I don’t have much to add to Jesse’s excellent points about the culpability of the organized anti-choice movement, except to add that I keep seeing anti-choice activists who don’t shoot doctors described as “non-violent” or even “peaceful” in the media. This is incorrect. If you scream at women, physically intimidate them, take pictures of them going into clinics (which Jill Stanek did, with regards to Dr. Tiller’s clinic, and posted them on her blog), resist laws that force you to keep your distance from clinic doors, and even beatify women who die in childbirth rather than have abortions, you’re basically indicating that you kind of love violence, even if you don’t like going to jail. But I want to talk about how this assassination needs to be a wake-up call to the William Saletans of the world, and also to Barack Obama—”common ground” is a pipe dream. A great deal of people want to believe that we can somehow come together to agree that abortion is unfortunate and the rate needs to be reduced (even though we can’t talk about how anti-choicers will fight you on any attempts to use contraception and education to actually accomplish this goal), and they hope this will at least temper the abortion debate. This belief is predicated on a bunch of false assumptions that this assassination should expose, the number one being that we can blame both sides equally for how contentious this debate is. That’s utter bullshit, of course, since only one side stands by the use of force to change individual choices. I really, really don’t want to hear this “pox on both your houses” bullshit when a moral man who did more good things before his lunch break every day than all anti-choice activists rolled into one ball will ever do in their lives is dead because some self-righteous misogynist murdered him.
But it’s more than that. I recently interviewed Frances Kissling about the problems with the common ground strategy, and it really clarified for me some of the major problems with it. The big one is that it compromises the moral high ground that the pro-choice side has, and our moral integrity. We have to play along with the anti-choice myth of the poor, besieged pregnant woman who has an elective abortion* not because she really wants one, but because she’s not financially in a good position to have a baby. Like Frances says, it’s true that a lot of women mark off “financial reasons” on the forms when coming up with a reason for their abortions. That’s because it’s an easily available reason that makes women who have been hearing their whole lives that abortion is bad feel better about their decisions. Hell, I’d probably put “can’t afford it” on the form, though that’s not really my primary reason for not having a kid. The truth is that there’s no solid evidence and really no reason to believe that we can reduce the abortion rate by relieving financial woes. First of all, there’s only so much we can do on that front, and second of all, women who have abortions will just point to something else.
Which isn’t to say they’re rationalizing. It is to say that why someone doesn’t have a child is incredibly individualistic and doesn’t fit neatly into a checkbox.
But what I don’t appreciate is the notion that both sides can agree that abortion is a tragedy. No, we don’t actually agree. We have one side that sees abortion as a threat to civilization itself, and another that sees it as a right that must be maintained for the equality and dignity of women. If we buy into the frame that abortion is a tragedy, we’ve conceded the argument to the other side, who gets to have the moral high ground. Which is baffling, because, as this assassination and the response from anti-choicers (essentially: c’mon guys, remember that it’s illegal, and let’s get back to talking about how abortion providers deserve to go to hell) shows, they are nasty people who wouldn’t know morality and compassion if it bit them on the ass. The moral high ground belongs to the pro-choice side, and the life of Dr. Tiller should be a reminder of this. While anti-choicers scream about how 30-40% of American women are murderers, Dr. Tiller saw those women for what they are—good, decent people struggling to do the right thing. While the anti-choice protesters enjoy how their anger scares women seeking abortion services, Dr. Tiller braved the ongoing threat of violence to save lives. We really shouldn’t even concede the ground of calling anti-choicers “pro-life”. They aren’t pro-life. Pro-choicers are the ones who are pro-life. We believe in the value of women’s lives, and we fight for this against a sexist society that treats women’s lives as lesser.
Unfortunately, we do Dr. Tiller and every doctor who provides abortion a disservice when we talk about abortion as a tragedy. It’s obvious that the proper word for an abortion provider is “hero”—someone who risks very real dangers because they feel they have a moral duty to support women’s right to live our lives with dignity and purpose. If we have to avoid saying this to avoid hurting the fee-fees of anti-choicers to get them to talk about “common ground”, then fuck it.
*Unlike the therapeutic abortions that made up a great deal of Dr. Tiller’s practice.