Thursday, December 01, 2011

The War of Absolutes: Violence And The Birth Of The Anti-Abortion Movement

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe how the modern anti-abortion movement was founded by Catholics who had participated in the anti-Vietnam War movement and supported the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and how the opposition to abortion takes a more violent turn as Protestant evangelicals get involved.

John O’Keefe, a Maryland Catholic who had opposed the Vietnam War and lost a brother in that conflict, began a “direct action” campaign against abortion clinics, consciously imitating the civil rights protestors who “sat in” at segregated lunch counters to end Jim Crow laws. O’Keefe believed that God had led him to oppose the Vietnam War, support Civil Rights and now to oppose abortion. He believed that abortion was another symptom of a sick American society addicted to violence, whether on battlefields or inside a woman’s womb.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference and mainstream anti-abortion groups like the National Right to Life Committee secured passage in 1976 of the “Hyde Amendment” authored by Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican. This law prohibited the use of Medicaid funding for abortions and effectively denied poor women the same access to the procedure allowed better-off women. Nevertheless, men like O’Keefe concluded that such legal limitations on what they saw as murder were not enough. A non-violent protest at the Sigma Reproductive Health Services Clinic in Rockville, Maryland, on August 2, 1975, launched a new, more confrontational era in anti-abortion activism. Six women staged a sit-in between the waiting room and the procedure rooms while protestors sang, prayed, passed out anti-abortion literature and tried to persuade women to not go inside. The protest got little press attention. O’Keefe and other charismatic Catholics continued to dominate the movement, staging sit-ins with small numbers of protestors.

This would change by the late 1970s when leadership of the anti-abortion movement was taken over by conservative evangelical Protestants. O’Keefe had been heavily influenced by the non-violent philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. New anti-abortion activists came from the political right and felt no tie to the traditions of the anti-war and civil rights movements, and would use greater attention-grabbing protest tactics. Soon, prominent preachers on television like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, and anti-ERA campaigner Phyllis Schlafly joined the anti-abortion movement and gave it financial muscle and, particularly within the Republican Party, political power.

As they turned more radical, anti-abortion protestors began to call their blockades “rescues.” They sought to “rescue the unborn” by closing down clinics, if possible permanently. The first known act of anti-clinic violence happened at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Eugene, Oregon, in March 1976 when a man named Joseph Stockett set the building on fire and received a five-year sentence for arson. The next February, an arsonist also targeted a Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Paul, Minnesota.
In the 1980s, anti-abortion violence escalated, with protestors chaining themselves to clinics, making threatening phone calls to doctors and threatening their lives, pouring noxious chemicals in clinic vents, bombing facilities and eventually assassinating abortion services staff. The struggle over abortion became – to use Risen and Thomas’s term – a “war,” a struggle of absolutes in which one side saw themselves engaged in a moral crusade equivalent to the struggle against slavery. Some believed that killing some was necessary to prevent murder of others.



Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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