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Violence is the Unifying Narrative of Anti-Abortion Chatter

by David Burress


March 14, 2012

The right-wing anti-abortion movement's every argument against abortion has a coherent pro-violent subtext. There are no exceptions.

Does that sound implausible? It certainly surprised me. But that's what I found after close reading of internet anti-abortion rhetoric, especially organizational websites and blogs that support criminalization of abortion.

I reached that conclusion by looking at narratives, which is to say the concrete stories of human beings in action implied by abstract rhetoric or theoretical arguments. In the end, I found only one single narrative: the fetal rescue narrative. It is used in a highly disciplined and unified way in all arguments against abortion.

The fetal rescue narrative holds that the antagonist in the story (abortion participant) has a depraved character that leads him to commit an intrinsic evil (abortion) against an innocent victim (fetus) while onlookers (society) stand by ineffectually. The protagonist in the story (anti-abortion activist) has a deep integrity (Christian religion) that compels him to intercede like a protective parent (anti-abortion activism). The outcome will be a successful defense of the victim (abolition of abortion).

This story identifies seven specific targets of opportunity for rhetoric. Each target has an associated theme that tends to justify violence in various ways. The targets and their associated themes are:

1. The character and motive of abortion actors (depravity)
2. The nature of abortion actions (intrinsic evil)
3. The character of the fetus (vulnerable innocence)
4. The character of government and society (ineffectuality)
5. The character and motive of anti abortion actors (powerful integrity)
6. The nature of anti-abortion actions (dedicated parenting)
7. The outcome of anti-abortion actions (eventual victory).

None of these themes directly mentions violence, but each theme refers back to profoundly pro-violent rescue stories rooted in our culture.

One such rescue story is the cowboy myth. In it, the depraved and villainous rancher commits theft or murder against an innocent victim (the homesteader) while bystanders stand by ineffectually. The cowboy (a Jesus figure) has a deep integrity (sexual purity) that compels (and morally allows) him to intercede like a protective parent (killing the villain). In the end, the cowboy saves the homestead or the victim's life.

Another powerful rescue narrative in our culture is St. Augustine's defense of Christian violence. Augustine argued in The City of God that God didn't require a good Christian to stand by ineffectually while violence is done to an innocent victim by an evil person.

For each of the seven themes, I've found key supporting words and phrases used as repeated tropes in anti-abortion rhetoric. For example, supporting words I've connected to "the character and motive of abortion actors," number one above, include: mortal sin, greed, racism, sadism and secretiveness. Words associated with "the character of the fetus," number three above, include: personhood, baby, victim and victimization of women. Words associated "the outcome of anti-abortion actions" include: more clinics closed, more laws passed, death as god's judgment. Each of the themes has its own list of key words.

There's one simple reason why right-wing narratives are pro-violent: they have to be to support the right-wing goal of criminalizing abortion. Criminalization means the use of government violence to deter vice. There's no such thing in practice as nonviolent criminal law. People who violate the law are arrested at gunpoint and held violently in jail. Sometimes that's necessary, but there's no use in sugarcoating the facts.

Private violence is a more complex question. Those in the anti-abortion movement could frame its rhetoric and strategy to discourage private violence and terrorism if they wanted to, but they don't. Most importantly, they should stop demonizing abortion doctors by name on websites and national TV.

While the rescue narrative describes every right-wing argument against abortion, a large share of anti-abortion rhetoric doesn't actually argue against abortion. Instead, it attacks the character of pro-choice activists or denies facts or makes claims of moral equivalency between the two sides. These arguments are mere distractions, employing the propaganda technique of the "red herring."

The rescue narrative is an honest and legitimate philosophic argument that must be addressed head on, showing why it is morally and empirically wrong. But the surprisingly high ratio of "red herrings" to honest argument suggests that, deep down, the anti-abortion movement doesn't trust its own rhetoric.

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David Burress is an economist and president of a progressive Kansas think tank, Kansas Progress Institute. He is currently writing a book on anti-abortion violence.

Also see "What To Do When They Say Holocaust" by Carol Mason in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Also See: "Lila Rose: A Sweet Face to Accompany Extreme Anti-Abortion Claims" by Kathryn Joyce in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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