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Dr. George Tiller was murdered, and we need to talk about it

By Jonathan Sussman

Section: Arts

September 4, 2009

The media response to the murder of Dr. George Tiller, a Kansas abortion provider, has been nothing short of disheartening. Far too often the mainstream media has taken at face value the press releases put out by groups against reproductive rights. Anti-abortion organizations have almost uniformly condemned the killing while maintaining their opposition to abortion, claiming that violence has no place in a movement dedicated to protecting life.

While these groups are right to denounce the murder, their attempt to distance themselves from this act, and from anti-abortion violence more generally, are disingenuous. The rhetoric of “pro-life” groups has contributed to a hostile, apocalypse-tinged environment that implicitly and explicitly calls for violence against abortion providers. They employ language that constantly refers to medical professionals as “murderers” and “baby-killers,” and horrific images which are (inaccurately) cited as portraying the “reality” of abortion. This atmosphere of virulent, hateful speech, usually expressed in terms of evangelical Christianity, has inspired countless acts of violence from which the mainstream anti-abortion movement can back away, claiming no responsibility.

In the aftermath of Tiller’s murder, the only reports which have drawn the connection between it and the rhetoric of the anti-abortion movement have come from atheist and feminist media. Possible reasons for this are the mainstream media’s consistent inability to put news stories in larger context, as well as their unwillingness to antagonize religion. This reality, regardless of its motivation, nonetheless places an important burden on the free-thought community. We cannot abdicate our responsibility to demonstrate how religion and misogyny are very much a lethal combination, that the persistent use of violent words by the anti-abortion movement leads directly to violent consequences.

There are two main objections to this pressing need for action. The first is that the rhetoric of the anti-abortion movement, though deplorable, was simply language, and should be respected as free speech. While I am not advocating legal action against anyone who may have used violent anti-abortion language, what is perhaps more important is to take social action, to change our culture such that this language is truly deemed unacceptable, rather than being tolerated for its religious association. It is already socially acknowledged that words and images can lead to violence, as evidenced by President Obama’s decision not to release images of tortured Muslim detainees in order to prevent retaliatory terrorism. Violent anti-abortion rhetoric functions in exactly the same way and should be treated as such.

Secondly, it is likely that some would claim that we are attacking religion, a charge as likely to come from members of progressive movements as from the religious right. Why antagonize the religious and portray the atheist movement as angry and negative? Though I cannot deny that this is a negative position, it is at the same time constructive. In discussing the religious roots of violence, our challenge to religion is intimately connected with a demand for a just society, one based on reason and tolerance. This type of negative yet constructive activism is just what the free-thought movement ought to focus on if we seek to undermine superstition and build a better world.

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