On Friday, Nov. 28, CNN reported that 57-year-old Robert Lewis Dear walked into a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado and killed three people over the course of an hours-long standoff with police officers. His ex-wife told NBC News that Dear had a history of violence and was vocally anti-government; when arrested, he immediately told officers that he wanted “no more baby parts,” a reference to a deceptively edited video that implied Planned Parenthood sold fetal organs on the black market.
In response, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz told the Texas Tribune on Nov. 29 that the shooter was probably a “transgendered leftist.”
Cruz is an extreme example of an anti-abortion politician attempting to pass the buck to anyone else, but pro-life activists in general are reluctant to condemn violence against abortion providers, and even more reluctant to take some responsibility.
On the Democratic side of the aisle, President Obama made a speech in response to the shootings – a shockingly routine one. According to Reuters, Obama made an emotional speech on Nov. 25 calling for an end to gun violence, to keep “weapons of war” out of the hands of mentally ill people. In short, he made the kind of speech he makes all the time, barely adjusted for the particulars of the situation.
No one wants to respond to this attack like they would respond to any other kind of terrorist killing. No one wants to call this an attack on the American way of life.
In a way, that makes sense. What could be more American than a man like Robert Lewis Dear, a white man imposing his religious views on people who could not fight back? At this point, violence attacks on abortion providers and Planned Parenthood clinics are an American tradition. We have become desensitized to them, as we have to have to so many forms of other violence.
However, the attacks on providers of abortion and women’s health service are indeed an attack on American values, or at least the values Americans often purport to have.
Abortion has been legal nationwide since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. Most things that were controversial in 1973 are less so now, but abortion is an enduring exception. We are used to the debate being seen as an unanswerable moral question, but it is worth asking ourselves what anti-abortion activists really want.
The answer to that is often simple. They want to enforce their religious ideals, above the legal system, above valued American principle like freedom of choice and the rights of women and often through violence. The Washington Post wrote about one man, Michael Griffin, who attributed his murder of an abortion provider to religious motives in 1993; his supporters said he had done what God wanted and should be acquitted.
Of course, Dear differs a little from many of those in the American tradition of pro-life murder. One of his victims was a police officer, making him look a little less like a focused executioner and more like a desperate man striking out at a system he hated in any way he could.
Still though, Dear had seen that video about “baby parts.” So had most of the 2016 Republican candidates, and many conservatives and religious people all across America. They all learned essentially the same thing. They all probably felt, to various degrees, anger and sadness when they drove by the nearest Planned Parenthood. The difference is what they decided to do about it.
If we want to be a country with a reasonable political conversation, activists should take responsibility for the consequences of their movements. Every time an advocate of anti-abortion policies and rhetoric – whether a politician, activist, or religious leader – stays silent about what happens when their ideas become actions, tragedies like these become more and more normalized.