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The pro-life case against killing abortion providers

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The first murder of an American abortion provider happened on March 10, 1993. Michael Griffin shot Pensacola, Florida, doctor David Gunn three times in the back as he left his clinic. Prior to shooting, Griffin reportedly shouted, "Don't kill any more babies."

Traces of that same rhetoric appeared in the most recent attack on an abortion clinic, at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood. The alleged gunman, in rambling remarks after the shooting, told the police, "No more baby parts."

By their own admission, the attackers of abortion providers and clinics operate by a utilitarian logic: that they can prevent the termination of countless pregnancies with the murder of just one doctor. A small number of anti-abortion groups have echoed that view in recent weeks.

"It's acceptable to violently kill a baby, so why isn't it acceptable to violently kill other people?" Judie Brown, president of the anti-abortion American Life League, told MSNBC's Irin Carmon recently.

Pro-choice advocates have drawn a similar connection.

"If we take pro-life rhetoric seriously — if we accept that hundreds of thousands of unprosecuted and unpunished murders are being committed every year in the United States — then violence sounds like a perfectly reasonable response," Damon Linker wrote in the Week.

But for most pro-life leaders, that logic doesn't hold. They see violence against abortion providers not just as antithetical to their own beliefs but also as standing in the way of their goals of eliminating abortion in America.

"Abortion does not entirely depend on one abortion provider," says Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University who is pro-life and has written on violence against abortion providers. "It depends on an entire culture that makes abortion legal. All a woman needs to do is go to another abortion clinic."

In a way, the violence is easy for pro-lifers to denounce — it's the fringe, rather than the core of the pro-life movement, that sees illegal action as the best way to protest abortion in America. Most mainstream abortion opponents agree that violence is a grossly inappropriate action to protest the termination of pregnancies. The trickier part is agreeing on what the right tactics are.

Abortion is currently legal in the United States — but about a third of Americans think it shouldn't be. That's tens of millions of people — all of whom likely have nuanced views on the best ways to protest.

"Part of what has fueled abortion clinic violence, I think, is that there is not a coherent, widely accepted pro-life philosophy that has been articulated, communicated, and received by various communities" on how to best protest abortion, Prior says.

Why pro-life leaders oppose violence against abortion providers

The 1990s experienced a wave of violence against abortion providers. After the death of David Gunn in 1993, more murders followed in 1994, with another abortion provider and a clinic escort in Florida both shot to death.

In response to this violence, the Southern Baptist Convention penned a seminal document, the Nashville Declaration of Conscience, in the fall of 1994. It argued that in Christian doctrine, murder was immoral regardless of whatever ends the killer hoped to achieve.

"According to both civil law and divine moral law private citizens are permitted to use lethal force against another human being only if this occurs as an unintended effect of the act of defending oneself or another against an assailant’s unjust attack," the document declares.

Now, 20 years later, that argument remains persuasive to pro-life activists.

Violence against abortion providers "is not only unacceptable, it's morally abhorrent," says Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "Nothing could be further from a pro-life point of view than the murder of human beings."

Prior, at Liberty University, makes a slightly different version of the same argument: that pro-life activists can't advocate for laws to protect unborn lives by violating current laws that outlaw murder.

"Unlawfully taking the life of another human being contradicts the very goal we have of challenging and changing an unjust law, a goal rooted in an underlying belief in the rule of law," Prior says.

What are the right ways to protest abortion?

Pro-life leaders can generally agree that violence against abortion providers is inappropriate and inhumane. They often look toward civil rights–style protest as the right tactic, taking a page from the type of work that is controversial among abortion rights supporters.

Prior, Moore, and others I spoke with advocated for using tactics from the civil rights movement, like sit-ins, as a way to peacefully protest abortion clinics. Anika Smith, an associate editor at the Stream, a conservative news site, pointed to 40 Days of Life — where anti-abortion activists fast and hold vigil outside of abortion clinics — as one such method.

"When my friends and I did it in Seattle, we didn't seek to engage anyone," Smith says. "And we purposely stay away from violent images."

Pro-choice groups have pushed back on events like 40 Days of Life as "harassment" because, as one abortion provider put it, patients "have to walk through a large crowd of angry, harassing protesters." A local St. Louis paper last year posted a photograph showing 40 Days for Life protesters blocking the driveway of a local clinic.

Pro-life leaders I spoke with see their work quite differently. They argue that it is more similar to the work of the civil rights movement, using nonviolent protest to effect change.

"We use lawful means to protest," Moore says. "And I think that's what virtually every mainstream pro-life group does. That means sidewalk counseling, and it means praying in front of abortion facilities. I'm not for blocking people's entrance to abortion facilities, but I do think that we should be present."

Smith readily admits that there is disagreement within the pro-life movement over what is and isn't acceptable as a method of protest. Some see it as acceptable to protest at the homes of abortion providers, while others view such action as a violation of privacy. Smith, for example, won't use violent imagery of aborted fetuses that others view as acceptable means of protest.

"It's a fine line," Smith says. "I think bringing those outside of churches or concerts, or spaces where there are young children, that feels like a bit of visual hijacking."