the Schaeffers, Francis and his wife, Edith, and their son, Franky — and most importantly, we were reading Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto, which argued that we should use political involvement and civil disobedience to fight against an increasingly totalitarian secular state, and How Should We Then Live?, which argued that we should reclaim the West’s great art and literature, and find our Christian worldview there.
My parents idolized the Schaeffers, and so did I. They lived in a château in Switzerland called L’ Abri, which was a sort of commune, way station, and think tank for anyone interested in talking seriously about theology, whether that was students backpacking Europe or leaders of the emerging Christian Right. The Schaeffers championed art and music and intellectual arguments for “fundamentalist” views, lending a boho European cool to conservative Christian positions. So when they told us to fight abortion, it meant fighting human authority; abortion became — and still is, for millions of conservatives — the Man.
In the late ’70s, they came to the States on a world tour, with their ten-episode film series How Should We Then Live?, which played Madison Square Garden and other civic auditoriums around the country. The first eight episodes were about philosophy and art history, and the last two episodes were about abortion. And then they came back, in 1980, which is when I saw them, as a child; I remember Edith’s soft admonishments about building Christian homes, and her son Franky’s angry, stage-pacing tirades about how we had to improve the quality of Christian art. This time they brought the five-episode pro-life film series Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, which gave us the images I described above: the baby dolls on the assembly line, scattered on salt flats, and caged in laboratories like animals. With narration by Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop (then surgeon-in-chief at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, soon to become surgeon general), the films persuaded us that abortion was a first step toward state-run infanticide and euthanasia. Part of one episode was shot at Auschwitz; another, with the blessing of the Israeli government, at Yad Vashem. It was easy to see how slippery was the slope from Roe v. Wade to National Socialism.
As Franky Schaeffer later argued in his 2007 book Crazy for God, fighting abortion is not in its essence conservative; at a certain point in the late 1970s, it could have been taken up by social progressives instead. Before the Schaeffers, Protestant Christians didn’t care much about abortion; it was a Catholic issue. Planned Parenthood, until 1968, called abortion the killing of human life, while the Southern Baptists advocated for abortion’s legality until 1980. But through their films, their seminars, and their books, the Schaeffers told conservative evangelicals — and James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, everyone listened — that abortion was our issue, and that it meant the apocalypse of our values. As Dr. Dobson put it in a 2002 speech, “Thank God for Francis Schaeffer. He saw everything we’re going through today. He laid it all out.”
For much of the last century, the American left fought for the rights of those without voices, those considered not fully human: for women, African-Americans, workers, gays and lesbians, immigrants. It is usually those on the left, still, who fight for the rights of another set of beings that haunt the edges of the human: the animals who provide us with companionship, entertainment, and food. Yet the belief that fetuses shouldn’t be subjected to involuntary termination, and the belief that animals shouldn’t be tortured and killed for human consumption, occupy positions that could not be more distant from each another in our contemporary cultural landscape.
Imagine you are strapped to a table. Your gut instinct is to trust the people around you. You are in their care. But your body begins to burn. Behind you, muddled words escalate with the same fury as the scalded skin you cannot reach. You are afraid.
They seem indifferent to your now blood-splattered limbs. That morning, you’d dreamed about a walk and food. But today you are their research. Their data is your response-pain, boundless and unrelenting. As they blind, burn and inject poison into your exhausted body, you wonder: why?
In the Draize test chemicals are poured into the clipped-open eyes of restrained animals. Many break their necks or backs trying to escape. Reactions include swollen eyelids, inflamed irises bleeding, massive deterioration and blindness. For Draize skin irritancy tests, abrasive chemicals seep into the shaved skin of immobilized animals. To expose skin, adhesive tape is repeatedly stripped off an animal’s body. After every test animals are killed and analyzed.
Brenda Shoss, “Must Mascara and Soap Hurt This Much?,”
When Scott Roeder murdered George Tiller, the only US citizen on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list was Daniel Andreas San Diego, who was allegedly involved in the 2003 bombings of three Bay Area office buildings belonging to the Chiron and Shaklee Corporations, customers of the animal testing lab Huntington Life Sciences. Huntington’s employees have been caught on tape doing things like punching puppies and dissecting monkeys alive. According to the FBI’s website, San Diego has “psychopathic” tattoos of burning hills and collapsing buildings. He has “ties to animal rights extremist groups” and is “known to follow a vegan diet, eating no meat or food containing animal products.” No one was hurt in the Bay Area bombings — they caused only property damage — and San Diego is only a suspect; nevertheless, he is still, at this writing, at the top of the FBI’s list.
How did a person not convicted but suspected of committing a nonviolent offense that caused property damage in the name of preventing illegal cruelty against animals become the first American citizen to be placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list? Antiabortion activists like Roeder and the members of Operation Rescue weren’t included, at the time of Roeder’s murder, in the FBI website’s definition of domestic terrorism, which read: “Today’s domestic terror threats run the gamut, from hate-filled white supremacists . . . to highly destructive eco-terrorists . . . to violence-prone anti-government extremists . . . to radical separatist groups.” In our country’s binary politics, “domestic terrorists” are often defined by the party in power, and are in turn scapegoated by that party. But San Diego’s story is more complicated.
During the Bush era, “eco-terrorists” and animal rights activists were framed as our most dangerous local threat. After 9/11, the FBI took advantage of new leeway to infiltrate not just organizations like the Arab Anti-Defamation League, but Greenpeace and PETA. A 2005 report by the ACLU showed the FBI had expanded its definition of “terrorism” to include groups that fight environmental crime and animal cruelty. The FBI, revealed the report, had infiltrated a number of animal rights groups, using PETA interns as spies and conducting surveillance on such seemingly innocuous activities as the distribution of “vegetarian starter kits” in Indiana. The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, passed in early 2006, expanded the FBI’s powers of interdiction: any “force, violence, and threats involving animal enterprises,” any “interference” in an “animal enterprise,” or any “conspiracy to interfere” became terrorism, and punishable as such.
Soon after Obama took office, his administration was careful to reframe our fear, designating “right-wing extremists” as the next great danger. In April 2009, a widely circulated Homeland Security document titled “Right-Wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment” focused attention on antiabortion activists, as well as on white supremacists likely to react against our first African-American president, and returning veterans angry at the government that had trained them to kill. Conservative pundits and Republicans in the House and Senate complained of political profiling, and then the FBI, in what some have speculated was a compensatory move emblematic of the new administration’s efforts to bridge the political poles, put its first domestic terrorist on the “Most Wanted Terrorist” list — Daniel San Diego.
In this way, antiabortion and animal rights activists have served, in recent years, as exchangeable scapegoats, designated as terrorists according to the administration’s needs and the media’s next story. Roeder killed a man, leaving behind a grieving family and women with life-threatening pregnancies who had nowhere to go, while San Diego allegedly caused some property damage, and hurt no one. It doesn’t matter. Once they are terrorists, activists are turned into players in an apocalyptic showdown between good and evil, and presidential administrations, the FBI, Fox News, and wealthy families from Grand Rapids argue over which characters belong in which narrative slots. This cataclysmic battle looks different depending on which side you’re on, but what’s dangerous about it, no matter where we stand, is its religious power to make us feel helpless and victimized by the players on the opposite side.
The last thing the apocalypse show wants us to ask is why the “terrorists” do what they do. Roeder may well be mentally ill, and San Diego’s own story is as mysterious as his position on the Most Wanted list. But the story of Ingrid Newkirk, who started PETA, is so well known as to be scripture among animal rights activists. Newkirk was born in England but spent her childhood in New Delhi, volunteering with her mother and Mother Teresa among the lepers. She moved to the US and one day in 1972, when she was 22, she took a litter of abandoned kittens to a shelter, where a woman thanked her and told her she would “put them down.” Being British, Newkirk didn’t understand the phrase, and found out only later, when she came back to visit the kittens, that they were dead. She felt she had betrayed them. She looked around: the living conditions were terrible, and the shelter animals were being killed in a back room. Newkirk had been studying to be a stockbroker, but she quit and took a job at the shelter, where she tried to improve the conditions in which the animals lived and died. After she saw the way the workers kicked them and stepped on them and shoved them into freezers, she started coming in early in the morning to euthanize them herself. “I could always imagine myself,” she says in the HBO documentary I Am an Animal, “going through what they were going through.”
Newkirk founded PETA with a friend, Alex Pacheco, in 1980; it was a few hippies meeting in a living room, she’s fond of saying, until the case of the Silver Spring monkeys drew them into the national spotlight. Working undercover in the primate research lab of Dr. Edward Taub in Silver Spring, Maryland, Pacheco shot footage of living conditions that the National Institute of Health would later deem “grossly unsanitary.” He also managed to catch on videotape Dr. Taub’s experiments. Macaque monkeys were clamped by the neck, wrists, and ankles to a scaffolding, their arms spread wide, and — after nerves to their extremities were cut — they were dehydrated, starved, and then shocked. They looked like monkey crucifixes, and PETA displayed their pictures everywhere they could, with the slogan this is vivisection. Police raided the lab and Dr. Taub was charged with animal cruelty. PETA launched a ten-year lawsuit, and in the end, Dr. Taub’s lab was shut down, he couldn’t get a job, and there was a new amendment to the Animal Welfare Act that dictated standards for the care of laboratory animals. Like antiabortion activists, with their photos of bloody and dismembered fetuses, PETA had found its strategy: to show us the mutilated bodies that represent the suffering we’d rather ignore.
For my father, who taught me to venerate the Schaeffers and fear and fight abortion, it was the suffering body of Jesus that he wanted to make us see. He argued, whenever he got the chance, that we didn’t focus enough on the cross. He had a seminary degree and was sometimes a guest preacher at local churches, and when I was in junior high and high school, his favorite sermon narrated the medical details of the crucifixion, down to the minute, or so it felt. He had been a Shakespearean actor before God called him to go to seminary, and he would boom out the description in a deep, ominous voice. Covered in bruises and cuts from his beating and whipping at the hands of the Roman legionnaires, bleeding from the scalp under his crown of thorns, dizzy and nauseated, raw-kneed from falling under the weight of the crossbeam on the Via Dolorosa, Jesus is nailed to the cross through his wrists (not his palms, my father said, as we know from the Shroud of Turin), and it begins: the muscles of his body cramp in turn, his breathing becomes shorter and shorter, he begins to asphyxiate from the weight of his body hanging off his arms. He must push himself up with the nails through his feet so that he can breathe enough to talk: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
The sermon lasted an eternity, but no one walked out. My father was standing on a prosthetic leg; he had inched his way to the pulpit from his wheelchair with the help of two church elders. He had diabetes and epilepsy; he had, in recent years, contracted hepatitis C, acute pneumonia, staph infections; soon, he would have colon cancer and hemorrhages in his brain. The doctors did not know anyone with so many diseases, or why he was still alive. They’d been cutting his leg off, a piece at a time; his body was dying while he lived in it.
He did not think we focused enough on the suffering body of Jesus, and what could we do but listen?
My mother became a full-time nurse to my father when she was in her early 30s. By the time she was 40 and I was in junior high, he was bedridden most of the time. Sometimes in the afternoons he spent hours on the couch, under an afghan. We did our chores, fed the animals, took turns bringing him his insulin shots and water for his pills, carried his urinal to the bathroom to empty it in the toilet. In the evenings, my mother took long walks away from the house, down the lane and across the fields, following hedgerows and the stream to the back woods, where we could not see her. I suspect she stood out there looking at the lights of the house from afar, as I would do later when I visited home from college or from New York — trying to wrap her head around it, see it differently somehow, fascinated and repelled, wishing she could keep walking. When she came back, she was quiet and red-eyed.
Every once in a while, my mother, brother, and I killed a few of our chickens for food. We strung them up by their feet from a tree behind the brooder house and hacked off their heads with machetes. They would flutter around for a while, not yet knowing they were dead, their blood emptying into the ground. We untied them, reached our hands inside to pull out their still warm organs, careful not to break the sack of bile that would poison the meat. Then we plucked out their feathers, held their bodies over the stove burners to singe off the stubble, and dropped them in pots of boiling water to cook.
Recently, I watched footage from undercover PETA investigations of scientific labs and slaughterhouses. A few seconds of monkeys bound and beaten, a grainy clip of a slaughterhouse employee laying into a pig with a tire iron, and I was, to my surprise, shaking with sobs so sudden and loud that I scared the cats. This is the problem of thinking you’ve witnessed a secret and malicious violence beneath the surface of your society: either you’re crazy for caring so much about beings who everyone thinks are something less or other than human, or the world is crazy that would allow their systematic torture and death. Does this one pain matter, in a world of pain? Whose pain is this, anyway? And how can I bear to witness it alone?
It must be how my father felt, watching the doctors cut his body apart, and why he needed to make us concentrate, really concentrate, on every medical detail of Jesus’ suffering and death, because how could he ask us to understand his own? It’s what I felt, as a child, when I watched The Silent Scream’s ultrasound footage of a fetus recoiling from a suction curette, before fighting abortion became a way to leave the dirt of the farm behind, and then vegetarianism became a way to leave Jesus, like smoking was, and being pro-choice, and wearing flannel shirts instead of rugby shirts, at least until rugby shirts became hip again, in my Brooklyn neighborhood, but only if worn as an ironic nod to the adolescence that follows my generation like a shadow.
And if Ingrid Newkirk had been born in Wichita instead of England, and baptized in some church there, not Dr. Tiller’s Reformed Lutheran Church, but say the Wichita Assembly of God, and if her parents taught her to believe that all human life is valuable, from conception on, would she have started PETA, or would she have started Focus on the Family? And if I had been born in England, and hung out with Mother Teresa and Hindus instead of learning to kill chickens in Indiana, in the shadow of the abortion apocalypse, would I still see, in a monkey vivisection or a slaughterhouse beating, the blood of the Lamb? Or was it Jesus, anyway, who Newkirk saw in the Silver Springs monkeys, their arms spread out and clamped onto metal crosses while lab technicians shocked them with electric prods?
What’s radical in evangelical Christianity is the idea that it is no longer the job of the believer to do rituals, to strive for perfection; you don’t need to slaughter a lamb, or count rosary beads, or lay oblations at an altar, or keep a candle burning, or chant Sanskrit phrases, or hate yourself for all your failures. The work is already done: Jesus has done it, once and for all, on the cross. To accept this revolutionary divine love is to be born again. This is what all the hoopla is about. When you’re born again it’s as if you had been accidentally living with your face planted in the dirt, thinking that was everything, and someone ever so quietly picked you up and just rolled you over so you could see the sky.
But there is a problem. By having God himself perform the sacrifice, rather than demand it from believers, Christianity tries to end violence, but it does so by displacing it from believers’ everyday rituals to the virtual: the work is done, but you experience it all day long. A single person can identify with multiple roles in the same day. When I sin, I crucify him. When I suffer, I am on the cross with him, and he is with me; he has been to hell and back on my behalf. When I ask forgiveness for my failures, I am resurrected. When I see someone being hurt, I see Christ. When I help someone who is in pain, I ease Christ’s suffering — and yet I need him there, on the cross, again and again, to redeem me.
The cross is a meaning machine. When your suffering is mundane — when your job or your family or your church or your country’s politics or the doctors are taking pieces of you, bit by bit — it makes sense of things for you. But it also shocks you into living at a higher pitch. Some people, like my father — and Mel Gibson, whose movie about Jesus my father would have loved — become addicted. There is a whole field of crucifixion studies, conducted by men, for the most part, and a few women, who study the “science” of the passion. The best known is a 1953 book by Pierre Barbet, A Physician at Calvary. “When a surgeon has meditated on the sufferings of the Passion,” wrote Barbet, “when he has worked out its timing and its physiological circumstances, when he has methodically set himself to reconstruct all the stages of that martyrdom of a night and a day, he can . . . as it were share in the sufferings of Christ.”
In 1995, Frederick T. Zugibe, a pathologist at Columbia University, carried out experiments to test Pierre Barbet’s hypotheses that Jesus was nailed through the wrists and that he died of asphyxiation. Zugibe had a wooden cross constructed, strapped human volunteers to it with specially constructed leather gauntlets, and outfitted them with an electronic blood pressure unit and an ear oximeter probe to keep track of oxygen in the blood. Volunteers stayed on the cross for as long as they could, which was never more than forty-five minutes. Their hands and shoulders would cramp, or they would feel “chest rigidity” or leg cramps, and Zugibe would let them down. No one had trouble breathing, and in this way Zugibe gathered evidence to show that Jesus, therefore, did not die of asphyxiation, but of traumatic and hypervolemic shock. If Zugibe was right, my father was wrong; the question, of course, is why it matters.
Unlike Zugibe’s volunteers, and unlike Jesus, Dr. Taub’s similarly strapped, tortured, and examined monkeys did not have a choice, which is Ingrid Newkirk’s point; neither, of course, do fetuses, when they are poisoned or snapped into pieces and sucked out of a womb, and neither would women, should Roe v. Wade be overturned and they are forced to bear babies they do not want, or to risk their lives bringing problem pregnancies to term. This is the deep sacrificial drama of what or who can be forcibly made to suffer for a larger good, which keeps us mirroring each other across the divide.
My father did not die until I was 26 and in graduate school. My mother married again two years later, to a retired machinist who drove a school bus, and who woke early every morning to read the Puritans — a few pages of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” say, before breakfast — and had a temper. The first time she left him, a couple of years ago, she went to a women’s shelter. When she called to tell me, I flew to Indiana and checked into the Days Inn. We met at Ruby Tuesday, where the salad bar was, as she promised, real good. In our booth after the first trip to the buffet, my mother told me that she had looked in the phone book for the shelter’s phone number while he was driving his afternoon school bus route, packed her bags and hid them in a closet, and drove away in the middle of the night, after pretending she couldn’t sleep. I watched her carefully, because she was using her bouncy little girl voice as she told me this. She wore her long, straight hair parted down the middle, like the hippie she once was. She was tired, but she seemed kind of elated, said that the women at the shelter felt like the friends she’s never had.
“My roommate? I love her. I just love her. She’s been so kind to me.” This was for my benefit; neither my mother nor I think I’m kind enough to her. She leaned over her plate of ranch dressing doused lettuce and cucumbers and macaroni salad. “Her husband?” she whispered. “He tried to crucify her.”
There are sentences that tear a hole in the world with their impossibility, like the sentence on your voice mail in which your mother says she’s been living in a shelter for battered women. After a sentence like that, it takes some time to piece the world together again. “He tried to crucify her” was not that kind of sentence, but its opposite: the kind that feels like the inevitable punch line of a long joke that unlocks the secret logic of the world, or at least of Indiana, or maybe it’s only our Indiana, my mother’s and mine.
“He did not.”
“He did. He really did.”
I couldn’t help smiling. Then we were both giggling. She was probably thinking: there’s marriage for you. I was thinking: a Hoosier hears in church that a person nailed to a cross can take your sins away. He starts looking at his wife funny, makes a trip to the Ace Hardware. She hears his hammer clanging away behind the barn, and before she can put two and two together, he asks if she wants to go for a walk. The joke starts differently for my mother; for her, there’s no questioning the logic of Jesus’ crucifixion. But the punch line is the same.
It is not funny, what happened to this woman. Before she got away, my mother told me, he had managed to cut holes into her hands with a knife, to make it easier to get the nails through. He had seriously lost the script; we do not sacrifice grown-up humans, not anymore, not literally. But he may well have been reading his Bible, in which the most important stories are about someone willing to kill a family member because of God’s demand. There is not only Abraham on Mount Moriah, knife raised over his son’s bound body, but God himself, watching his Son whipped and nailed to the cross. If you’re a Trinitarian, as most evangelicals are, this story hurts the mind. Look at it one way, and God the Father takes Jesus’ life in exchange for us, to take our sins away, a conventional scapegoat demanded by a conventional asshole divinity. Look at it another way, and since Jesus is God incarnate, the crucifixion signifies the divinity’s loving willingness to enter into human culture and play by our rules, giving himself on our behalf, in a gorgeous model of self-sacrifice that good Christians try to imitate every day.
But from this perspective, since God’s son is a part of himself and therefore living inside him more like a fetus, really, than a child, the crucifixion is basically a divine abortion. Why not then see human abortion as a kind of self-sacrifice that imitates and honors God’s? Perhaps Christian pro-lifers are less comfortable than they might think with their religion’s central sacrificial story; no one, except the one guy in Indiana, really wants to be responsible for putting someone on a cross. Maybe it is for this reason that they alternately abhor and rehearse, fascinated, the story of the baby poisoned, disarticulated, sucked out, by doctors playing God, at the whim of a parent whose desires, to that helpless suffering being, are so mysterious as to be divine.
Even if we cannot agree on when a fetus transforms into a baby, or what kind of animal — human, monkey, horse, dog, chicken, rat, cockroach? — is a being worth saving from suffering, we can at least reflect on why a person transforms from one worldview to another, and why we treat each other as if this never happens. How many of us keep the same beliefs our whole lives, or even for two years in succession? Sometimes people are the most vehement about their take on the world when they’re just about to change. We only ever find each other on our way to somewhere else.
In a pregnancy crisis center in Colorado Springs, while making a documentary theater piece with the playwright Stephen Wangh, I interviewed six antiabortion counselors, all of them women whose activist work was motivated, at least in part, by their own prior abortions. At another point in their lives, they believed abortion was OK at least for them, at least right then. One of them was from Wichita. In the picture I took with my mind, she is a beautiful 24-year-old white woman with full lips and long brown hair, dressed in a black Adidas sweat suit with white piping. She sits with her legs gracefully tucked under her on a mauve couch in the back of the center, and talks carefully into my tape recorder. When she was a child, she begged her father to let her go to protests at Tiller’s clinic. She imagined it as a butcher’s shop, and always pictured Tiller with a meat cleaver. When she was 18, she got pregnant, and because she could not tell her Christian family that she had done the worst sin, sex before marriage, and because she wanted to go to med school, and have a life — because, she thinks now, she was selfish — she went to Tiller’s clinic to have an abortion. They gave her tea and crackers; it astounded her how kind they all were. She wanted to tell her family and her friends, the protesters outside: Dr. Tiller is the nicest guy in the world!
A year later, she spent forty days fasting and praying, repenting the murder she had done, and now she tries to help pregnant mothers make the better decision; she’s dedicated her life to “telling the truth in love.” She’d studied at the Focus on the Family Institute, where they staged college campus protests with ten-foot pictures of aborted fetuses. She didn’t like it at all. I asked her why, if abortion is murder, if we are in the middle of a genocide, they shouldn’t use the most shocking tactics possible, or even bomb clinics, murder doctors. She paused, said she had thought about this a lot. But she’d come to believe that it wasn’t worth the trauma to postabortive women. Her answer, in the end, was a feminist one: it was about not stigmatizing women for what they had done. In the moment this snapshot captures, she is an antiabortion activist. But she may be on her way to something else.
All the counselors talked of having their abortions in order not to disappoint or anger some male figure — their boyfriend, their husband, their father, their god. Some of them spoke of the shame of having sex outside of marriage in a Christian environment; abortion was a way out of being called a whore. They saw their pro-life activism as a way to help women make their own decisions, take charge of their own bodies, stop looking for approval in the arms of men; what they didn’t see was what felt so clear, to me, listening to their stories — that without Christianity, they might not have felt such shame about sex, or such veneration for men, or such fear that they would never be accepted by their families and friends if they admitted to being sexually active. If it weren’t for Christianity, they might not have had to kill their babies at all.
Without the right to choose abortion, these women wouldn’t have been able to weigh sacrifice against sacrifice for themselves, and contingency against contingency, and I’ll vote for that right forever. All I am saying is that this weighing is similar to the weighing we do when we consider the lives and deaths of animals, more similar than our current political landscape allows us to acknowledge. That doesn’t mean the answers are the same; in fact, I think the two ethical problems are more heterogeneous than the polemics allow. At best, this weighing is not some calculus of suffering, the measuring of pain as if pain were countable, as if it were not endless. We can’t even measure our own pain, much less the pain of others, particularly others who can’t speak. Better to ask, of every act that causes suffering for a larger good, whether it’s a kind of sacrifice we’re willing to be responsible for, or if we’re causing (or letting happen, from a distance) a violence that we don’t want to look at. And to ask, too, when we feel overwhelming sentimental grief about something that looks like violence, whose suffering we’re seeing there.
It’s easy to call it deferral, when others do it — the self-concern that slides onto the fetus or nonhuman animal who cannot speak and can therefore articulate one’s own victimization. Such substitution is at the heart of sacrifice, whose magical rituals allow us to abhor the suffering of others at the same time as we depend on the sense it makes of our lives, which begin and end in pain and contain plenty in the middle. And who hasn’t felt helpless, at some point, in the face of some machine (a school, a church, a marriage, an office, a hospital, a factory farm, an economic system) that reproduces in us gender and health and even humanness itself, even as it cuts us apart. To fantasize about such helplessness, to become addicted to it, to love too much its drama: this temptation is hardly the sole province of Republicans or Democrats. And at the same time, when someone empathizes with the object of a medical procedure or a slaughter on a factory farm, the disarticulation of a body in a hidden place, and says, Enough, bring this violence into the light — there is something hopeful in that impulse, as well.
And so it’s not enough to vote for choice, and deplore pro-lifers, though it’s easy to do so, thanks in part to the reprehensible violence of activists like Roeder. For pro-choice progressives and animal rights sympathizers, demonizing pro-lifers is a good way to ignore the mirror they hold up to our own best and worst impulses, but a really bad way to accomplish our goals. If fighting abortion is, in part, a way for conservatives to be liberal, and defend the powerless and voiceless against the Man, then to ignore this common goal is to misunderstand them completely. And if fighting abortion is, in part, about projecting one’s own experience of victimization onto the fetus, then ostracizing pro-lifers is not fighting for choice at all.
The same day he murdered Dr. Tiller, Scott Roeder was arrested on I-35; he’d made it only an hour and a half north of Wichita. You can watch the arrest on YouTube. Roeder was docile and cooperative; he even managed to get onto his knees while keeping his hands in the air, which looks difficult. But once he was cuffed and frisked and asked to get into the squad car, he started complaining. “How in the heck — my legs are way too long. I could lay down, maybe, but I can’t get my legs in there with my arms back here . . . I can’t get in there.” From the Sedgwick County Jail, he called the Associated Press. He wanted us to know that he appreciated our prayers, and that there were “many other similar events planned around the country as long as abortion remains legal.” But mainly, he wanted to complain about the “deplorable conditions in solitary”: the food was bad, the bed was hard, he hadn’t been allowed enough phone calls, he didn’t get his sleep apnea medicine, it was too cold. “I started having a bad cough,” he told the AP. “I thought I was going to have pneumonia.” He was being treated, he said, “like a criminal.” Ingrid Newkirk seems better at imagining what martyrdom feels like these days; sometimes, during street protests, she spends hours in a cage, on purpose.
After the murder, Tony Newman, the president of Operation Rescue, couldn’t sleep for two days, and then he couldn’t get out of bed at all. The Tiller family closed down the clinic; now you can’t get a legal abortion within five hundred miles of Wichita. Seven years after Newman moved to Wichita to shut the clinic down, it was over. Newman called his inability to get out of bed “abortion fatigue.” He had built his life around fighting Tiller; what would he do without the death camp? The PETA lawsuits against Dr. Taub began in 1981 — one year after I saw the Schaeffers speak in Philadelphia — and ended in 1990, about the time I was marching for life in Washington. PETA wanted to take the monkeys to a sanctuary, but the Supreme Court rejected their application. Instead, the monkeys were euthanized and dissected by a team of NIH researchers, who discovered that the monkeys’ brains had reorganized themselves to learn to move their paralyzed limbs. Neuroplasticity: one of the most important, and hopeful, scientific discoveries of the 20th century. Dr. Taub was allowed back into the lab, and started developing innovative ways to train human stroke victims, like the macaques, to remake their brains and their nervous systems, so that they could move dead limbs again. Thanks to the Silver Spring monkeys, we now know that brains can change; at any age, we can rebuild them.
Franky Schaeffer’s in his 50s now, and he goes by Frank. He is still pro-life, but he’s remade himself into a progressive, attends a Greek Orthodox church, and spends his time writing and traveling the country, telling his story. In 2008, he campaigned energetically for Obama. In 2009, he was the only one who claimed Roeder. In his regular Huffington Post blog, he wrote a post titled “How I (and Other ‘Pro-Life’ Leaders) Contributed to Dr. Tiller’s Murder.” In it he said, “My father and I would have been shocked that someone took us at our word, walked into a Lutheran Church and pulled the trigger on an abortionist. But even if the murderer never read Dad’s or my words we helped create the climate that made this murder likely to happen.”
I met Frank Schaeffer a few years ago; I wanted to get his story for the play. It had been more than twenty years since I’d seen him last — angrily pacing a stage in Philadelphia, arguing that Christians should take back the art world, take back the culture, fight for life. His hair was graying around the angular, serious face I remembered. We sat in a hotel bar and he talked about L’ Abri, and about the whole hippie Christian thing. He said evangelicals — like my family — had thought his family was cool because we were “stupid,” because fundamentalist Christianity was such a limited way of thinking that we were desperate for the Schaeffers’ boho intellectual credibility. Then he told me that he was the one who convinced his father to tell Jerry Falwell and James Dobson to put abortion at the top of the evangelical Christian agenda. I asked him about the films — the babies on the assembly line, the dolls scattered on salt flats, the images that convinced me that abortion meant the end of the world. He looked me in the eyes and said, “Yeah, that was me. That was all me.”
I said, “It was like a natural disaster was happening.”
“Yeah,” he said.
“We were terrified.”
“Yeah. And I was the one who put those terrifying images in your head.”
At this point I had to hold my head, and Frank was quiet for a minute, watching me. It was a kind of earthquake of the synapses, like my brain was rearranging itself. This was only one man, and of course it wasn’t all him, but it was him, too, and it had been, it turned out, only a movie. I asked him why he did it. He said that when Roe v. Wade happened, he was young, and he had just gotten his girlfriend pregnant, and he thought all babies were his baby, he saw her in every fetus. He wanted us to save her.1
Frank Schaeffer and his father may have been wrong that abortion-on-demand was a slippery slope to state-run infanticide and euthanasia, but something about his images still strikes me as prescient. In the documentary Food, Inc., there are a few seconds of footage of a chicken plant. In row after row of filing cabinets, eggs are incubated in metal drawers. After they hatch, a worker shoves the baby chicks through a metal chute onto a conveyor belt. Another worker grabs chicks off the line to debeak them, so that they will not peck each other to death during their brief adult lives, during which they go insane because the intricate social hierarchy that organizes chicken life is not possible in their tiny cages. To watch these clips of factory chicken production — highly subsidized, barely regulated — is to see the horrific vision of the Schaeffers’ antiabortion films realized, albeit with a different set of victims. For what abortion meant, for the Schaeffers and then for all of us, was the failure of secular humanism to protect those whose pain doesn’t count because they don’t count as “human.”
After she dies, Ingrid Newkirk wants the meat of her body to be barbecued, her skin to be made into purses, her feet to be made into umbrella stands, her eyes to be sent to watch the EPA, and her ears to be sent to the Canadian Parliament to help them hear the screams of baby seals. This is all in her will; she wants to be produced, packaged, and distributed like the animals.
The judge didn’t let Scott Roeder talk about abortion during his trial, and on April 1, 2010, he gave him the “hard fifty”: a life sentence with no chance of parole. As he was led out of the courtroom, Roeder shouted, unsurprisingly, “The blood of babies is on your hands!” Since he murdered Dr. Tiller, Operation Rescue has struggled to raise operating funds. But Troy Newman has recovered, it seems, from his abortion fatigue — Nebraska abortion doctor LeRoy Carhart has pledged to take over Tiller’s late-term business, and Newman has declared war. Our most wanted domestic terrorist, though, is still Daniel San Diego, and no one knows where he is. The FBI claims he’s a skilled sailor, so I like to imagine him floating somewhere in green Caribbean waters, tanning his psychopathic tattoos. Meanwhile, Ingrid Newkirk crouches in cages in Times Square, or has cuts of meat diagrammed onto the naked bodies of actresses, as she did for a recent PETA print ad campaign with the slogan “All Animals Have the Same Parts,” inspiring Jezebel.com blogger Jenna Sauers to write a scathing post against the inhumanity of “stripping a woman naked and likening her to an animal” with the title “Ingrid Newkirk Is the Worst Person in the World!”
They take too seriously, these activists, the kinds of suffering that most of us don’t think should count. They empathize their way into bodies that aren’t even human bodies. They care about the wrong categories of victims, and so they take turns on the altar of our bipartisan ceremonies of rhetorical sacrifice, ceremonies we despise even as we consume them, in a country where we live, still, in the shadow of the cross.
I’d read later in Schaeffer’s book Crazy for God that the film series were produced by Gospel Films, on whose board sat the same wealthy Michigan executives, Richard DeVos Sr. and Edgar Prince, who paid for my trip to Washington to march for life. They saw the Schaeffers’ films as an opportunity to consolidate the Christian Right, and they couldn’t have been more correct. ↩