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The Pro-Life Movement: Reframing “Life” to Suit Their Agenda

What “life” are those claiming the “pro-life” label actually protecting?

Pope Francis is a high-profile supporter of movements like 40 Days for Life, which are carried out by longtime anti-abortion organizations with violent histories. (Photo: giulio napolitano /

Those claiming the “pro-life” label have become increasingly flexible on how important it is to actually protect “life.”

Visible religious leaders such as Pope Francis and Focus on the Family’s Jim Daly support campaigns like 40 Days for Life, which are carried out by longtime anti-abortion organizations with violent histories. Politicians and archbishops pay lip service to the “pro-life” movement from pulpits and fundraiser platforms while doctors and their families as well as volunteers and activists are targeted with harassment and even killed.

A new nationwide report from the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), the 2014 National Clinic Violence Survey, has found that over half of US abortion providers and clinics now experience targeted attacks. When asked how often they experience anti-abortion activity, 25 percent said their facilities deal with harassment every day and 42.8 percent say they experience harassment weekly. Altogether, 67.8 percent of women’s health clinics endure frequent intimidating activity at or near their facilities.

“[C]linics in close proximity to a so-called Crisis Pregnancy Center, or CPC, experience significantly higher rates of severe violence and harassment.”

These elevated statistics are alarming and on display right now during the annual 40 Days for Life when clinics experience heightened – and often round-the-clock – targeting.

Shireen Dada Whitaker, legal monitor for Women’s Health Specialists in Sacramento, California, coordinates a team of clinic escort volunteers to provide refuge for patients approaching the building when picketers are out front. They are currently in their busiest season of the year.

“40 Days typically brings out bigger numbers of protesters,” Whitaker said. “There is also always at least one ‘event’ that the protesters hold out on the sidewalk. And since our Sacramento buffer zone of 20-feet from clinic entrances is not being enforced, protesters can stand right at the edge of the driveways.”

Women’s Health Specialists recently moved locations and experiences less day-to-day harassment because the design of the parking lot makes it more challenging for picketers, but the 40 Days for Life Sacramento Facebook page remains persistent in recruiting people to join in:

Our first Monday [February 23] of 40 Days for Life has been exciting! One woman driving by stopped to tell us about a friend that she has who is considering abortion. We loaded her down with babies and feet and information! She went away quite convicted and ready to save a life!

The next to arrive was Bernard. He had only one concern where abortion would be okay and that was rape. As we talked and showed him the babies and the feet and our information, he had a change of heart right there! He now understands why it is important that abortion not immediately follow on the footsteps of a rape. He wants us to go and speak at his church and bring on more pro-lifers! What a busy morning filled with blessings and encouragement!

The Sacramento anti-choice group is even bragging that “at least two babies were saved from abortion” by their “counselors.” The story of Susan “saving baby Peanut” is being used to recruit more picketers to the Women’s Health Specialists’ sidewalk during the second half of 40 Days for Life.

Whitaker describes the group’s tactics as “more desperate” this year. They are also coordinating with local crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) – facilities typically religiously backed and funded that masquerade as full-scale women’s health clinics whose staff is trained to misinform and talk patients out of having abortions.

“One new strategy is that the protesters will notify CPCs to bring their mobile clinics when they have lured a client to the sidewalk,” Whitaker said. “The staff and directors of the two local CPCs make appearances at the sidewalk in front of our clinics on a regular basis.”

The FMF study supports that the Women’s Health Specialists clinic’s proximity to local CPCs is a likely reason for their heightened targeting. According to their survey results:

[C]linics in close proximity to a so-called Crisis Pregnancy Center, or CPC, experience significantly higher rates of severe violence and harassment: a clinic near a CPC is nearly twice as likely to experience higher rates of severe violence than a clinic not near a CPC. Similarly, clinics located near a CPC were more likely to experience more frequent incidents of violence and harassment.

The Sacramento clinic is also representative in another way: The doctors, staff and volunteers are personally targeted.

“They have increased their internet harassment – posting pictures of staff and volunteers and explicitly stating that they are trying to make the staff nervous,” Whitaker said. “They have also started videotaping and tracking our doctors’ schedules, and sending trespassers into the parking lot to try to keep tabs on who our doctors are.”

Clinics across the country told the FMF that information and pictures of doctors being posted on the internet have doubled from 9 percent to 17.8 percent since 2010. The survey also found that targeting of clinic staff has spiked with “Wanted-style” poster prevalence increasing from 1.7 percent of providers to 7.7 percent in just four years, and pamphlet distribution with wording such as “Killers Among Us” matched to doctors’ pictures and personal information such as home addresses has increased from 18.8 percent of clinics to 27.9 percent of clinics.

“Threats, harassment, targeting and terrorizing are increasing, which means more and more providers are dealing with these problems in silence.”

David S. Cohen, an associate professor at Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law, and co-author Krysten Connon interviewed nearly 100 abortion providers for their forthcoming book Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism. Their results reflect the FMF survey’s reporting on provider-specific targeting.

“The biggest concern is that they [FMF] found a sharp increase of personalized targeted harassment since their last report in 2010,” Cohen said. “Even though media coverage of this kind of harassment has seemed to decrease, threats, harassment, targeting and terrorizing are increasing, which means more and more providers are dealing with these problems in silence.”

Cohen calls out the media need for the spectacular and deadly as one reason the harassment has escalated under the radar of the majority of Americans.

“Most media outlets only seem to cover the big events, like the assassination of Dr. Tiller in 2009 or the failed mass murder attempt in Madison in May 2011,” Cohen said. “Everyday occurrences – like home pickets, hate mail, veiled threats, personalized verbal attacks etc. – are not big enough news.”

The cumulative effect of dealing with what has unfortunately become common enough to be termed “everyday occurrences” is personal to each provider, but has an overall effect on the reproductive health-care field.

“For some providers, these kinds of personalized attacks cause them to leave the field, ultimately decreasing access to abortion.”

“The problem is that these more everyday occurrences can have devastating effects on providers given that almost all providers have some sort of collective memory about the violence that has occurred to others in their profession,” Cohen said. “And for some providers, as the Feminist Majority Foundation has found in the past, these kinds of personalized attacks cause them to leave the field, ultimately decreasing access to abortion.”

The danger that comes with being an abortion provider has opened the door to unethical rogue physicians such as Kermit Gosnell – now serving a prison term for the butcher shop he ran in Philadelphia, targeting desperate, low-income patients. Being an underground “clinic” can keep people like Gosnell off the anti-choicer radar until it is politically convenient for “pro-life” groups to spotlight them.

Every year, the Pro-Life Action League (PLAL) picks a target for whom their members are, ostensibly, supposed to pray. Typically, they select practicing “abortionists,” as they call full-spectrum OB-GYNs. This year, however, PLAL executive director Eric Scheidler has put out a video highlighting currently jailed former “doctors” whose illegal, dangerous, unethical behavior has been widely condemned by every pro-choice group from the National Abortion Federation to NARAL Pro-Choice America.

The annual prayer campaigns from the PLAL, which coincide with the 40 Days for Life, are thinly veiled political and intimidation tactics. As outlined in 2014 by Alana Massey at Religion Dispatches in a comprehensive piece on the PLAL history of harassment and violence and the 2014 campaign, Scheidler’s call for prayer doesn’t resemble anything found in scripture. From Massey’s piece:

But Scheidler is of the belief that it is individuals for whom we ought to pray, “Praying for categories of people is difficult, if not impossible. As G.K. Chesterton said, ‘Christ did not love humanity, He never said He loved humanity; He loved men. Neither He nor anyone else can love humanity; it is like loving a gigantic centipede.'”

Scheidler’s distortion of what prayer is, what it does and why people are called to do it gets more disingenuous after scrolling through his writing at the PLAL’s blog. During last year’s 40 Days for Life campaign (which targeted three people, including the writer of this article), he saw it as praying for his “enemies” and that he requires “a little physical suffering” in the form of fasting to bring himself to participate in the prayer campaign he imposes upon his followers.

“Having sat down face-to-face with Robin Marty [another target of the 2014 campaign], it’s not hard for me to wish her well and pray for her in all sincerity,” Scheidler wrote. “But to do the same for Katie Klabusich is difficult. And that’s a shame. To the extent I do not wish her well and cannot pray for her with a heart full of love, I am falling short of my Christian vocation.”

He then seems to contradict his own current campaign of prayer on behalf of jailed former doctors: “But it’s hard to pray for the [Dr.] Leroy Carharts and Kermit Gosnells of the world, and really mean it.”

PLAL sent handcuffs and a handwritten note to abortion providers across the country. Scheidler asserts this was not about intimidation despite the “Could you be next?” line.

The more of the PLAL writings you read, the harder it is to accept Scheidler’s words at the face value he asks of those not familiar with his organization’s history. Claiming that their actions are benevolent and biblically based appears disingenuous at best, just from comparing the past two 40 Days campaigns. And then there’s the “gift” he sent to health-care clinics in January.

On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, just a few weeks before the start of 40 Days, the PLAL sent handcuffs and a handwritten note to abortion providers across the country. Scheidler asserts this was not about intimidation despite the “Could you be next?” line, telling Cosmopolitan “his motives were more about dialogue than anything else.”

Whitaker – whose clinic received a set of handcuffs – didn’t see them as a dialogue starter. “We do not open packages from anti-abortion people,” she said. “We reported the incident to law enforcement. Eric Scheidler seems to be following Joe Scheidler’s long career of harassment and intimidation.”

PLAL tactics such as handcuffs and prayer for incarcerated former doctors – who are outliers in a field where safe, legal, accessible first-trimester abortion sends one in a million patients only to the hospital with major complications – is off-putting at the very least to ethical doctors in good standing.

Dr. Leah Torres, a Salt Lake City, Utah-based OB-GYN specializing in reproductive health, responded to the PLAL’s video, which focused on harmful practitioners like Kermit Gosnell – whom Torres’ colleagues at the National Abortion Federation and pro-choice advocacy groups had been trying to get shut down for years.

Calling out campaigns like 40 Days for Life and relabeling them what they are – public relations stunts designed to mask harassment and violence – is vital.

“It seems ridiculous to pray for known criminals where if you want to save some souls, save those that may still be out there and unknown who are preying on women and doing harm,” Torres said. “I want every criminal doctor behind bars, probably more than they do – I practice safe, sound medicine and anyone who does not is putting my patients, and myself and my family and friends, in danger…. I have so many suggestions as to what PLAL could do to help … Pray for legislators not to force women to go to these monsters; pray people have access to safe health care – if you’re going to ‘pray’ about something.”

It turns out that there are those in the faith community who agree with Torres on what responsible, caring prayer looks like. Every year, the pro-choice group Faith Aloud conducts their 40 Days for Prayer to Keep Abortion Safe and Legal campaign, promoting a new prayer and accompanying graphic every day of Lent.

Rev. Rebecca Turner, executive director of Faith Aloud, has dealt with threats and harassment of her own for being an outspoken proponent for bodily autonomy. She feels so strongly about supporting patients and their individual choices that she created #40Days4Prayer as an alternative to the negative message of 40 Days for Life.

“As a person of faith, I felt angry about the daily harassment of people who are walking into women’s clinics, whether they be patients or staff,” Turner told Truthout. “That this harassment is generally couched in religious terms is offensive. One day I just sat down and started writing out the prayers, wanting to mention all of the people and issues involved in reproductive health care. I began sharing them on social media and they were an instant hit.”

Turner’s response to people who are surprised that her faith doesn’t prohibit her involvement in reproductive justice issues is unwavering and rooted in scripture.

“They want to make it look like I am a lone wolf, outside of the faith, when in fact there are thousands of clergy who support women as they make reproductive decisions,” Turner said. “If they’re so sure that Jesus was opposed to abortion, why doesn’t the Bible say so? There were plenty of plants being used as abortifacients in those days.”

Despite increasingly vocal progressive faith groups (which are more representative of congregations and Americans in general), support for the PLAL and other anti-abortion organizations who picket and engage in personal targeting doesn’t come from just the outlier fringe of the “pro-life” movement. Praised by progressives on issues such as climate and poverty, Pope Francis gets high marks from extremists for his endorsement of 40 Days for Life:

The Holy Father greatly appreciates the dedicated work that you and everyone involved in 40 Days for Life are engaged in to promote respect for the lives of all unborn children. His Holiness assures you of his prayerful support for you, your colleagues and all those whose prayer, fasting and sacrifices are saving countless lives and giving glory to God.

Protestant mainstay Jim Daly’s endorsement is equally unequivocal:

40 Days for Life is a testimony to the power of prayer and what can happen when we’re consumed by a magnificent obsession, namely that life is sacred. If you’re growing weary over the increasing level of disrespect of the most innocent among us, I would urge you to remember that situations are not always as they appear. God is on the move even amidst the darkness.

Despite these eerie proclamations, complacency on the part of the media and general public gives anti-abortion groups a pass. Calling out campaigns like 40 Days for Life and relabeling them what they are – public relations stunts designed to mask harassment and violence – is vital to reversing the statistics reported in Cohen and Connon’s book and the FMF survey. Being proactive in public and private spaces, speaking up, and challenging perceptions of “pro-life” leaders and supporters is the only way to stop the violence and build support for stronger protections and access to care.

True reproductive freedom and access to choice saves lives – a fact apparent quickly when listening to people tell stories about why they chose abortion. The lives of the living, breathing patients shamed and terrorized as they attempt to enter clinics by dodging picketers, and the welfare and safety of the doctors and staff who provide this life-saving service must be valued. Pushing back on anti-choice talking points and lackadaisical media unwilling to call harassment “terrorism” is a contribution everyone can make to ending stigma and protecting life.

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