A Protective Ring of Violence
Introductory Comment: The following
article by Dr. Jack Willke appeared in the March 1995 issue of Life Issues
Connector, the quarterly publication of Life Issues Institute. I have always
agreed that the peaceful presence of pro-life people outside abortion facilities
is a deterrent to violence. I have personally seen the effects of such peaceful
activity in every one of the 50 states, and I have personally spoken to people
at the highest levels of the US Justice Department about the fact that measures
which prevent people from intervening peacefully to save lives from abortion
will increase the chances that some will intervene violently, which is something
we do not want.
At the moment, the following reflections are timely, as investigations into a
Birmingham bombing continue, and as two people who utterly reject violence, Joan
Andrews Bell and Rev. Flip Benham, are unjustly imprisoned for totally peaceful
activity aimed at stopping abortion (and they are not the only ones imprisoned
unjustly for this purpose).
Consider also, in the light of the theme of this article, the following lines
from a February 10, 1998 news report: "Richard Andrews regularly blocked the
entrances to clinics with fellow activists in protests starting in the early
1980s. In the early 1990s, a group of Washington clinics successfully sued to
stop the blockades. Soon afterward, Andrews set his first fire at a clinic in
Montana." Is there any relationship between the stopping of the peaceful
blockades and the starting of the fires? Read Dr. Willke's article, and ponder
Fr. Frank Pavone
A Protective Ring or Violence?
by J.C. Willke, MD
The only sure answer to stop violence against abortion facilities and their
providers would be to eliminate its basic cause, that is, to stop killing babies
inside. Since that isn't going to happen in the near future, it is important to
closely examine such violence. I propose that sidewalk counselors have been a
"protective ring" around these facilities, and that legislative and judicial
actions that have drastically limited and even eliminated such "protective
rings" have allowed violence to escalate.
I myself have only rarely been a part of sidewalk counseling, but have been
anything but a disinterested observer. My own position has been unequivocal
condemnation of violence against the bricks and the persons in the abortion
industry. I have held no quarter for those who kill babies, but have
consistently stated that violence on the outside will never solve the violence
inside. Also, while harboring the deepest respect and admiration for those
heroic souls who have sat-in, I have had real reservations about them because of
the negative public image it has created for the pro-life movement.
This being said, let us trace a bit of history. Back in the 1970s, the
practice of picketing in front of an abortion chamber began. It spread from
location to location, and then from Saturdays only (the heavy "kill days") to
multiple days in the week. By the '80s, sidewalk counseling, as it came to be
more properly called, was a common practice throughout the U. S.
In the early '80s fire-bombing reared its head. Using the bully pulpit I had
as president of NRLC during that time, I would look directly into the lens and
say, "If any of you are thinking of fire-bombing an abortion place, please
don't. You will hurt the pro-life movement. You think you may save some babies.
For a few days in some cases you might, although those women will probably go
elsewhere. What you will do is turn public opinion against our movement and
delay the day when we can finally stop the killing completely. Remember, we are
people of peace. Our basic ethic is to stop violence, the violence that daily
kills over 4,000 unborn babies. If we adopt their evil ethic, violence, we gut
our own. Remaining peaceful is the only way we will win the minds and hearts of
the people. "
Others were saying much the same and that message slowly got through. Into
the late '80s, fire-bombing became much less frequent. We must remember that
such firebombing was always done at night, directed only against bricks, never
Then came the sit-ins. The participants were peaceful, nonviolent and
prayerful, adopting the tactics of Dr. Martin Luther King. The physical
beatings, jailing and punishment taken by the participants from police, was
clear witness to the deep dedication of those involved.
Is it a pure coincidence, in the late 1980s when the sit-ins were at their
peak, that fire-bombings sank to their lowest levels? Is it a coincidence that
by 1993, with rescues beaten back by the courts that such violent episodes had
quadrupled compared to 1988?
These peaceful sit-ins, however, were publicized by the national media as
violent events, exactly the opposite of what they actually were e.g., a local
peaceful sit-in, reported in the paper often had a picture of a burned-out
abortion mill (from a thousand miles away) printed alongside of it.
The abortion industry itself cried loudly in protest. Legislatures and judges
listened and the anti-sit-in juggernaut began to move. Jailing became more
frequent. Court-orders set boundaries. The high court ruled the RICO bill could
be used. Finally the U.S. Congress passed the Freedom of Access to Clinics Act
(FACE) making sit-ins a federal felony. The result, to a significant extent, has
been to remove the "protective ring" of sidewalk counselors that had been in
front of those entrances. Most recently the violence has escalated from attacks
on the persons of the abortionists, to random shootings; from targeted reprisal
to terrorist activity.
The question is, why the escalation? A moment's reflection is relevant. There
are about 1,000 abortion facilities in the U.S. Abortion has been legal
nationwide for 22 years. Sidewalk counselors have witnessed in front of these
kill centers constantly during these years. There are intense emotional gut
issues often involved in the abortion decision and there are over 4,000 such
daily. How often could not a reaction to "her killing my baby" have caused a
rejected, unstable boyfriend or husband to literally go crazy over the
frustration, loss and anger generated and result in retaliation?
But, incredibly almost 35 million abortions, over 22 years, at 1,000
locations have resulted in—(tragically)— only five fatal retaliations. This is a
minuscule number considering the depth and power of the emotions generated.
Truly the news that ought to be publicized is not that five adults have been
killed, but that there have been only five.
Rather than indicting our entire movement because of these unbelievably few
incidents, the media should be extolling the extraordinary peaceful, nonviolent
and prayerful aspects so characteristic of this movement, utterly unique in
history, as it is. Sadly, such an evaluation has not appeared in the secular
Another answer is the obvious fact that the alleged assailants are very
likely mentally unstable and are not members of, nor representative of the
pro-life movement. All responsible leaders of the pro-life movement have
unanimously and unequivocally condemned such violence. These assailants may be
anti-abortion, but they are not prolife.
The analogy with the Black Panthers is worth recalling. Dr. Martin Luther
King adopted Gandhi's method. He insisted that the civil rights sit-ins and
demonstrations be peaceful. His supporters complied, except for the Black
Panthers. This small group sought the same goal, civil rights, but employed
violent means. They killed people. But there is a crucial difference today. Then
the media nearly unanimously supported King's efforts. The Black Panthers were
reported as a tiny extremist group not representative of the civil right's
Today the media is almost unanimously opposed to the civil right of the
unborn. Today's violent extremists have been held up as typical of the pro-life
movement rather than the aberrant, atypical, sick exceptions that they so
And what of the abortion industry's new charges that our "inflammatory
rhetoric" is precipitating these new events? This is unmitigated nonsense. It is
not because we verbally accuse them of "killing babies" that these tragedies
have occurred. No, it is because they are brutally killing babies. Our people
are just telling the truth. The pro-abortion goal here is obvious. They want to
prevent us from informing people of the true nature of their "business."
Pro-lifers should see through this immediately.
All of this having been said, however, why the current upsurge of violence?
There were just as many babies being killed annually 10 and 15 years ago as
today, but the violence today is different. Why?
To better understand this, let me cite a few experiences in one medium-size
Case 1. A distraught husband on the losing end of a furious argument with his
pregnant wife had been told by her that she was going to get the abortion. He
wanted his baby in the most profound fashion. He suspected she was getting the
abortion that day. He called the clinic. Was his wife there? They said, "No."
She was, and was being aborted at that very time. When he discovered it the man
simply "lost it." In a towering fit of anger, he went to the clinic to get even.
He was stopped by those in that "protective ring." They talked to him, calmed
him down, advised him against violence, prayed over him, with him, and then
shared his tears. He cooled off. They accompanied him home.
Case 2. I spoke to a very dedicated father of five, who has been in front of
one or another of Cincinnati's abortion mills every Saturday for the last twenty
years. He is a big man, very peaceful and religious. I asked him how many times
he himself had prevented violence over these years. He told me of several
Has it not been the same in other cities?
I suggest that this vital function of sidewalk counseling has not been
generally recognized. Yes, pro-lifers are there as a pro-life witness. Yes, they
are there to save babies. Yes, they are there to help women, before and after
the abortion. But they are also there to prevent violence. Their presence has
been a "protective ring." These peaceful, prayerful people, have undoubtedly
prevented hundreds, probably even thousands of episodes of violence.
There are many deeply dedicated pro-life people. Most feel, and rightly so,
that they have done their bit by volunteering to speak, counsel, write letters,
stuff envelopes, march in Washington, etc. But such efforts are not enough for
others. These folks feel deeply that they are called to use their own bodies to
try to stop this holocaust. Their reward is the baby and mother saved. They need
a physical and emotional outlet, and participation in sidewalk counseling for
them is not merely personally and spiritually fulfilling, but also functions as
an emotional safety valve. But, time went on. The death toll mounted. The
expectation of stopping abortion began to fade, and for many, a more activist
physical role was the response. This manifested itself in thousands of people
sitting-in. If there ever was a pressure valve, an escape valve for emotions,
sit-ins certainly provided it. How many know that over 70,000 such heroes and
heroines have been peacefully arrested compared to less than 5,000 during the
civil rights era?
But then the judicial and legislative screws were tightened. Sit-ins were
forbidden in a draconian fashion. The emotional pressure cooker, the frustration
not only continued but escalated while the pressure valve was effectively shut
off. Overwhelmingly, most pro-life people have directed their energies to other
pro-life activities, but, certain unstable few apparently have not. With this we
have seen a new escalation of violence, this time targeted at abortionists and
tragically, most recently, indiscriminately against those working in the
There is no question why the abortion industry wants that "protective ring"
removed. It is bad for business, very bad for business. It has caused them to
lose untold dollars. But having removed the "protective ring" they are now
paying a certain price. Sadly the pro-life movement is paying a far greater
price because of the portrayal of all pro-lifers by the media as terrorists.
Could it be, that the judicial, legislative and abortion industry's
"solution" to sidewalk counseling and other peaceful protest such as sit-ins has
been counter-productive, has been rather, to a large extent, the cause of much
of this escalation of violence? Could it, in fact, be pouring oil on the fire?
Could it be that the recent violence is, in considerable measure, a result of
the suppression of peaceful, prayerful protest outside of abortion facilities?
Could it be that if that "protective ring" was still there, that these
tragically unbalanced, unstable, atypical individuals would have been "caught, "
counseled, cooled off, steered away, prevented from doing what they planned?
Jack Kennedy's words back then are worth remembering. "If peaceful protest is
made illegal, violent protest will become inevitable."
Priests for Life encourages you to use the resources of Life Issues
Institute, 1721 W. Galbraith Rd., Cincinnati, OHIO 45239, Phone 513-729-3600,
Fax 513-729-3636, Email LifeIssues@aol.com