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Noisy, Empty Gestures

[World, January 21, 1995]

All through a long afternoon I had listened to true stories: women, strangers to me, pouring out intimate tales of love and loss. True stories are sometimes less strange than fiction; their outcomes can almost seem inevitable. This day, every story ended with an abortion.

The spring evening was fair and warm. After dinner I left the hotel for a long walk, thinking about the day’s conversations. Then I noticed on one building a plaque reading "Planned Parenthood."

It was dark. I climbed the stone stairs and stood in the alcove of the front door. I laid my palms on the massive door and prayed. Then I imagined a suspicious cop driving by, and moved on.

I saw that same door on TV the other night. It was a white-cold day a few days after Christmas, and people were standing around sobbing. It was the Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts, and they were carrying a body out on a stretcher.

Stories drive us. A bad story drives us bad places. As every young preacher learns, congregations remember the anecdotes best, so illustrations better match the sermon’s point. A superficial resemblance may yield a self-defeating mismatch, like trying to put a glove on a foot.

Here is a story: A criminal breaks into your home one midnight. You are awakened by screams and rush in to find him holding your little daughter by the throat. What do you do?

The story and its implications confuse and distress us, World readers not least of all. "I am appalled that I cannot escape the logic of Paul Hill’s position," wrote Jack F. Seward in our letters column last April. Isn’t it right to shoot abortionists, just as you would defend your own child from a criminal?

But this compelling story is a wrong fit at too many points. First, the person who lies in wait outside an abortion clinic is not defending, he’s attacking. He is hiding in the bushes aiming at an unsuspecting victim, shooting David Gunn in the back, spraying bullets at men trapped in the cab of a truck. It’s not even a fair fight. The gunman is not preventing bloodshed, but adding more blood to ground already soaked red.

Second, it is not "your own child." Someone else is the literal mother of that child, and you cannot save that child unless you persuade her first. She has reasons for wanting an abortion, and shooting the abortionist won’t solve those problems. If we saw ourselves as her servants, not as dashing caped avengers, we’d be more successful.

Third, the abortionist is not a "criminal" except in the courts of heaven. Here in the U.S.A. the dead abortionist is a martyr and the gunman is a criminal; it’s an object lesson that teaches the opposite of its intent. Shooting an abortionist is a noisy, empty gesture. If we must waste our time on futile gestures that damage our cause, let’s choose the ones that don’t kill anybody.

Bad stories make bad actions. But bad actions can make "good" stories—good in the sense of good theater, compelling and complete even as it drives toward a dreaded denoument. The bloody events of these last two years have carried an eerie sense of inevitability, as if this was the thing that had to happen next.

After twenty years of tension and bickering, the abortion war was bound to become literal. In these opening skirmishes, five abortion employees have been killed and seven wounded. Pro-lifers have been terrorized as well (a story untold in the mass media). Last October a man picking up his wife at a Louisiana abortion clinic shot at a pro-life protester; in Mississippi, police charged abortionist Joseph Booker with waving a gun at sidewalk counselors.

Other pro-lifers have been similarly endangered. According to the Life Issues Institute, Ohio lobbyist Janet Folger saw her sabotaged car burst into flames; Florida activist Carol Griffith found her windows shot out, poisonous snakes in her pool, and received 19 death threats while her husband was dying of cancer; Canadian Paul Neilsen’s sleeping family barely escaped a deadly smoke bomb.

Recently, abortion advocates stood outside a Brookline Baptist church shouting, "The blood of women is on your hands!" A flyer being handed out in Harvard Square demands "the people" stop the "Christian facist shock troops" with a "mass, militant response…by any means necessary." Peggy MacLeod, director of the Care Net pregnancy center in Harvard Square, passes these protesters on her way in to counsel needy pregnant women. "We feel a little cautious, but we’re not going to shut down. We’re going to be here," she says.

The acceleration of violence in the abortion war was the awful, inevitable next part of the story. Pleading and cool reason have little effect on the mad. John Cardinal O’Connor keeps repeating, "If anyone has an urge to kill someone at an abortion clinic, they should shoot me," which someone may be just crazy enough to do. The next chapter may get worse.

In the middle of the story, we characters can feel overwhelmed and bewildered; the future rushes to meet us shrouded in fog and ungovernable. We have only the comfort, and it is a great comfort, of knowing how the larger story will end, the story of the whole weary, bloodsick world. May our eyes see it.

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