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.

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:


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.

Dismantling dictatorships, creating civilian power

The principle is simple. Dictators require the assistance of the people they rule, without which they cannot secure and maintain their sources of political power.

All of these sources, however, depend on the acceptance of the regime, on the submission and obedience of the population, and on the cooperation of innumerable people and the many institutions of the society. These are not guaranteed.

From Dictatorship to Democracy, p. 18-19

Such is the thesis of Gene Sharp, the preeminent scholar of non-violent forms of struggle. While he’s created several exhaustive volumes analyzing case studies and going into the theory of violence versus non-violence in creating social and political change, his most well-known work is a 93-page pamphlet. From Dictatorship to Democracy was published in 1993 on the request of Karen rebels in Burma. When Sharp visited them, he saw a group  who had tried violence to liberate their people, but had failed. They wanted to try new tactics, but did not have a guide to doing so.

The work is a generic strategy to overthrowing dictatorships, and includes a list of 198 forms of non-violent action. In the twenty years since, it has been translated into 31 additional languages, and has seen use by activists on every continent except Antarctica.

Sharp’s guidebook to non-violent revolution

This post is not here to glamorize Sharp- who this year, for the third time, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. But rather, it’s to delve a bit into what his statement means. About the nature of power.

There is an idea of fighting strength with strength- if you want to defeat a dictatorial regime, you need as many people, dollars, soldiers. Sharp is emphasizing that there is within a state only one source of power and strength. It flows between people, civil society, governments, and the military. But power is not an island, and authority depends on people accepting its legitimacy.

Even in the face of a terrible regime like the SED in East Germany, governments cannot intimidate a group of people who united and decide to put their fear aside. The feeling of fear is a source of control by authoritarian groups- and when fear fails to keep people in line the regime is thrown into crisis. The Peaceful Revolution, a movement that is virtually ignored in American history courses, is an example. The sheer volume of people in open defiance paralyzed the regime, and led to police and the army not using force against the protestors (who peaked at 500,000 in East Berlin alone). The dreaded Stasi  attempted to provoke a violent activist response, but were unsuccessful. A commitment to non-violent ideals kept the Peaceful Revolution from being a violent massacre. While the Eastern Bloc was crumbling, the fall of the Berlin Wall did not spontaneously happen. It was created by a population that had castrated the Communist leadership. And they had done so without guns. It was psychological and social. Fear flowed from people back to the government.

When you look at revolutions that have produced long-lasting democratic states, straight-up violent takeover is not a common feature. The changes in Poland were preceded by years of action by Solidarity. The Gdańsk strikes led to a legal, independent trade union, that at its peak included 1/3 of the working population (for reference, that would be a union with 80,000,000 members in the US, about seven times that of the AFL-CIO). Non-violent action had created civil society where none had existed before. And over time, it led to a democratic Poland. Violent opposition legitimates violence. It splits social and political groups, and clouds the situation for outside groups who don’t want to support what is simply a different evil.

Watching the stalemate and bloodshed in Syria, and the second, worrying military coup play out in Egypt (and the deeply fragmented post-Gaddafi Libya) the need for strong non-violent tactics and the creation of a civilian and democratic power base becomes clear. It’s not easy, and it certainly isn’t always intuitive, but the more you study the issue the more benefits pop up.