In the weeks following the assassination of Wichita abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, it was perhaps too much to hope that antiabortion organizations and activists would reflect on, and even temper, their movement’s rhetoric. Instead, the halfhearted denunciations of violence issued by groups like the National Right to Life Committee and Operation Rescue were all too quickly followed by a return to offensive characterizations not only of abortion, but of abortion providers.
While the most harmful expressions of antiabortion violence are playing out here in the United States, the vigorous export of the rhetoric, tactics and ideology of the movement is creating a similar hostile environment for abortion providers and for women seeking abortions in other countries. Legal attacks and harassment against clinics, women and providers in countries where women risk their lives to end a pregnancy are increasing, largely tolerated by governments who are reluctant to confront powerful religious leaders.
In many ways the U.S. antiabortion movement is succeeding in recreating the intimidating American model abroad. Take, for example, the 2007 police raid on a family planning clinic in Brazil, which was eerily reminiscent of the raids on Dr. Tiller’s clinic in Wichita. In both cases, the private medical records of thousands of women were confiscated and searched for evidence of illegal abortions. Prosecutors felt that the possibility that any of them might have had an illegal abortion far outweighed their right to keep their medical records private.
Similar attitudes can be seen at the national level where conservative antiabortion legislators recently submitted a proposal to the Brazilian Congress seeking to define abortion as a “heinous crime.” This came just months after their caucus, the Parliamentary Front in Defense of Life, pushed for the approval of a congressional committee dedicated to investigating illegal abortions and the black market sale of abortive drugs “in order to implement the law to the fullest extent.” If found guilty, women who undergo illegal abortions could receive one-to-three years imprisonment, and physicians up to 20 years.
Even where abortion is legal, activists are applying the same tactics of intimidation seen here in United States. Last year the Mexico City legislature approved a progressive reproductive health bill allowing abortion for up to twelve weeks. A legal appeal (supported by the country’s Catholic hierarchy) quickly followed but was denied by the Mexican Supreme Court. Antiabortion activists sprung into full attack mode, protesting clinics wielding massive posters of bloodied, mangled full-term babies who they claimed were the victims of abortion. They continue to film, intimidate and harass women entering clinics for legal services, begging them not to get an abortion.
With the exception of a few countries, most nations in the world allow abortion for at least some indications. Still, abortion stigma is so culturally pervasive that many women do not use legal facilities to terminate their unwanted pregnancies but instead self-induce under dangerous conditions. Because of the stigma, governments have little incentive to ensure that legal services are available and many doctors are unaware that women have the right to request legal abortions in their hospitals and clinics. Instead, antiabortion organizations use their political influence and dangerous rhetoric to punish and endanger women.
In this country we can observe in the wake of Tiller’s murder a certain reinvigoration of the antichoice movement. Rather than stepping back to evaluate how they contribute to hostility toward women and providers, the anti-abortion movement is continuing to stick to its message. The repeated refrain is that they don’t condone Tiller’s killing but that, after all, he “murdered unborn children.”
Human Life International (HLI), a Virginia-based organization that claims it is “the largest prolife movement of Catholic orientation in the world,” is a perfect example of this global approach. They are clearly not ready to tamp down on its war of words. Indeed, their public statement following Tiller’s murder offers no apology:
George Tiller, the mass murderer of Wichita, Kansas is dead. “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword,” said the Lord… Can killing a mass murderer be considered “justifiable homicide”? The short answer to this is “no,” but it is not always apparent why HLI provides financial and material support to affiliates around the world to pressure governments to reject liberalizing abortion laws, while simultaneously creating a cultural climate that stigmatizes abortion and the women who get them. Its activities are focused on the developing world where abortion is already legally restricted (including in Mexico and Brazil), and where women often risk their lives to end an unwanted pregnancy.
Given the history of U.S. antichoice organizations working to recreate the hostile social environment around abortion abroad, is it just a matter of time before a Scott Roeder appears in South Africa or India?