For anyone who’s ever read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which takes place in the near future in the Republic of Gilead, the scenario is familiar: women have lost all control over their reproductive rights, doctors who provided abortions are put to death and everything is done under the guise of being for the women’s own good. Atwood’s vision of Gilead was intended to be an extension of where American “moral codes” would lead if carried out to their logical conclusions. While The Handmaid’s Tale is a work of fiction, over the last few years it seems that people have been determined to make the rigid laws of Gilead a reality for American women.
Much of the war on women is being fought on the grounds of abortion, a contentious issue on all sides of the spectrum. At the moment, it should be noted, abortion is a legal medical procedure in this country; regulations vary from state to state, and not all abortion providers perform late-term abortions, which are abortions that take place in the second trimester of pregnancy. During the first trimester, the majority of abortions are performed through surgical procedures, though abortions using pharmaceuticals are also occasionally prescribed. A second trimester, late-term abortion must be performed using other methods, typically involving induced premature delivery. Despite much anti-choice propaganda to the contrary, the procedure known as “partial-birth abortion” was made illegal in almost all circumstances by the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.
The debate surrounding abortion rights has become particularly violent in recent years, both figuratively, in terms of the rhetoric used (particularly by those who oppose abortion), and, unfortunately, literally; the murder of Dr. George Tiller is a disheartening example. Dr. Tiller was an abortionist (the term preferred by Dr. Tiller himself) practicing in Wichita, Kansas at one of only three clinics in the country to provide late-term abortions. On May 31, 2009, Tiller was murdered by anti-choice activist Scott Roeder as he performed his duties as an usher at his church. This final attack on Tiller, though, was not the first he suffered. In 1993 he was shot five times by Shelley Shannon, who claimed to have been inspired by Michael Griffin, the man who murdered abortion provider David Gunn earlier that same year.
Tiller and Gunn are only two in a long line of abortion providers, clinic escorts, nurses, and pro-choice advocates to have their personal safety threatened by shootings, firebombs, and bioterrorism. At first it might seem that these are the misguided actions of a few outliers; unfortunately, this violence is condoned—even encouraged—in popular culture. For several years before his death, Tiller was often singled out on The O’Reilly Factor, Bill O’Reilly’s right-leaning political opinion show on Fox. O’Reilly often referred to Tiller as “Tiller the Baby Killer.” O’Reilly, however, did not coin the nickname—it was actually given to Tiller by former Representative Robert K. Dornan, who referred to Tiller using the inflammatory term while on the floor of Congress.
The fact that this type of rhetoric has become not only acceptable but commonplace, especially by people who others look to for opinions and guidance, is disturbing. By normalizing the language of killing and violence, it becomes a much smaller step for other individuals to take into actual killing and violence. These people who feel justified in taking lives to prevent women from exercising their right to choose are gaining further traction and support from recent attempted legislation. The attacks on Planned Parenthood have been well-documented, but there has been a large amount of other proposed legislation that would severely curtail both women’s rights and directly endanger the lives of abortion providers, such as South Dakota’s attempt to legalize the murder of abortion providers by classifying it as “justifiable homicide.” Even the discussion surrounding universal health care was co-opted to focus on abortion, a minuscule detail when compared to the rest of what the bill addressed.
The unfortunate truth is that those people who oppose abortion to the point that they are unable to see the cognitive dissonance inherent in murdering people who are “killing babies” are finding increasing legitimacy in mainstream political culture. What was once a fringe movement has been brought to the forefront by people who have arguably selfish motivations: ratings, re-election and attention. In the wake of the attempted de-funding of Planned Parenthood, the heightened violence and the overall unrest surrounding this debate, it is important to remember who will truly be impacted if the pro-choice movement remains passive: women and the men who support their decisions. The war on women is playing out in the details of everyday life, from the very legality of women’s choices to the safety of those who help to defend them. We need to stand—in a peaceful, reasonable way—for the rights that we already have and to fight to keep those rights in the future; we cannot become Gilead.