Angels and Demons


    When I say that Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry demonizes abortion providers, I'm not speaking metaphorically. "George Tiller was a murderer and he was doing something that was literally demonic," Terry explained on NPR's Morning Edition.  "So how can you not demonize something that is intrinsically evil."   
    You can condemn Terry's remark as hate speech (and many will,) but I prefer not equating it with the absurdly broad assortment of criticisms, petty insults, arguments, jokes, and political talking points that are so often labeled hateful in a culture where people revel in taking offence  -- and finding excuses for censorship.  Instead, I'd dismiss the  declaration that abortion providers are "literally demonic" as an expression of moral idiocy.
    I'm not belittling a belief in demons or angels.  (I don't associate faith in supernatural beings with stupidity or lack of faith with intelligence, as some of my irreligious colleagues do.)  I'm not belittling moral opposition to abortion based on a belief in the sanctity of unborn or potential human life.  I am belittling as utterly impervious to moral reasoning the absolute certainty that only a purely evil person would perform an abortion, at any point in a woman's pregnancy.  (Anti-abortion extremists like Terry don't generally distinguish between the morality of early abortions and rare, late term procedures that George Tiller risked and lost his life to provide; but directed only against providers of late abortions, Terry's remark would still be idiotic.)
     It would be gratifying to hear movement leaders and rabble rousers like Bill O'Reilly publicly condemn or at least convincingly disdain violent, "pro-life" extremism before rather than after the murder of an abortion provider.  Still it's probably not fair to portray Terry as emblematic of their movement; his pronouncements make many anti-abortion advocates cringe (even if they've never heard him sing.)   Indeed, many people opposed to abortion don't seem to equate the killing of a 3 month old fetus with the killing of a 3 year old child, except perhaps in theory.  We can surely infer that much from the hesitancy even to propose that women who obtain abortions be prosecuted for murder.  And, people who hold different views about the morality of abortion still seem to share common tendencies to mourn the natural death of an already born child much more intensely and for much longer periods (forever, perhaps) than the natural death of a fetus.  Our language itself is revealing of differences in the way we value, in principle, and cherish, in practice, the born and unborn.  Children die; fetuses suffer miscarriages, or, rather, expectant mothers do.  
    The special moral complications of killing a fetus are also obviously reflected in the legal complications of abortion prohibitions: relatively common exceptions for abortions in cases of rape or incest or when the life of the mother is imperiled are impossible to imagine as exceptions to the killing of children.  Of course, the most rabid anti-abortion advocates don't support these or other exceptions, but a majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal under some circumstances (even according to a recent Gallup Poll that found a slight majority of respondents calling themselves pro-life.)  If terminating a pregnancy, or murdering a fetus, is "literally demonic," than even self-identified pro-life Americans are, literally, a little possessed.   

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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