The Rebel Girl: Violence Against Choice

Against the Current, No. 67, March/April 1997

Catherine Sameh

I HAVE BEEN recently asked to speak to a group of young women about reproductive rights issues. I haven’t worked in the field for almost four years now, but remain attuned to the changes in climate and politics.

I look through my files, wondering what I could say that might be new and interesting. I am struck by how much has happened, yet how little has changed in nearly ten years — and then it happens. Another bombing of an abortion clinic: This time in Atlanta. This time, no deaths.

Yet despite the injuries and fear that have resulted, right-wing terrorism gets little news coverage. It’s become, if not common, then expected, particularly when it comes to abortion.

While many in the “pro-life” to camp condemn the use of terrorist tactics to stop abortion, they knew how useful these tactics have been to their movement. If accused of being vicious, they point to the “non-violence” of their protests.

In fact, their biggest success in the last decade has been in creating an image of the “mainstream” of their movement as non-violent–a far cry from shootings and bombings — and their leaders as committed civil disobedients. They’ve spent enormous energy and resources portraying abortion as violence, and themselves as peaceful interventionists.

In this respect they’ve gained enormous ground. Not only have they capitalized on society’s general ambivalence towards abortion, they’ve even managed to send some pro-choicers apologizing.

The nationally acclaimed book Lovejoy: A Year in the Life of an Abortion Clinic, by Portland, Oregon abortion doctor Peter Korn, claims to cut of the abortion debate’s complexities. But a small excerpt on the back cover points to a lack of complexity, in favor of sensationalism:

“As Tim [director of counseling at the clinic] listened to Beverly a second voice kept at him. This inner voice told him Beverly’s choice was wrong. Tim’s work is helping women make choices, knowing that some of these women feel they are choosing between life and death. It is his job to ignore the voices that come from within himself. But this woman was telling him she could not kill flies or spiders…

“Beverly told Tim she had never been able to cut the flowers she grew in her backyard garden because she could not stand the thought of their dying. And here she was talking about ending an eighteen-week pregnancy.”

Be this ambivalence Tim’s or the author’s, no more articulate concession could be made to the pro-lifers’ line that abortion is indeed a violent act. A complicated net of life circumstances, feelings and decisions has been reduced–this time, not by the pro-lifers but by this women’s advocate — to a disturbing contradiction.

Is it no longer acceptable to think of abortion as one among many answers, to conceive of sparing a child a life of poverty or neglect or a mother’s profound ambivalence about its existence, as a sensible, non-violent thing to do? Could we not say in fact that abortion saves lives?

That we don’t say this at this juncture signals a profound lack of vision in our own, pro-choice movement. When was the last time we heard a demand for federally funded abortion on demand for any and all reasons? How completely pie-in-the-sky would that seem now?

Like welfare, abortion remains a convenient scapegoat for legitimate fears about real structural and physical violence in a world made more brutal each day. And as with welfare, women continue to suffer from punitive anti-abortion policies and attitudes.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month this March, perhaps it’s time to bring a full reproductive rights agenda back to the table.

ATC 67, March-April 1997