A Protective Ring of Violence

Dr. Jack Willke

Publication Date: March 01, 1995

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 the question!

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 against persons.

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 media.

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 movement.

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 obviously are.

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 city.

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 additional instances.

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 abortion industry.

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."

March 1995

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