The National Catholic Review

What should we do about abortion clinic violence? First, recognize that the question is at the intersection of a broken political conversation about abortion and a compulsion for immediate responses to tragic events. Second, focus attention on a better question. What should we do about mass-shooting violence?

We live in an age of instant activism and analysis via social media that produces a drive towards explanations, conclusions and plans of action almost before disasters have concluded. It’s not surprising that the recent shootings at the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs have been yoked into an ongoing hashtag campaign already, most notably by NARAL Pro-Choice America: #InvestigateClinicViolence.

Yet, we know very little about the motives of the shooter, and very far from enough to say that his actions were part of any pattern or broader plan. Beyond the location, the only indication we have about his motive is an unnamed law enforcement official who said that the suspect made remarks about “no more baby parts.” Even the unnamed official wouldn’t draw an explicit conclusion, telling CNN that while the suspect held anti-abortion views, that doesn’t mean, in his view, that those opinions were the motive.

The official statement from the law enforcement agencies leading the investigation was starker, as they refused to provide details on motive, saying on Twitter: "Unofficial motive/details on #CentennialBlshooting may impact investigation/prosecution @CSPDPIO @EPCSheriff ONLY official info source."

Meanwhile, a number of pundits and media professionals jumped to associating this violence with the pro-life movement at large, jumping into the “ready-made narrative,” as Charlie Camosy explains, “that pro-life Christians incite this kind of anti-choice terrorism on a regular basis.”

For people who are already convinced that opposition to abortion arises not from a concern for the defense of unborn human life, but from an atavistic desire to control women’s bodies, this narrative is attractive. It’s even more attractive to conclude that this violence was triggered, if not caused, by the most recent significant challenge to the dominant pro-choice narrative, the series of videos released by the Center for Medical Progress focusing on Planned Parenthood’s participation in sourcing fetal tissue (i.e., “baby parts”) for research. But that may tell us more about the motives that pro-choice advocates impute to pro-life activists than about anything else.

Whenever this kind of violence happens, pro-life groups immediately condemn it, and there are no credible voices in the pro-life movement calling for violence against abortion clinics or providers.

If you don’t remember hearing a lot of the denunciations of anti-abortion violence, perhaps that’s because—though any episode of violence is of course one too many—they haven’t been frequently necessary. Why? Attacks against abortion providers, while terrible and very well covered in the media for the most part, are thankfully not very common. The National Abortion Federation’s page on abortion-related violence lists the last killing before the events in Colorado as the 2009 shooting of Dr. George Tiller; all the deadly events prior to that are in the 1990s.

There have been four arson incidents at abortion clinics in recent months, which is what initially inspired NARAL’s #InvestigateClinicViolence campaign for these to be treated and investigated as “domestic terrorism.” They do deserve to be investigated; however, it is unclear whether or not those incidents are themselves connected, much less connected to the shootings in Colorado.

Because those connections are so unclear, no one is served by rhetoric that suggests that pro-lifers have “incited” this violence by directing attention and criticism to the practice of abortion and fetal tissue harvesting. It is unfair to attempt to associate peaceful protesters with violent attacks, and it suggests that the pro-choice position is so weak and fragile that it cannot respond to criticism on its own terms, but only by impugning the motives of its opponents.

The more difficult truth is that we lack both the vocabulary and leadership for a reasonable debate about abortion that might actually produce meaningful change. While the American people are certainly not in favor of banning abortion outright, most of them also want greater restrictions than are currently in place or possible under the existing judicial framework governing abortion.

Meanwhile, though violence directed against abortion clinics remains rare, mass shootings have grown all too common, as President Obama again drove home in his statement following the shooting. He refused to speculate about the shooter’s “so-called motive” and instead directed our attention to something we know is a necessary factor in all mass shootings:

This is not normal.  We can’t let it become normal.  If we truly care about this—if we’re going to offer up our thoughts and prayers again, for God knows how many times, with a truly clean conscience—then we have to do something about the easy accessibility of weapons of war on our streets to people who have no business wielding them.

Here’s another pattern we should be outraged by—once again, a lonely and disturbed individual was able to take whatever demons, fear and anger he wrestled and give them guns. Once again, one man’s hate and rage, whatever its source, turned into mass violence that we have not been willing to defend against. And this is also a pro-life issue.

Some pro-choice activists are suggesting the pro-life community should be asking whether or not our rhetoric incites violence against abortion providers. I think there’s a more important question for us pro-lifers to ask: when will we be willing to demand that politicians who take a moral stand against abortion also get involved in a substantive conversation about how to mitigate the risks of gun violence and mass shootings?


Bill Mazzella | 12/3/2015 - 9:11pm

We now have more deaths by guns than any nation. More than the last three wars combined. The NRA rules. No matter how you slice it the anti-abortion crowd stirs more deaths than the pro-choice group does. One reason only that NRA gets away with it. Bushels of money to those restricting use of guns.

Beth Cioffoletti | 12/2/2015 - 9:53am

That's not a better question, that's the wrong question.

Yes, the rhetoric does incite violence against abortion providers, and we pro-lifers need to address that directly rather than changing the subject, however subtly. Yes, guns matter, but so does the near constant call of "mass murder" of the anti-abortion extremists.

There is more information about the abortion clinic killer in today (Nov.1) NY Times. There is a fundamental connection between "religion" and violence at abortion clinics. Just as we demand that mainstream Islam address their "radical" elements, this violence must be addressed directly by Christian religious communities.

"One person who spoke with him extensively about his religious views said Mr. Dear, who is 57, had praised people who attacked abortion providers, saying they were doing “God’s work.” In 2009, said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concerns for the privacy of the family, Mr. Dear described as “heroes” members of the Army of God, a loosely organized group of anti-abortion extremists that has claimed responsibility for a number of killings and bombings."

Roberta Lavin | 12/1/2015 - 2:05pm

“Together, we must say no to hatred, to revenge and to violence, particularly that violence which is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God Himself,” Pope Francis insisted

I have a visceral reaction when anyone calls abortion murder. I cannot in any way equate terminating a pregnancy before 20 weeks as murder in the same way that I see walking into a school and shooting children as murder. The character and the malice that goes into shooting a sentient human being are far different from the actions and thoughts that go into having an abortion. There is no 20-week fetus that is sentient or able to live without the mother. Nonetheless, I believe it to be an unfortunate decision, made under difficult circumstances, and made out of a sense of fear and distress. I cannot condemn a person so long as my heart aches for her.

Consequently, I can’t conceive of a woman making the hardest and most serious decision of her life as a murderer. I imagine the pain and fear she must feel. I wonder where the father is and why he isn’t offering support. I worry about what happened that she became pregnant and especially if she is a teenager – was she pressured to fit in, manipulated by an older male, afraid to say no, raped, a victim of incest, or never encouraged by her parents to wait?

I react to abortion being called murder because I see the use of the term as a complete lack of compassion for a woman in trouble. If one truly believes that abortion is a mortal sin, then to condemn the woman as a murderer is too easy and self-satisfying. It is too easy because it allows us as a society, a faith community, and as individuals to do nothing to help her through the pregnancy, to dismiss her as immoral, and to condemn her and those who assist her as murders. Calling abortion murders allows us to continue to advocate against abortion without showing the same concern for women prior to pregnancy, during pregnancy, or after birth.

Murder connotes anger and hatred, which would be exceptionally rare in a pregnant woman considering abortion and yet in studies of people who have committed murder and violent crimes it has been found that most have been impacted by abuse and economic problems. The major reasons identified for murder are fear, anger, desperation, greed, and religious fanaticism. Those seem to be the same sentiments pro-life advocates express frequently toward women who have and physicians that participate in abortion.

That same anger, fear, and religious fanaticism that wants to kill want to condemn women seeking abortion as murderers. Likewise, many of those same people vocally support the murder of people who participate in abortion, not after a trial, but by vigilantes and in virtually the same breath defend open carry laws and second amendment rights which demonstrably increases the risk of death from firearms accidents, suicides, and murders. Vigilantism is not Christianity any more than terrorism is Islamic.

We will not be able to change our current path until we fully embrace the dignity of the individual. I do not believe we can embrace that dignity so long as we look at others and label them as murders and allow or friends and neighbors to be radicalized. We cannot allow, in the name of religion, individuals or groups to act in manners we know will lead to death and injury, including death brought on by abortion, guns, death penalties, poverty, and all manner of violence and neglect.

I believe the time has come to list our sins and they are many and are intertwined with our society:

Abortion as birth control
Death penalty in a society that has methods that are effective
Gun in the hands of virtually anyone that wants one
Poverty that is inadequately addressed
Domestic terrorism in all its forms (racial, ethnic, religious, gender-based, ecological)
Endless war that counts soldier and not civilians
You can list your own
As Americans, we value our freedoms. I believe the time has come that we all need to begin to decline our rights and embrace a moral conscience respectful of human dignity.

I decline the right to bear arms.
I decline the right to have an abortion.
I decline the right to participate in the death penalty.
I decline the right to take more than I need.
I decline the right to use free speech to harm another.
I decline the right to support war and to ignore the impact on civilians.
I decline the right to remain silent while others act in ways that harm our society.

Crystal Watson | 12/1/2015 - 1:26pm

I don't think the question is really about 'gun violence' ... pro-life violence takes many forms besides shootings: bombing, arson, kidnapping, harassment and threats. The real questions are ... why do pro-life people think violence is an acceptable way to respond to legal abortion ... why do Christians believe that the ends justify the means?

Margaret McIntyre | 12/1/2015 - 1:13pm

Many pro-gun people take up guns to protect themselves in a what they view a dangerous society, where systematic law and order have broken down. By similar logic, the gun owners are 'protectors" of their lives, their family, neighbors etc.: So, the pro gun people see themselves protecting the unborn life from the abortionist or mother that takes abortion as the way out of her problems, to the detriment of the baby. Again, the gun is an instrument of protection (against) evil forces.

Beth Cioffoletti | 12/1/2015 - 10:38am

"Some pro-choice activists are suggesting the pro-life community should be asking whether or not our rhetoric incites violence against abortion providers. I think there’s a more important question for us pro-lifers to ask: when will we be willing to demand that politicians who take a moral stand against abortion also get involved in a substantive conversation about how to mitigate the risks of gun violence and mass shootings?"

Good luck with that.

I have never understood why so many in the American gun culture claim an almost zealous regard for unborn life. It seems odd. (see comment below).

Crystal Watson | 11/30/2015 - 10:13pm

Whether that man in Colorado was provoked to violence by anti-abortion rhetoric or not, there's no denying that the pro-life movement has been violent, recently and for many years. They have murdered and kidnapped clinic staff, bombed and set fire to clinics. They make WANTED posters of doctors, post the names, addresses, and phone numbers of staff online, call doctors 'butchers' and women 'murderers'. To say that all this doesn't incite susceptible people to violence is disingenuous and irresponsible. This news article from NBC I saw today quotes some of the leaders of the pro-life movement saying, for all intents and purposes, that the people killed at the PP clinic had it coming ...