Abortion: 'Rhetorical Missiles' on Both Sides


March 21, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

Almost as depressing as the killing of Dr. David Gunn outside a Pensacola, Fla. abortion clinic was the ensuing war of words. Recent columns on the op-ed pages of The Sun and Evening Sun provide a sample.

In a column reprinted March 15 in The Evening Sun, Anthony Lewis of the New York Times pulled no punches: "The murder of a doctor in Pensacola, Fla., tells us the essential truth about most anti-abortion activists. They are religious fanatics, who want to impose their version of God's word on the rest of us. For them the end justifies any means, including violence."

Most anti-abortion activists? That sweeping statement brought a predictable squawk from conservative commentators.

Cal Thomas (The Sun, March 17) compared Mr. Lewis' charge with attempts by civil rights opponents to use black extremists to discredit leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King.

On the same day, The Evening Sun carried a column by Mona Charen charging that the mainstream media were having a field day searching out anti-abortion kooks, while ignoring the mainstream pro-life organizations.

"The major networks poked around in the fever swamps looking for 'pro-life' spokesmen who would condone the murder. They found some," she wrote. Indeed they did.

Ellen Goodman (The Sun, March 16) also drew fire from Ms. Charen for quoting "a series of extremists."

Enough already. Let's agree that Mr. Lewis went too far in tarring "most" abortion opponents as violent extremists. Despite a frightening escalation in violent acts committed in abortion protests -- firebombing clinics, attacking staff members, telephoning death threats, harassing and intimidating doctors, etc. -- the fact is that tens of thousands of people who have opposed abortion on picket lines, in demonstrations and through other avenues of protests have done so legally and peacefully.

But given the terrifying, siege-like atmosphere at many health clinics where abortions are performed, it's easy to see how a commentator could resort to hyperbole.

In fact, Ms. Charen and Mr. Thomas were as guilty as Mr. Lewis. Consider this broadside from the Charen column: "The unseemly eagerness with which so many in the pro-choice movement seized on this murder as an opportunity to defame those who oppose abortion is an outrage. The truth is, Kate Michaelman [head of the National Abortion Rights Action League] and Co. would be delighted if the whole pro-life movement consisted of villains like Michael Griffin [Dr. Gunn's alleged killer]. It's the reverent appeal to conscience that unnerves them."

Or this from Mr. Thomas: "Since abortion has become a doctrine of the religious and pagan left, rhetorical nuclear-tipped missiles have been launched against those who believe that abortion is the killing of the innocent and that they are called by a compassionate God to rescue the perishing and care for the dying."

That's the kind of forceful opining that earns Ms. Charen and Mr. Thomas their living. It's also the same kind of hyperbole they deplore in their opponents -- and that helps to ensure that the abortion issue remains resistant to civilized discourse.

One of the "kooks" prominently quoted after Dr. Gunn's death was Randall Terry, head of Operation Rescue, who, while saying is wrong to kill, also said: "We have to recognize that this doctor was a mass murderer."

As leader of several highly publicized demonstrations around the country -- including those that virtually paralyzed Wichita, Kan. for several weeks in 1991 -- Randall Terry is a nationally known figure in the anti-abortion movement.

For anyone who has followed reports of his activities and the heated rhetoric which he uses to inspire his followers, his gruesome statement about Dr. Gunn was thoroughly in character. If the anti-abortion movement is being unfairly blemished by people like Randall Terry, its representatives haven't been very vocal about it until now. Where were their condemnations when he threatened doctors who perform abortions, vowing to expose and humiliate them?

Beyond the columnizing, beyond the shouting on picket lines, beyond the filibusters, there are issues that beg for discussion. Chief among them is this: What can be done to reduce or eliminate the need for abortion? The "choice" abortion represents is one any woman would prefer never to have to face.

Rhetoric about baby killers and murder doesn't address that issue. Neither do the kinds of broadsides we've seen this week.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director for The Evening Sun.

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