Is the anti-abortion movement truly non-violent?

Last week, my campus was the site of the Genocide Awareness Project, a traveling display of graphic images about abortion. At two stories high, and long as a large bus, it was by far the most elaborate monument to anti-abortion thinking I had ever seen. It occupied prime space on Library Walk, the main artery of UC San Diego campus. Very few people knew it was coming, so the first day it was met by an ad-hoc group of women’s resource center people and activists.

The second day was much more organized, with close to a hundred people at its peak. The number ebbed and flowed over several hours as people left for class and returned. People chanted “My body! My choice!”; one student protested topless, feeling anti-abortion crusades are only one of several movements that want to dictate what women can do with their bodies.

IMG_2294
Pro-choice counter-protest, Library Walk, UC San Diego (1/20/2016)

There are a lot of things wrong with the Genocide Awareness Project, besides the usual shock-value pictures and culture of intimidation. Posters equated abortion to the Holocaust. Another had a picture of Eric Garner captioned “I Can’t Breathe” alongside an aborted fetus. As you can see in the above image, the trope of abortion being ‘black genocide’ was invoked. The entire display rests on problematic (and often offensive) connections being drawn to link abortion (which American society is split on) to the Holocaust, a self-evident mass injustice. In the end, I found last week troubling. In particular, there’s no evidence that the Genocide Awareness Project was invited by a student or student group. Looking through the online space reservation system, the space was allocated to the group behind the Project- the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform.

Traditionally, Library Walk is divided between the central portion, for student groups or canvassers (for Southern Poverty Law Center or Save the Children usually), and the two ends, which are free speech zones for anyone. Non-student anti-abortion protestors last year were allowed to set up on one end of the Walk by the library, but this year had six slots worth of space front-and-center. This, along with a lack of due notice to students- who may have wanted to avoid that part of campus for personal reasons, or allowed time to organize the larger counter-protest, made the whole experience feel uncomfortable.

That said, I would like to dive into a related conversation that came about during the counter-protest. There were sign-making materials on site on Wednesday, so I took advantage and made this sign:

IMG_2293

I felt it necessary to go beyond talk of a right to choose and deal with the most disturbing part of the anti-abortion movement to me. Namely, how militant the rhetoric of groups have become, and how violence against patients, doctors, staff, and security in one form or another is common. Claims that abortion is an ongoing Holocaust, if believed sincerely, justify murder as righteous action. Right-wing hate crimes, including incidents like the 2008 shooting at a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, Tennessee, show how extreme speech can convince certain kinds of individuals that they have a God-given duty to kill.

At one point, I was told that my poster was unfair to tie these murders by to the movement as a whole. A majority of activists practice non-violent struggle.

To some degree, I agree with that critique. It is unfair to assign an entire movement moral complicity in murder (and more numerous lesser crimes, like assault and vandalism). However, I also think that claiming non-violent methods does not mean a lack of connection to any violent acts automatically. In the modern developed world, almost every civil society groups will espouse non-violence. That does not mean that they are equal  What follows is a few things that should be considered when evaluating the anti-abortion movement as nonviolent.

Activists claiming to be non-violent may condone violent acts done by others. Many individuals against abortion praise killings and assault of doctors and patients. After last year’s shooting that killed 3 and wounded 9 in Colorado, many took to social media in support of the crime. Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue and long-time leader of the movement, stated the following when Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed at his church in 2009:

“George Tiller was a mass-murderer. We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God. I am more concerned that the Obama Administration will use Tiller’s killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions. Abortion is still murder. And we still must call abortion by its proper name; murder.

“Those men and women who slaughter the unborn are murderers according to the Law of God. We must continue to expose them in our communities and peacefully protest them at their offices and homes, and yes, even their churches.” (source)

I don’t see this as a statement endorsing non-violence. Instead, I see it as using non-violence to deny responsibility, but still support violent action. This strategy devalues peaceful strategy by connecting it to the use of force.

The tactics of the movement are fundamentally violating. Since 1973, the anti-abortion movement has taken two paths. The first is political, including the passage of the Hyde Amendment and restrictions on abortion clinics. The second, which we all think of when picturing the conflict, are attempts to block, intimidate, and trick women from entering clinics.

I don’t see tactics of intimidation, which includes things like the Genocide Awareness Project, as truly non-violent. If we take the narrow definition of violence, which it is the absence of force, then the movement describes itself accurately. However, it’s limiting and inaccurate to exclude actions that are violating by their nature. Yelling at a woman that she’s a murderer and waving a gory picture in her face is not non-violent action. The rhetoric is aggressive enough that those who commit crimes to stop abortions don’t need to do much ideological shifting.

Traditional examples of nonviolence are different from the characteristics of those against abortion. A big issue are ties made between those that oppose abortion and the campaigns of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. Both became known for non-violence, but their struggles were about the powerless against the tyrants. The relationship between activists and the system were inferior-superior. There is no great tyrant in the abortion debate- the principal population attacked are vulnerable women. Well-funded groups and conservative politicians are those with tyrannical power.

Ideologies and movements are never strictly violent or non-violent. They exist in a conversation between physical force and moral force. While the anti-abortion movement may adhere to non-violence at some surface level, it is built on a fundamentally violent premise.

To the best of my ability: the need for political physicians

Yesterday, an unusual series of nationwide events were held on college campuses and in hospitals. Medical students marched in white coats and staged demonstrations against police violence. They staged die-ins in public areas. I was at the event at the University of California, San Diego, which was held in the highest-traffic area on campus. At the end, all in attendance raised their hand and recited the Hippocratic Oath (the modern version).

UC San Diego medical students recite the Hippocratic Oath. December 10, 2014.
UC San Diego medical students recite the Hippocratic Oath.
December 10, 2014.

It was quite an event. The events were planned well- public areas, the use of a distinctive symbol of medicine, and the use of the Oath as a unifying statement- all great, and less common than they should be. Medical students are not on the front lines of the social justice movement in the way law students or politicized undergraduates are. That is a shame, because medicine cannot be apolitical.

The reality of medicine is that world conflict and society place obstacles in front of doctors and aid workers. Certain populations and areas of the world face political oppression and in some cases genocide. If doctors accepted and only treated people where it was legal to do so, they would be condemning others. The Red Cross is a great institution of neutrality, but that sometimes their inaction can cause harm. Why do Doctors Without Borders exist? Because they thought the Red Cross were undermining the duty to heal by staying out of certain conflict zones. But to practice medicine without heed to borders means going outside the system. Whose lives are saved is at some level a political decision.

In the United States the political establishment has intruded on medicine. In Florida is now illegal for doctors to ask their patients about gun ownership, and whether that gun is safely stored. Guns are a major political issue, but they are also a major public health problem. Owners using a convenient gun to kill themselves, or the dozens of children shot and killed by other children who found an unsecured gun are something physicians have a clear duty to prevent. But they are being prevented from doing so in Florida, and many other states are considering similar laws.

With regards to abortion, physicians have been tied by unfair standards in their clinical practice, all to prevent them from performing a legal medical procedure. In states like Ohio, efforts are being made to restrict what doctors can talk about, what information they provide, and preventing doctors that perform abortion from providing sex education in schools. Laws are also attempting to provide anti-abortion doctors cover to lie to their patients, even though such conduct is grossly unprofessional.

Doctors are confronted with a healthcare system that is grossly inefficient and still very expensive. Their expertise has always been in conflict against insurance companies who will only pay for certain treatments and drugs, and stretched by patients who have no money to pay out-of-pocket. A dysfunctional system has led to incredible rates of infant mortality, obesity, and heart disease.

And why is the rate of infant mortality so high? One key part is the terrible poverty many kids are born into- the gap widens postnatal, not prenatal. Poverty is a public health crisis. There are diseases of the poor, and life expectancy drops dramatically based on race and income.

At the event, I saw a medical student with a sign stating “Homicide is a Public Health Issue”. Of course. Doctors must deal with the after-effects of crime, including violence by police officers on suspects. Physicians cannot heal those that the police kill, and unnecessary force is a danger, like smoking and not wearing a seat belt.

The health of a society is rooted in political decisions. Economic inequality due to tax breaks, black poverty caused by bad schools and unjust police action. Thousands and thousands of unsecured firearms that doctors in Florida can no longer ask about. Doctors are not the only experts being hemmed in and told how to do their jobs- mandatory minimum sentences have swelled prison populations while crime itself has gone down. Judges used to have wide discretion and take each criminal case as unique, but now laws have tied their hands. Not to idolize judges or doctors, but their education and experience is important, and shouldn’t callously be discarded by legislation.

Get onto the streets, medical students, residents, fellow, and fully specialized physicians! More of these events need to happen, the medical lobby is powerful but also conservative. The rank-in-file need to push for a healthier world, and that requires wading into politics. The American people sure need a new, clean bill of health.