Lifewatch: Scenes from a Shooting


March 1, 1995

The scenes arranged around the abortion clinic in Brookline might have been staged by the old Monty Python troup in Britain. To the raw event of the shootings there was now added the hand of artifice: the attempt to shape the meaning of the event by staging scenes, and choreography, outside the clinic. There were vigils and candles, not to lament the deaths routinely planned and executed in the clinic, but only the deaths that the patrons of the clinic happened to notice. There were public prosecutors holding press conferences, to show their sense of the occasion — to mark the real gravity, and the deep communal significance, of these killings. As one black minister noted, innocent people were being killed every day in Boston, Washington, New York, for the most self-serving and even the most casual reasons. But apparently these lives did not bear the same worth — they did not have the same national import — as the lives of those people who worked every day to facilitate the “constitutional right to an abortion.”

Or to put it another way, there were people who made the management of killing their office work. Still, their deaths were lamentable; yet, there was something a bit skewed or out of scale with an understanding that would pick out these killings as the mark of a moral crisis, while ignoring the killings taking place within the clinic itself, or the wave of homicides that have made our cities into perilous, uncivil places. This is the kind of disproportion that has supplied the ingredients of dark comedy in the past. In a string of spectacles arranged in this cast, it would not have seemed the least out of order for the Monty Python troup to come crashing into the picture, staging the soccer game between the Bournemouth Gynecologists and the Long John Silver Imitators. Or even more aptly: the small squad car comes rolling into the scene, with its faintly admonishing siren; and one officious policeman begins to clear everyone off the scene, as the crowd of implausible actors they are.

In a series of bizarre scenes, staged around the clinic, one in particular has remained lodged in memory: At a vigil outside the clinic, a young mother held a milk bottle to the lips of her infant daughter, cradled in her arms. When asked by a reporter about her presence on this scene, the woman explained that she was there to protect, for her daughter, the same “reproductive rights” that had been secured for her. The curious “right” she was seeking to preserve for her daughter was the right she had possessed to destroy that child at her pleasure; to destroy her, that is, for any reason she regarded as sufficient, up to the time of her birth. The special station she was seeking for her daughter was the right to regard her own offspring as she had been regarded by her mother — as a being with no “rights” that her mother was obliged to respect, and with no claims to the protection of the law.

But then when — and how — was the critical line crossed?: When did this small being turn from a nonentity, with no rights at all, into a “child,” who could now inherit, as a “woman,” those full, despotic rights that were exercised by her mother? Did those rights arise from her “nature” as a woman? If they did, when would she have acquired them? Presumably, those rights would have begun with her own beginnings as a being who was knowably human and female. But if that were the case, she had been the bearer of those rights even when she was in the womb; and her own mother would have been obliged to respect those rights: She could not have been warranted in foreclosing to her child, in a stroke, her rights of “choice,” her rights as a woman, through the simple device of blotting her out.

Evidently, then, these precious rights of the infant daughter were not “natural” rights. Nothing in her own “nature” had given rise to these rights. The only rights she had were those conferred by her own mother — by the person who alone bore the right to decide whether she would be allowed to live or die. In deciding that she would live, the mother conferred on the child the standing of a “child” and the bearer of rights. The tender scene, then, on the steps of the clinic, was an elaborate moral lie, or at best, an act of mindless self-deception. For the mother could not have been celebrating anything precious or sacred in the life of her child. She was acknowledging nothing in the life of that child or her rights that compelled respect on their own ground. What the mother was celebrating rather was her own standing as a kind of Nietzschean figure, who would create her own morality and law through the simple flexing of her own will.

And of course, in that Nietzschean spirit that now grips our better colleges and universities, we remold our moral codes by artfully altering our language. How else could it be that a being within the womb can be referred to as a “patient” when there is a willingness to save the child, and yet there is no “victim,” and no “killing,” if there is a decision to destroy the same child?

The vocabulary of euphemism is brought deftly into play. It is curious then that these recent shootings outside the abortion clinics have not brought a countering assertion of the same language, cleansed of its moral shadings: Why haven’t we insisted on referring to these shootings, not as “killings” but as “terminations of careers”? Obviously, we don’t want to be flippant, or to react with anything other than condemnation over the spectacle of killings eliciting even more killings. But somehow the question ought to be planted for the sake of forcing the comparison: Why should we not have the same license for using the language of euphemism, conveniently abstract and neutral, detached from any mention of killing? The media would not permit us for a moment to use this kind of language, and so the question may aptly be turned: Do they deny that there is killing taking place, that lives are being destroyed, inside the clinics? But to acknowledge that there is killing every day in the clinics, or that the business of the clinics is killing, is to undercut the posture of astonishment and outrage.

The pro-life leaders have rightly been quick and emphatic in denouncing the violence outside the clinics. They have gone out of their way to remove any hint of encouragement to any other people to stand in the place of the law and dispense lethal justice. In fact, they have counselled the shunning of lawlessness with a passion that runs well beyond their own, sure conviction that the law shelters now, in these clinics, the massive killing of innocents. Still, in prudence, and with the moral restraints of a civil order, they can do no other.

But the irony is that the violence has imparted lessons that the pro-life leaders could not openly teach. For the point may begin to penetrate now even to the most obtuse: Killings are not taking place outside of clinics that fit glasses and do root canals. The practitioners and clerks inside the building may wish to conceal from themselves what is evident to everyone else, but it must be dawning even on them that they would not be living with the overhanging threat of violence if they themselves were not involved in operations that are lethal. In short, there will continue to be killings in the outer rooms of the clinics as long as the killings continue in the inner rooms.

That aphorism will never be heard on television. But evidently it has been grasped by insurance companies, for they have begun to raise their rates on these clinics. And for their own part, more and more doctors have done the reckoning and concluded that there are, after all, more salutary ways for them to make their living in surgery. The press has been willing to report the doctors who have backed away from the business as a result of the “intimidation” of the violence. But it has been oddly disinclined to attribute to the doctors anything more than a concern for their own safety. There has not been even the trace of a suggestion that, if the doctors have lost their conviction about performing these surgeries, it may have something to do with the recognition that the purpose of these surgeries is not to extract the child, but to kill. The reporters cannot admit that simple point without turning upside down the stories they are conveying. But the doctors cannot help knowing it — and therefore they know just why this violence, so long in breaking out, is not abating but spreading. And it spreads, even in the face of massive denunciations, even in the presence of federal attorneys who are certain that there are no more important shootings, anywhere in the country, that merit concern, and the deep moral engagement, of the federal government.

Postscript and Correction. In an earlier column (“Doerflinger at the Dikes”), I offered an account of the redoubtable Richard Doerflinger of the Office of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Catholic Conference. I remarked that Doerflinger had converted to Catholicism when he was a student at the University of Chicago. But there, I’m afraid, I mixed the biographies of my friends. As Richard reminded me gently, he is a “cradle Catholic.” That is a correction that ought be recorded, for it means that he has not had showered upon him that uncommon attention and praise that are often given to the convert. He continues to show high wit and steadiness, even though no official has gone out of his way to say how much he would be welcomed, and no bishop has celebrated his “coming over.” But the rest of us find reason, every week, to be thankful for him.


  • Hadley Arkes

    Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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