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The choice on abortion: rhetorical recklessness or civil expression

The killing of a doctor in Kansas starkly demonstrates that words have consequences -- and that the path set by John T. Noonan and President Obama is the wiser course.

June 03, 2009|TIM RUTTEN

Over the last few weeks, Americans have been offered a stark choice on the subject of abortion.

On the one hand, two speakers at the University of Notre Dame's commencement last month argued that it was possible to maintain a civil discourse on this difficult, divisive issue. John T. Noonan, a federal judge and a Catholic theologian, noted that at the heart of the debate are "the claims of conflicting consciences" and suggested that little was accomplished by "shunning or denouncing" one's opponents over "a decision that is patently personal and significantly social."

Similarly, President Obama urged that same audience to support measures that will reduce the number of abortions while acknowledging the social reality that abortion "is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make." Obama noted that the positions of the two camps in the debate may be irreconcilable, but said he hoped each could make its case "without reducing those with differing views to caricature."

That's one approach. The other was the one put forward in Wichita, Kan., on Sunday, when a gunman shot Dr. George Tiller to death in the vestibule of his church, presumably because the physician performed late-term abortions at his Kansas clinic. The alleged killer, who was arrested a short time later, reportedly has ties to both radical antiabortion and right-wing militia groups.

Seldom has the choice between the tormented past and the future's new possibilities been more starkly put.

As a writer for the Jesuit magazine America put it: "For 35 years, both sides in the abortion debate have been shouting at each other, and demanding political orthodoxy on the issue. This has always obscured the fact that most Americans feel ambivalent about abortion. Finally, we have a president who is willing to admit his misgivings about abortion. I don't think he gets nearly enough credit for changing the way his party has come to view the issue."

In South Bend, both Obama and Noonan suggested that even irreconcilable views can coexist in a pluralist democracy -- if they're civilly expressed, if each side concedes the other's goodwill and if both adjudge the other as mistaken rather than wicked.

The alternative is for one side to go on characterizing the other as heartlessly indifferent to women's rights and health, and the other to continue calling abortion murder and physicians like Tiller "baby killers." It is on this latter stream of argument that the heaviest responsibility rests. Over the years, no abortion-rights advocate has physically harmed an antiabortion partisan. Since 1973, antiabortion extremists have killed eight times.

Most -- though not all -- of the antiabortion movement's leaders were quick to condemn Tiller's murder, but none was willing to accept responsibility for the influence their inflammatory rhetoric may have had on the latest of the socially marginal and unstable people attracted to their movement's verbal absolutism. The man accused of shooting Tiller had made his way through the anti-Semitic, white-supremacist, conspiracy-obsessed fever swamp of the right-wing militia movement.

News accounts mentioned that he'd previously been arrested in 1996 when Kansas police found "explosive material" in his car -- a pound of gunpowder, a 9-volt battery wired to a switch, ammunition and blasting caps. His conviction was overturned when the search of his trunk was ruled illegal. Since then, he'd drifted into the ambit of the local Operation Rescue organization, which now is directed by a onetime evangelical minister from San Diego and a former California woman convicted in 1988 of conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic. The accused killer had her phone number in his pocket when he was arrested.

Organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center that track extremist groups say the onset of hard times may be triggering a convergence of the resurgent militia movement and antiabortion extremists. Tiller's accused killer could be the first fruits of that unholy conjunction, and Kansas -- bloody once again -- a harbinger. Unless ...

The upcoming confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice-designate Sonia Sotomayor inevitably will include questions regarding her views on Roe vs. Wade, and the senators who will question her can signal an important break with the rhetorical recklessness of the past -- not only in the way they conduct their questioning but also in the language with which they each characterize the other party's views.

In the meantime, it's fair to wonder whether any of those who have rhetorically insisted that voluntarily terminating a pregnancy and shooting an abortion provider are equally murder, or that a Planned Parenthood clinic and Auschwitz are in any fashion analogous, now are willing to entertain the possibility that verbal extremism -- however effective as argument -- has consequences.

In the American debate over abortion, the extravagance of the moral argument and the intemperance of its expression have had consequences -- and we have the graves to prove it.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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