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A great deal of my friends list (and a great deal of my Twitter list, and a great deal of the Internet) is talking about the murder of Dr. George Tiller by a pro-life whacko formerly associated in some loose way with Operation Rescue.

Most of the people who are talking about it are asking how on Earth it's possible for someone who identifies as "pro-life" to be okay with murder.

Honestly, I think that's pretty easy to understand. Warped and twisted, yes, but easy to understand.

In fact, I would like to propose a simple thought experiment that I think would make almost anyone able to understand the mindset of a person who might decide that murder is a reasonable approach to the abortion debate.

First, though, it's important to understand that "pro-life" does not, in fact, mean pro-life. Words are valuable as symbols, but in the case of the abortion debate, they are symbols more often chosen for their emotional connotations than for their clarity in communication.

"Pro-life" does not actually mean that the person who describes himself this way values life, at least not across the board. It's an expression of emotional manipulation; we all like to think of ourselves as supporting life, and the phrase can become a blunt instrument in rhetoric ("if you're not in favor of life, what does that make you? Pro-death?"). Once you understand that "pro-life" is not actually intended as a descriptor of a person who supports life across the board, other contradictions (such as the fact that people who identify as pro-life are statistically more likely to support the death penalty and the war in Iraq) disappear.

So don't assume that "pro-life" (at least the way it's used by a radical anti-abortion activist) means "being in favor of life." That's #1.

Once you've got hold of that idea, the rest is easy. I am about to propose a thought experiment that might take you into the emotional state of a violent pro-lifer.

Before I do that, though, a disclaimer. I want to make it absolutely clear that the analogy I am about to make is absolutely, positively not a valid analogy in the sense that it has any bearing on the real-world issue of abortion. The purpose of this analogy is only to create an emotional response that is analogous to the emotional response that radical pro-lifers have to abortion, and to show how the logic of murder fits into the framework of that emotional response.

Please, no flames about how I am "taking their side" or how I am trivializing the real struggles of people who have had to deal with discrimination and prejudice. That is missing the entire point of the thought experiment.

Ready? Okay.

Imagine something about yourself that puts you outside the mainstream of middle America. My friends list being what it is, I bet almost everyone reading this can do that.

Maybe it's your race. Maybe it's the fact that you're kinky, or polyamorous. Maybe you're gay. Maybe you're trans. Maybe you have uncommon or unpopular religious, political, or social views. Maybe you have some sort of physical or psychological disability. Whatever.

Now, imagine that you live in a place exactly like the one that you live in, except that it is legal to kill people like you.

Not only is it legal, but people like you aren't even considered human beings at all.

The reasons aren't relevant for the purpose of the thought experiment. Just imagine that oyu live in a society in which it is absolutely accepted to kill, without cause or justification, anyone who's gay. Or anyone who's trans. Or anyone who's black, or likes kinky sex, or whatever.

Imagine there are people who specialize in doing it. You go to a professional and pay a couple hundred dollars and he will detain and then execute someone.

Yes, I realize that there is a difference between an unborn fetus and, for example, a gay man. That's not the point here; to a True Believer, there is no difference. Just think about living in that society, and imagine how you'd feel.

Imagine how you'd feel if time and time and time again, over a period of decades, every attempt to have this sort of killing outlawed met with "These people are not legally human at all. Killing (gays/trans folk/polyamorists/blacks/kinky folk/whatever) isn't murder because you can only murder a human being." Imagine if everyone you spoke to said "You don't like killing gays? Fine, don't kill any gays then!" Imagine that you live in this society, and the generally accepted premises for social dialog on the topic is that you simply aren't talking about human beings at all.

Now imagine that you knew of a place where gays, or kinksters, or blacks, or transfolk, or whatever were taken to be killed, and that the owner of this place personally killed thousands of such people himself. How would you feel?

The thing you must understand, if you wish to comprehend why violent pro-life activists do what they do, is that to them, a fetus is a person just as surely as you are a person. To them, there is no difference between the organized, legally sanctioned practice of abortion and the organized, legally sanctioned killing of anyone with brown hair, or anyone who is Latino, or any other group. (In fact, in a supreme irony of the pro-life philosophy, many extremist Fundamentalist pro-lifers would say that a fetus is more human than you are, given that many such people advocate the death penalty for homosexuality.)

If you lived in this imaginary society suggested by this thought experiment, wouldn't you be tempted to take action against what you saw as the wholesale dehumanization and slaughter of entire classes of people? Can you imagine how profoundly angry and alienated you would feel?

The premises of the radical pro-lifers may be fucked up, but the reasoning is not. If you start with their fucked-up premises, then you arrive logically at their fucked-up conclusion. There's no hypocrisy or error in reasoning; in fact, if you start from their premises, then even the most overheated, ridiculous rhetoric of the pro-life side (such as "abortion clinics are just like the Nazi concentration camps") begin to make a kind of sense.

Go back to that thought experiment. Imagine yourself living in a society in which any person who had $200 or so could have you killed for belonging to a class that was not legally human. (Remember, this is what pro-lifers sincerely believe--that you can pay to have a person put to death and the courts won't even acknowledge that that person is a human being.)

Now imagine someone using on you the most common arguments that pro-choice people use. "It should be a choice whether or not to let a black person live." "Gays are not even human beings." "Every transsexual should be a wanted transsexual; there is nothing wrong with killing unwanted transsexuals." "The law should not infringe on my right to choose whether or not I want to have a Latino around."

Pretty fucked-up, isn't it?

The pro-choice arguments do not succeed because they cannot succeed. They don't start with the same basic view of the world. If you believe that a fetus is a person, then you absolutely, positively cannot accept any arguments about choice, or freedom; such arguments are as fucked up and nonsensical as an argument about whether Matthew Shepherd's murder was an issue of choice or freedom.

Viewed through that particular lens, pro-life violence becomes, I think, horrifyingly understandable. These people are not insane, unless you count accepting a flawed premise as a form of insanity; once you get past that premise, the rest makes perfect sense.

Am I justifying this kind of violence? Absolutely, positively not. I am not pro-life--not in any way, shape, or form. I do not accept the premises of the pro-lifers, and I also find much of the behavior of organized pro-lifers to be not only counterproductive but also hypocritical. I think that someone who limits their pro-life activism to waving around signs in front of an abortion clinic or sticking a bumper sticker on their car or throwing a few rocks or broken bottles at women entering a clinic are fools at best and the lowest form of self-righteous hypocrite at worst, and I'd really like to see some of these folks--middle-class conservative whites, most of 'em--actually take in an infant Down's syndrome or an abandoned inner-city baby born addicted to crack if they sincerely believe they have any right whatsoever to tell other people what to do.

No, I am not justifying it. But I do understand it. I get where the violence comes from. It makes sense to me. When examined from inside the premises of the pro-life movement, it is the logical and inevitable outcome of logical reasoning. With people, as with computers, garbage in means garbage out. If you start from an unreasonable premise, you will arrive logically at an unreasonable conclusion.


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Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:42 pm (UTC)
Franklyn, what I really value about you is in your writing I'm able to peer into psyches that formerly were alien to me. Thank you for your clarity.
Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:46 pm (UTC)
It seems like the disagreement is pretty intractable. I have two other thoughts, though:

1. I think some pro-lifers aren't so much in favor of the sanctity of fetus life as penalizing promiscuity. If you look at the rhetoric, there's plenty of it.

2. Regardless! I have seen some very, very good stuff about things that pro-life and pro-choice folks can agree upon. Both sides would (presumably) like to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. The number one way to do this? Career planning for young women. Women who have a plan for what they want to do as adults are statistically way, way less likely to have an unplanned pregnancy. Massive reduction in abortions! Hurrah!
Jun. 2nd, 2009 09:13 pm (UTC)
I agree with point 1 fully. It's like how the same people are usually against the HPV vaccine for the same reason.
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Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:54 pm (UTC)
Now, imagine that you live in a place exactly like the one that you live in, except that it is legal to kill people like you.

Not only is it legal, but people like you aren't even considered human beings at all.

Hoooo.  Depending on the race and given history, this isn't exactly a hypothetical.  (I know you get that, just yowza, &c.)

Anyways.  First: http://www.amptoons.com/blog/images/prolifebeliefchart.gif

For them to be consistent with their own beliefs, they would also have to picket fertility clinics for not raising every single fertilised egg.  They would have to be "pro-life" for every possible pregnancy - no exceptions for rape, or health of the mother/child, or incest.  They wouldn't need to lie so egregiously.  And that's even before one gets into the contraception crap.

Not to mention there needs to be a place in your analogy for those who would have their own totally human gay/trans/black/other folk killed, and then go right back to picketing the place.

So yes, I get where anti-choicers are coming from.  They're coming from a place of deep misogyny.  The abortions themselves are incidental.

[eta] And if I consider the partial-birth abortion ban (which apparently is based on the idea that women get third-trimester abortions on a lark), I go all rage o'clock.  The analogy here would be "pro-lifers" refusing funereal services to remove a corpse from your house, because they're real human beings and that's an affront to God and man.

*breathes*  I'm going to go not drink coffee now.  *wry*

Edited at 2009-06-02 08:58 pm (UTC)
Jun. 4th, 2009 06:30 pm (UTC)
The problem that I see with the "pro-life belief chart" is that it undermines its own argument in order to score points and engage in hyperbole.

Do some people who oppose abortions want women to suffer for the sin of having sex? Yes, absolutely. But it's a mistake to dismiss all of the arguments against abortion so easily; it's no different from people who oppose abortion saying that abortion is simply for irresponsible women who don't feel like using condoms.

For example, the argument about banning late-term abortion doesn't hold water, because you're not going to find any radical "pro-life" activist who opposes that but doesn't also oppose other forms of abortion. These people find that particular type of procedure to be particularly heinous and so single it out for special attention, but that doesn't mean they don't oppose abortion across the board.

There are some strong arguments in that chart, but I think it undermines itself a little too much.
Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:57 pm (UTC)
You've perplexed my brow. Perhaps it is due to, once again, my general different application of labels. I call myself pro-life. I do so because I am truly such. I find the chopping down of Christmas Trees to be a mournful event. I am angered flying over the Rockies now and seeing so many snowy tracts of land, as opposed to doing so prior to Bush opening up more and more land for logging.
Perhaps it is because I take 'pro-life' as a badge of mine that I have a hard time with your assertion that pro-lifers sincerely believe any one thing.
I agree that a lot of folks that take the 'pro-life' label aren't actually for life. They're often for the death penalty. Or against ways in which others live their life. Or various other things that conflict with my conception of 'pro-life.' Pro-Lifers of the more right, more religious type are often more of a "pro-you-having-my-idea-of-the-good-life." That idea I take issue with.
I suppose the most easily understood distinction I make between being 'my pro-life' and 'their pro-life' is that I do not desire to run anyone else's life. I cannot take on your choices, I have enough of my own to make. That, and I would be doing you a disservice in the practice of living your life if I attempted to live it for you.
I don't cut down the forests, or kill the caterpillars in my garden. That doesn't mean I'm not saddened when others do. More on topic, just because I disagree with the practices of the strip logger, doesn't mean I'm going to off him with a stick.
Jun. 2nd, 2009 09:25 pm (UTC)
In the context of the abortion debate, and especially in the context of violent, radical anti-abortion activism, the label "pro-life" has a very specific and narrow meaning that, when you get right down to it, really has little to do with life at all.

You may not fit the label, but in the realm of political activism, labels often don't mean what they seem to say. (A great example, the "states rights" activists of the 1950s and 1960s. In the context of civil rights, the expression "states rights" had little to do with Constitutional law or governance philosophy, and everything to do with opposition to civil rights legislation and support of racial segregation.)

Coded use of language has always been part of the American political landscape.
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Jun. 2nd, 2009 08:57 pm (UTC)
This is absolutely fascinating. I've never thought through the issue from that angle. My instinct has always been to argue against the personhood of the fetus, though, and I have noticed that 'pro-lifers' don't have any solid answer to that other than a religious conviction. My favorite comparison is this: a packet of flower seeds is to a bouquet as a fetus is to a human.
Jun. 2nd, 2009 10:09 pm (UTC)
As a gardener, I would say that the seeds are to a bouquet as eggs are to a fetus. A sprout is a fetus, a seedling a child, etc.

But I could be splitting hairs ;)
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Re: It's a fetus - dorklord07 - Jun. 4th, 2009 08:12 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: It's a fetus - tacit - Jun. 4th, 2009 06:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 2nd, 2009 09:01 pm (UTC)
Thats actually the first time anyone has EVER explained the radical "Pro-Life" point of view in a way that I can Understand.

It still fucked up, but thank you for that example.
Jun. 2nd, 2009 09:05 pm (UTC)
i followed a friend here and just want to say that i've got the hots for your mind.
Jun. 2nd, 2009 09:17 pm (UTC)
Thank you for once again explaining in a way I can point people to. :-)
Jun. 2nd, 2009 09:20 pm (UTC)
Just a couple points...

First, some folks actually say they are "pro-life" and mean it--they are against the death penalty, war, abortion, etc. Granted they're a small subset of those who claim to be "pro-life", but I actually KNOW some of them, so I know they really can and do exist.

Second, while you tapped into the polically correct/manipulative reasoning behind the phrase "pro-life", you continue to use it. Which surprises me. I have never been able to call them anything but anti-abortionists, because that's what most of them are.

Thanks, as always, for a thought-provoking post! :-)
Jun. 2nd, 2009 09:33 pm (UTC)
Generally speaking, when I'm talking about the abortion debate I use "pro-choice" and "anti-abortion." The term "pro-life" is not really a description so much as a political tag and a rhetorical tool, and it's often inaccurate (there are many self-professed "pro-life" people for whom the value of the sanctity of life doesn't seem to apply to anyone they don't like).

In this post, I made a conscious choice to use the phrase "pro-life" because if you're trying to understand the world from that point of view, it's helpful, I think, to use the same language they do. As a thought experiment, getting behind the eyes of a pro-lifer means adopting the labels of the pro-lifer.
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Jun. 2nd, 2009 09:35 pm (UTC)
I bet I can answer that: Yes, because the baby at that point is still innocent. It might choose to become gay later in life, but it is wrong to punish a helpless infant for the immoral choices it might make later on. As long as the person is alive, they can still choose to repent.

In order for this argument to succeed, you must accept the idea that sexual orientation is a choice, which I personally don't. If you do accept that notion, and also accept the idea of personal redemption through religious salvation, the answer becomes obvious.

Well, for some value of "obvious," I suppose.
(no subject) - jonnymoon - Jun. 3rd, 2009 10:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 2nd, 2009 09:29 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
Jun. 2nd, 2009 10:18 pm (UTC)
Given that most of these folks start out operating from an irrational belief system (their religion) it's an easy leap to the sort of warped view point you so accurately describe.

What's really sad about that is that until the mid 70's abortion was NOT an issue for mainstream American protestants and it was a deliberate & cynical move by various leaders who wanted to mold those Christians in to a cohesive voting block to MAKE abortion an issue for precisely one of the reasons you outlined... who wants to be thought of as being "pro death" rather than "pro life"?

The people who started it knew & understood the thought game you used and they used it as a tool to shape these masses. Not at all coincidentally the same people made attacking gays part of their agenda.

In both cases they chose targets where it would be easy to take people with the underlying delusion (belief in Abrahamic faiths, primarily Christianity) and convince people that if they weren't ACTIVELY OPPOSED to these "evil forces" that they were allowing an abnegation of their faith.

Scary stuff.
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Jun. 2nd, 2009 10:27 pm (UTC)
I can kinda see where you're going with this, but I'm not sure theres a huge amount of evidence that all the anti abortion types genuinely do regard abortion as equivalent to murder. If you try asking them what penalties a woman who gets an abortion should face, its very rare for them to say that they should face the same ones people convicted of murder do.
Somewhere on youtube theres a video about this, I'll see if I can dig it out. Also, hi, random reader, I've never met you but your posts are interesting :)
Jun. 4th, 2009 06:35 pm (UTC)
I can kinda see where you're going with this, but I'm not sure theres a huge amount of evidence that all the anti abortion types genuinely do regard abortion as equivalent to murder. If you try asking them what penalties a woman who gets an abortion should face, its very rare for them to say that they should face the same ones people convicted of murder do.

Yep, and that is a weakness in the arguments against abortion.

There are some people who do believe that a woman who seeks an abortion should legally be treated the same way as a person who hires a contract killer, and their position is, at the very least, more ideologically consistent with the notion that abortion is murder.

But for most folks, I think they genuinely have a sincere emotional reaction that is identical to the emotional reaction we might have if we lived in a society where killing blacks or gays or transsexuals was legal and socially sanctioned, and so they oppose abortion on the basis of that emotional response, but they don't think it through beyond that.

It follows from the premise that "abortion = murder" that a woman who has an abortion is a murderer, but that requires a logical step beyond that first emotional response.
Jun. 2nd, 2009 10:35 pm (UTC)
I can also understand the pro-life abortion doctor murderer's point of view (not that I agree with it) from the sense of that Ethics 101 dilemma: would you kill one person if it meant saving the lives of a thousand more? One could be pro-life, but consider killing one person to save the many lives of those he would kill/abort to be the lesser evil, and the greater win for 'life'.
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Jun. 4th, 2009 05:14 am (UTC)
At the clinics I escort at, the protesters are mostly Catholic. Sometimes they are waving pictures of Mary.

I think their goal is to convince *Catholics* not to have an abortion. The Church needs all the bodies it can.
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