Women and Violence in the Grassroots Anti-Abortion Movement in the United States

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 3:10 PM
Missouri Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Karissa Haugeberg, Tulane University
By the early 1990s, violence in the anti-abortion movement had escalated to include the murder of abortion providers.  Many Americans had become aware of the growing intensity of anti-abortion activism during the late-1980s, when members of Operation Rescue, deploying “direct action” protest tactics at abortion clinics across the United States. Newspaper and television accounts of this vitriolic period featured debates between pro-life evangelical Christian men and pro-choice secular women. This paper will consider the predecessors to Operation Rescue. Since the late-1970s, conservative Catholic women engaged in provocative, sometimes violent forms of anti-abortion activism. Drawing upon the memoirs of activists, statistics maintained by the National Abortion Federation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco, and the records of abortion providers, Haugeberg chronicles how women initiated the violent turn in anti-abortion activism. Many of these activists were housewives or worked intermittently, which gave them the opportunity to travel from state to state. Most had grown frustrated by the slow pace of reform in the mainstream movement. In the late 1970s, they began invading abortion clinics, where they would destroy medical equipment and harass patients. They also stalked physicians and patients, posted “Most Wanted” signs in physicians’ neighborhoods, and sent death threats that included descriptions of physicians’ daily routines. Because the federal government refused to classify anti-abortion violence as terrorism during the 1970s and 1980s, these activists were subjected to nominal penalties—usually for trespassing—if they were tried at all. When Randall Terry, the leader of Operation Rescue, rose to prominence in the late-1980s, he hired Catholic women who had been engaging in direct action campaigns for a decade to organize the group’s mass demonstrations. By addressing the history of women in the grassroots pro-life movement, Haugeberg enables us to understand women’s crucial role in the escalation of violence.