The Inherent Violence of Pro-Life Rhetoric

When a gunman opened fire last week inside a Planned Parenthood clinic, killing three people including a police officer, the response from the political blogosphere was predictable and revealing. Dozens of pundits took the murderous rampage as an object lesson in why pro-life activism, like the kind we’ve seen over the Center for Medical Progress’s video expose of Planned Parenthood, can and does lead to violence against abortion providers and advocates.

On the other side, pro-life writers moved quickly to counter this narrative, first by casting reasonable doubt as to the real motivations (and psychological condition) of the killer, and then by pointing out the conveniently selective memories of progressives when it comes to ideologically motivated violence. All in all, both sides of the political spectrum performed effectively, making it unlikely that Americans on either side of the abortion debate would change their views because of this atrocity.

And isn’t that where most of our rhetorical face-offs on abortion tends to leave us, right back where we started in the first place? It certainly seems so. The tug-of-war between pro-choice and pro-life here was predictable in that the lines of argument for each side were obvious and obviously sufficient to confirm everyone in their preexisting views.

But I also said that this exchange was “revealing,” and here’s what I mean. By taking pro-lifers to task for using rhetoric that could incite vigilantism, the pro-choice side has unwittingly granted a crucial premise of the pro-life worldview: namely, that abortion is more than a medical procedure or a “reproductive right,” but is in fact an act of violence. Progressives are correct when they say that pro-life ideas are violent, but they are wrong when they believe that the violence starts with pro-life. Pro-life rhetoric is violent because abortion is violent.

When I say pro-life rhetoric is violent, I am NOT saying that it is violent against abortionists themselves. As Ross Douthat pointed out, the pro-life movement has grown and strengthened in the country over the last 20 years in large part because it has eschewed the kind of incident we saw last week. Pro-life activists do indeed target abortion providers like Planned Parenthood, but with political and moral reasoning, not with weapons.

But the pro-life argument is indeed a violent one, and it is violent precisely because abortion is not what its advocates say it is. The violence of pro-life is the violence of crushed skulls, suctioned brains, and carefully dissected spinal cords, not of people patronizing or running the abortion clinics but of the people for whom the clinic really exists. The violence of pro-life is the violence of looking at a mangled, bloody, and unmistakably human corpse, and hearing the words “tissue harvesting.”

The violence of abortion is, for pro-lifers, the most crucial reality in the entire post-Roe v. Wade debate. And it seems that obfuscating abortion’s violence, behind either rhetoric about reproductive freedom or by the prohibition of truth-tellers like ultrasounds and undercover cameras, has become an equally important part of the pro-choice platform. When an abortion advocate hears something like “Planned Parenthood Sells Baby Parts,” they think of that rhetoric as violent invective against women who need medical relief and sexual equality. They don’t think, however, of a little hand, or a doctor’s declaring “It’s a boy” when staring at a mass of body in a petri dish. For pro-choicers, the alternative to Roe is mass death in the darkened back alleys of America; they don’t stop to wonder if the clinics, windows down and pictures blurred, have actually become those back alleys.

In the wake of violence against abortion providers, it is of course fair to ask whether pro-life advocacy is mature and reasoned rather than vengeful. Can pro-lifers do better? Of course; constantly assessing whether our message is grounded in claims of human dignity for all or in political frustration for our opponents is absolutely necessary if we are to articulate a pro-life worldview capable of winning people as well as elections. The pro-life movement to date has not, after all, been merely a Jonah-like moral condemnation of the culture, but a holistic movement that builds pregnancy centers and adoption agencies. That must continue. No amount of undercover videos or hashtag campaigns can replace the effect of building a tangible culture of life.

But when faced with the accusation that our rhetoric is violent, pro-life must admit  that yes, it is violent. The violence of pro-life is not the violence of shootings or bombings but the violence of reality, the violence of actually looking at abortion and seeing its eyes, hands, and feet. Because pro-life is a movement to see the truth, it is a movement to see violence. We can’t escape the violence of pro-life because we cannot escape the violence of abortion.

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