by John Whitehead
Consistent Life Ethic activists generally have varying interpretations of the Ethic. Some take an absolutist stance on nonviolence, others allow exceptions to strict nonviolence. Some tend to specialize on working against a particular threat to life, others tend to work against multiple threats. Another difference among Consistent Life Ethic activists (which relates to the specialization vs. generalization difference) is varying views on whether working against a particular threat to life is somehow more important or a higher priority than working against others.
As with other differing views, I think Consistent Life Ethic activists need to agree to disagree on whether certain life issues take priority over others and live with such differences. Such tolerance of diversity is essential for several reasons. First, like other differing opinions, disagreements among activists about the relative importance of life issues are not likely to be resolved anytime soon. The enduring nature of such disagreements and the necessity of building up a movement require high tolerance for differing views.
Beyond the general need to tolerate disagreement within a movement, accepting disagreements about the relative importance of life issues is essential for an additional reason: The relative importance of different life issues probably has no real practical significance.
That is, whether all the life issues have equal importance, whether one issue is the most important, and which issue (if any) is most important need not have any meaningful effect on how Consistent Life Ethic activists pursue their activism. Let me explain why I think this.
“Most important issue” does not mean “only issue.”
Whatever their precise views on life issues’ relative importance, Consistent Life Ethic activists should be able to agree that no one threat to human life, however serious, is the only threat to life. Therefore, no commitment to any one issue exhausts the work that needs to be done to protect life. If any idea is central to the Consistent Life Ethic, this is it. (Indeed, I suspect most people, even if they don’t believe in the Consistent Life Ethic, would accept that multiple injustices or problems, as opposed to only one, need to be addressed in our world.)
Once we accept that multiple threats to life need to be opposed, I think it follows that we need activists working on multiple life issues. The alternative, that we all work to protect life against just one threat—presumably until that threat is somehow ended—is not realistic. Sad to say, threats to life or other injustices are rarely definitively “ended.” Often a victory for life and justice over a threat is followed by the threat taking a new form and the struggle continuing. Consider the long struggle against racism in the United States, which has been going on since the nation’s founding and is not over yet. If work against other threats to life had to wait until that struggle was won, we would still be waiting.
Trying to work against threats to life strictly one at a time, in order of supposed importance, is a recipe for never meaningfully working against those threats judged to be of lesser importance. We need to protect life against multiple threats. This means we need activists working against multiple threats, whether by devoting themselves to multiple life issues or by specializing on different issues. Such a diverse approach doesn’t require taking any particular view on which life issue, if any, is most important; it simply requires recognizing the importance of more than one issue.
Sustained activism requires passion, which takes different forms.
Not every believer in the Consistent Life Ethic is going to be drawn to the same approach to activism. Some people will be drawn to a generalist approach to the life issues, some to a more specialized approach; and those drawn to a specialized approach will want to specialize on different issues. This diversity is good, as it means people will devote themselves to the activist approach for which they have passion.
Passion for your cause is vital to activism. Passion helps sustain activists’ commitment over time, often even when the work is difficult or not immediately rewarding. Passion may also make activists more effective, as people are motivated to work that much harder on a cause that they care about deeply. Insisting that all Consistent Life Ethic activists follow the same approach or prioritize the same issue works against such passion.
In a more personal vein, I find that passion for a cause is essential for me. My own approach to Consistent Life Ethic activism has been to specialize on working against war and specifically nuclear weapons. For me, that is the most engaging and motivating way of upholding the Ethic. Opposing war isn’t my exclusive concern—I will certainly work on other life issues—but it is my focus. If I were pressured to switch my focus to another life issue or to give up a specialized focus, that would be devastating to my motivation and commitment. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
From these two conditions—the need to address multiple threats to life and the value of activists’ personal passion—I would draw the conclusion that Consistent Life Ethic activists should pursue whichever life issue or issues they like. Again, this conclusion implies no definitive answer one way or the other to the question “Is one life issue more important than the rest?” The practical reality is just that the Consistent Life Ethic movement needs different people working in different ways to protect life against the many threats to it.
For some similar posts reflecting on the consistent life ethic, see:
If we agree that a mother may kill a child in the womb, why not outside the womb?
by Richard Stith
Anyone who has been to public debates on abortion knows that each side talks past the other. True to their self-definitions, the “pro-life” side argues primarily that the fetus is human and alive, while the “pro-choice” side speaks mainly of individual freedom. Rarely do they respond to each other’s points.
The intriguing possibility exists, therefore, that audiences may be convinced by both sides. That is, listeners may conclude both that fetuses are living human beings and that abortion should be permitted.
Indeed, the pro-choice side encourages us to hold both positions at once. We can support the right to choose even if we agree with the pro-lifers that abortion takes a life. We can believe what we want, as long as we do not impose our views on others. Politicians, including President Biden, seem particularly attracted to this I’m-personally-opposed-but stance. Back in 2015 he was very explicit about it.
I’m prepared to accept that at the moment of conception there’s human life and being, but I am not prepared to say that to other God-fearing [and] non-God-fearing people that have a different view. Abortion is always wrong. . . . But I’m not prepared to impose doctrine that I’m prepared to accept on the rest of [the country]. (1)
There is much evidence that a large number of people find themselves in this position. This year is the 50th anniversary of Judith Jarvis Thompson’s well-received piece, “A Defense of Abortion”, in which she explicitly argued that even if the unborn child is a person like the rest of us, its life may rightly be taken in abortion. Abortionists themselves may take such a stance: “I had a woman wake up in the recovery room and say, ‘I just killed my baby.’ And I said to her, ‘You did, and that’s okay.’” (2)
An unusually explicit New York Times/CBS News Poll published back in 1998 squares with the findings of earlier and later surveys in finding many people affirming both sides at once. That NYT/CBS poll found that approximately half of all Americans agreed that abortion is “the same thing as murdering a child,” as the Times questionnaire so graphically put it.
But these abortion-is-murder respondents were by no means solidly “pro-life.” About one third of them also agreed that “abortion is sometimes the best course in a bad situation.” Let’s call such people “pro-lifers for choice.”
My question is: what will our society be like if this mixed position continues to be influential?
How will such a stance affect public policy making in the future?
Please note that I am concerned only with subjective beliefs here, not with whether abortion really takes a life. Even if we assume abortion itself does no harm, we can still ask about the impact of persons who believe simultaneously in the right to abortion and in prenatal human life.
Isn’t our ability to defend life after birth seriously undermined by people who see no important difference between born and unborn children, and yet think those still unborn shouldn’t be protected by law? If it’s OK to kill a healthy child, what can be so wrong with involuntary euthanasia of seriously disabled newborns? And why care much about stopping child neglect, for example, if child murder is thought permissible?
Abortionist and medical school professor Lisa Harris wrote thoughtfully, “In general feminism is a peaceful movement. It does not condone violent problem-solving, and opposes war and capital punishment. But abortion is a version of violence. What do we do with that contradiction?” (3)
On a still more abstract level, the belief that violence against children may be none of the government’s business strikes at the heart of our notions of community responsibility. If we do not share a common concern for the next generation, what do we share?
Worse still: for those who consider abortion to be murder, it is not just any kind of murder. It is, as the New York Times poll put it, the same thing as “murdering a child.” And where there is a child, there is a mother.
Abortion, in the view of more or less half the American people, is the killing of a child by its own mother. Can we live with the belief that mothers have a fundamental right to take the lives of their children? I doubt it.
The mother-child relationship has been too long held up in this civilization (though no doubt sometimes with wrongful sexist intent) as the archetype of self-sacrificing nurture, as the centerpiece of all idealism. If we think it’s right to permit mothers to dismember their children, what violence may we still forbid?
The conclusion I draw is that an acceptance of the right to abortion by those who think it murder may have grave public consequences, regardless of whether abortion in fact amounts to killing. If many of us think (even erroneously) that abortion takes a life, then upholding a right to choose it cannot but dull our shared sense of responsibility for those elsewhere threatened by violence.
(1) Joel Gehrke. “Joe Biden: “Abortion Is Always Wrong” National Review, 22 September 2015.
(2) Lisa A. Martin, PhD, Jane A. Hassinger, MSW, Michelle Debbink, MD, PhD, Lisa H. Harris, MD, PhD. “Dangertalk: Voices of abortion providers” Social Science & Medicine 184 (2017) 75-83.
(3) Lisa H Harris. “Second Trimester Abortion Provision: Breaking the Silence and Changing the Discourse” Reproductive Health Matters, 2 Sep 2008.
For more of our original posts from Richard Stith, see:
by Father Jim Hewes
Abortion is not only a foundational life issue, but also is analogous with the other life issues.
War: A bomber pilot looks through a scope to target objects (the enemy) from a distance and destroy them; in the same way the abortionist looks through a “scope” to obliterate from a distance (the distance from the outside world to the world within the womb) objects (pre-born children), which also have become both the “enemy” of the mother and of society. Both practices are part of a single culture of death. A country initiates wars in foreign lands and yet at the same time allows a “war” to continue on pre-born children within itself. This is not a war waged for a few years, but one which has lasted over 50 years. Instead of hundreds or even thousands of casualties, there have been millions of pre-born lives lost, as well as the “destruction” of millions of women.
Death penalty: Each day in the United States, roughly 2,500 pre-born children are executed, without an accusation of a capital crime. They aren’t allowed to have a trial or any type of an appeal; they’re dispatched simply because they are voiceless, defenseless, and unwanted. Some 900,000 pre-born children live on a new “death row” (a mother’s womb) and their capital punishment is brutally carried out every day by these modern-day executioners, namely abortionists.
Racism: As many as 180,000 African American lives are destroyed each year through abortions. It’s been estimated that since 1990 the African American community has lost more than 10 million children to abortion. African American women submit to abortions at a rate more than twice their percentage of the U.S. population. Black (pre-born) Lives don’t matter. What could be more racist than ending these innocent lives?
Immigration: Undocumented immigrants often come to this country and are inconvenient, unexpected, not welcomed, not wanted and thus treated as disposable. Likewise, this is the core of the abortion issue for pre-born children (and their mothers in unsupported pregnancies) who are also unexpected, inconvenient, unwanted. This translates into to meaning that their lives are regarded as having no dignity or value and thus can be destroyed. Both issues reflect the attitude that some lives are less valuable than others.
Undocumented immigrants are often portrayed as an “aliens” diminishing our country’s security or “aliens” who are hurting our economy. So too are pre-born children considered alien non-beings, who threaten a woman’s lifestyle or her economic future.
There has been controversy about a wall being built along the southern border of the United States, but it has been forgotten that there has been a “Wall” already built there for over 48 years; it came from the Supreme Court decision of Roe v Wade. There are 140,000 (pre-born) Latinos each year, who are legally prevented from “entering” the U.S. because their lives are taken by abortions. Latinos account for 20% of abortions. If the pre-born can be victimized because they haven’t become citizens through birth, then what keeps this logic from being applied to immigrants who also haven’t become citizens yet? The pre-born will never have a path to citizenship. As I read about one Hispanic person saying, the single most dangerous place for a Hispanic in the United States isn’t on the way to the southern border, it’s in their mother’s womb.
Sex trafficking: Despite their humanity, those who are trafficked are often treated as less than human, as objects to be used. Even though the pre-born have a heartbeat, brain waves, and fingerprints they are not seen as humans but as products of pregnancy, a commodity, that can be discarded, thrown away. In addition, one study showed that 55% of women trafficked for sex had at least one abortion and 30% had multiple abortions during the time of trafficking. More than half responded that they were forced to have the abortions.
Maternal mortality: If supposedly “women’s health” (=abortion) means killing others and denying one’s motherhood, why is it not surprising that there were more than 135 expectant and new mothers a day — or roughly 50,000 a year — who endure harmful complications; this gives the United States the highest rate of maternal mortality in the industrialized world. In addition, the annual cost of pregnancy-related complications runs into billions of dollars. These women, especially African American women, endure dangerous and even life-threatening complications. Caring and offering alternatives for women heading for an abortion must be extended to women heading towards giving birth.
Euthanasia: There are many similarities between abortion and euthanasia/physician-assisted suicide. Both discriminate against people with disabilities (such as Down Syndrome), treating them as if they are no longer worthy of life, worthless, and better off dead. Both devalue the dignity of life. In both issues, there is the real problem of despair, of either pregnant mothers or people with health problems being overwhelmed by poverty, illness, or suffering. Both use the definition of “suffering” to continue to expand the reason for killing another. For example, advocates for killing will argue that a pregnant mother will suffer with trying to raise an “unwanted” child, despite many supportive resources available, or a person on hospice will suffer, despite strong pain management readily available. Both attack a group of people who are vulnerable, often dependent, and under immense pressure. A baby might stand in the way of someone’s future plans, just as an elderly or sick person’s care might inconvenience other peoples’ plans and their own expected routine. Both define their own concept of existence, with controlling the manner and meaning of the death of another. Both issues involve claims of bodily autonomy and personal choice/control over one’s body. In both, death is supposedly not the enemy but rather a means for ending potential suffering and the relief of future pain. Both are about unwanted bodily invasion.
Both undertake a permanent and irrevocable violent solution to what is a temporary and changeable situation, because they don’t see that the actual problem is unmet needs but instead see the vulnerable person as the problem. Both involve people who, through either external pressure and abandonment or an interior sense of a burden, feel impelled to take a tragic action. Both corrupt doctors, by turning them away from being healers and by giving them a license to become unjust killers. Both involve people who want to do away with conscience protection for doctors. Both are supported by wealthy donors who want to change the law. Both revolve around the issue of privacy. Both are disease-centered (with abortion supporters seeing pregnancy as a disease) rather than being human-centered. Both see death as the solution rather than finding creative and imaginative solutions that are life giving.
Both use similar tactics to change the law, invoking concerns about quality of life and relieving unnecessary burdens on families. Abortion is called “women’s health care/reproductive rights” while euthanasia is called “death with dignity/medical assistance in dying/compassionate care,” because in both, verbal engineering proceeds all social engineering. In abortion it is usually the mother who arranges for the killing of her daughter or son; in euthanasia, it can be the son or daughter, or some other family member who may arrange for the killing of the mother or father.
The disabled within the womb can’t survive on their own and their lives can be ended by “covert euthanasia,” just like those whose lives also can be terminated outside the womb when they are seriously ill. Both have the killing take place within the very heart of, and with the complicity of, the family, which is supposed to be the very sanctuary, the building block, and the basic unit of society, which by its nature is called to be the sanctuary of life. Thus, abortion and euthanasia parallel each other by bringing violence into the family, the heart of the most intimate of human relationships. There is now a proposal to allow a so called “after-birth abortion,” for survivors of the initial surgical abortion. This, like euthanasia, becomes another precedent for further violence and ending life outside the womb.
Both involve caring at times for someone who will not respond, such as a premature pre-born child or a seriously ill person who is heavily sedated to control pain. Both have viable alternatives: extensive support systems for pregnant women and pain management/palliative care/dignity therapy and logotherapy/hospice staff for the dying or for the seriously ill. Such alternatives entail a lot of time, energy, resources, and real compassion (not a false compassion), rather than relying on the easy and quick fix of just killing someone.
Ultimately, there is a great deal of connection between euthanasia and the abortion issue, as well as many other life issues, because of the assault in so many situations on the dignity of human life. These connections show that violence towards human life happens from the very beginning until the very end, and everywhere in between.
For more of our posts linking opposition to other kinds of violence to abortion, see:
Open Letter to Fellow Human Rights Activists / Richard Stith
Abortion and Violence against Pregnant Women / Martha Shuping, M.D.
For posts linking abortion opposition to other kinds of violence, see:
Nukes and the Pro-Life Christian: A Conservative Takes a Second Look at the Morality of Nuclear Weapons / Karen Swallow Prior
Why Conservatives Should Oppose the Death Penalty / Destiny Herndon-de la Rosa
Wars Cause Abortion / Rachel MacNair
Making the Case for Peace to Conservatives / John Whitehead
by Rachel MacNair
On September 27, 2021, comedian Trevor Noah offered What Happens When a State Bans Abortions? in his ongoing segment, “If You Don’t Know, Now You Know.” What I know after watching it is that Trevor is competent at giving the conventional talking points in favor of abortion availability, the ones we’ve heard for decades.
There are rebuttals to what he said. He’s entirely lacking in curiosity as to what those might be. As for the idea that there are empirical studies addressing his points, that doesn’t seem to occur to him or his writers.
The one new part was about Uber and Lyft drivers in Texas being afraid to take people to Planned Parenthood at all. He had some good jokes on that. He also seems to be unaware that subjecting such drivers to civil suits isn’t in the heartbeat bill itself at all. It’s in the interpretation of “aiding” that opponents of the bill came up with. How ironic – the impact is because of pro-choice interpretations, not pro-life ones.
Trevor Noah Asserts: The Law Won’t Stop Any Abortions
Everyone knows the law won’t prevent all abortions. But the argument it won’t prevent any – indeed, the argument it won’t prevent a substantial number – crashes up against what empirical studies show. The vast majority of studies of any form of abortion regulations are done by people who oppose those regulations, so there’s not a pro-life bias in most findings.
For more details and references, see Chapter 15 of Peace Psychology Perspectives on Abortion, a chapter I wrote and a book I edited.
Here are highlights:
Women who ask and are turned down
Back when committees could decide whether women got abortions, one study followed women who were turned down, mainly in Czechoslovakia. Many mothers changed their minds, as over a third – 36% – denied they had made the abortion request, and 73% were satisfied with how the situation was resolved – that is, giving birth to their children. A few had placed the children for adoption, and the vast majority of mothers were raising the children themselves, countering the idea of major problems caused by an abortion not happening.
In the U.S., the Hyde amendment suddenly removed most federal Medicaid abortion funding. So funding was available one year and not the next. Also, funding stopped in some states and not in others since some states put their own funds into abortions for the low-income. This created a natural experiment – meaning all the requirements of an experiment were in place and researchers only needed to collect the data.
From one year to the next, abortion rates among the low-income served by Medicaid went way down in those states where Hyde took effect compared to those states where the state government continued the abortion funding.
But in each state, the childbirth rate stayed the same or went down.
To explain this, consider that abortion has a fairly unique feature. If I don’t brush my teeth, I’m the one who gets cavities. Even if cavity-filling is free, I’m motivated to avoid it. The same applies to a woman whose behavior can lead to pregnancy. Yet it doesn’t apply to the man who engages in the same behavior. If the government takes care of the bill, the activity is free to him, without consequences.
This would be irrelevant if the woman entirely controls her sexual relationships. It becomes relevant when she doesn’t.
Even outside male-dominated relationships, having an abortion require money becomes relevant to a couple’s decision-making – when to have sex, or how much trouble to take to get a condom first.
Distance of Facilities
Women in counties further away from clinics have a lower abortion rate than those nearby. This was shown early on in Georgia in the 1970s, where Atlanta was the place to go. Texas has been even clearer: the “supply-side” requirement of a 2004 law impacted only abortions past 16 weeks, and those dropped by 68%. With the 2013 law that led to several clinic closures, there was a 13% decrease in the state’s abortion rate in the year following.
Studies done in various ways suggest that higher monetary costs do indeed decrease abortions.
The most commonly observed immediate impact of parental involvement requirements is a drop in the first-trimester abortion rate among minors, but not among teenagers who aren’t minors (aged 18 and 19). This was found along with no increase in the birthrate in each of several different states. There appears to be no difference as to whether it was only parental notification or instead parental consent that was legally required.
On a side note, one study found states with parental involvement laws were associated with an 11% to 21% reduction in suicides among females 15-17 years old. No similar impact was found on males in that age group or on older females.
Trevor Noah Asserts: Stopping Abortions Can Be Done with Better Supports for Mothers
No kidding. We at the Consistent Life Network have held this for a long time.
But Trevor speaks as if Texas were doing nothing. In fact, the state has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into a long-running program to help its pregnant women.
You can argue it could be done better. You can argue that certain social policies are also crucial. You can argue it’s inadequate. I for one would certainly like to see more.
But “inadequate” isn’t “absent.” Treating it as merely absent is an assertion that’s so easily refuted as to suggest anyone who does so hasn’t researched it at all. It’s easily googled.
I assert: Women Don’t Become Pregnant Unless a Man is Involved
The idea that men who think women are supposed to be sexually available to them would benefit greatly from vacuuming women out and making them re-usable – this is totally absent from Trevor’s presentation. But he’s presented on the point before. This tweet, still available online, refers to an earlier Supreme Court decision which ruled against some previous Texas abortion regulations:
I’ve often thought the astonishing sexism of his remark ought to have been career-ending, but of course it wasn’t. Abortion was the topic at hand, so someone who feels a sense of male privilege over women’s bodies writing only to male readers presumed to have that same sense is given a free pass.
Most of the time, he’s a good man. I usually enjoy his comedy, which I watch regularly. But this is one of many cases I’ve observed where I conclude abortion has a toxic effect on otherwise good men.
The Segment Privileges Some Women’s Experiences over Others
Women who’ve had abortions are a major portion of the pro-life movement – no one active in the movement can fail to know this, because it’s so prevalent. Women who feel traumatized, bullied, unsupported, conned – these women’s voices are every bit as relevant to the debate as the ones whose experience backs up The Daily Show’s view.
Here’s a continuum of women considering whether or not to get an abortion:
The segment shows one extreme in the continuum, and yet presents it as if it were everybody. That means deliberately ignoring so many women’s lived experiences.
If you’re puzzled as to why the pro-life movement is still so strong after all these years, that’s a major reason. You can’t make these women go away by pretending they don’t exist.
If the intention is to educate, as the title implies, and if the topic is what actually happens in a state with abortion bans, then to the writing staff of The Daily Show I say: please do more homework. I’ve given you some leads here, and with your research skills I expect you could find more, if only you could try to be thorough on the stated topic.
For more thoughts from Rachel MacNair on similar topics, see our posts:
by Rosalyn Mitchell
Rosalyn currently works with the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform. She has also served as an intern for the Consistent Life Network.
A rose is never just a rose. As Mother Teresa said, “How can there be too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.” To me, a rose is symbolic of the struggle of each person to secure their God-given dignity. Liberation begins in the womb. Abortion ends the life of 300 Canadian “roses” daily, denying their right to life. Countless born roses wither, struggling to secure bread and shelter. Our common struggle is God’s struggle. He died on the cross so we can bloom through His perfect love.
What we believe about those unlike ourselves reflects how we treat others. In the culture, the pro-life movement is stereotyped as old, white, rich Christian men who want to control women. We pro-lifers know that isn’t true, but it would be a lie to say it doesn’t hurt. Worse still is when we stereotype the pro-choice movement as angry white secular feminists.
Today’s blog post doesn’t share my testimonies of pro-life conversions. Instead, I choose to share stories of two pro-choice women. My goal in sharing Katia’s and Lindsey’s stories is to show the culture, and pro-choice people, that we care about them. I hope, by engaging their humanity, they re-think abortion. How can they see the humanity of aborted children if we deny pro-choicers’ humanity?
While the reality of abortion cruelly ends the life of a child, women who support abortion should not be vilified. Abortion, a socially accepted ending of human life, starts with the dehumanization of the born. The Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR) seeks to win people, not debates, by touching hearts through seeking to understand, love, and inspire. How can we defend human rights for all human beings if we dehumanize pro-choicers?
Katia gripped her bike handle, her slender frame standing in the distance, observing me with curious brown eyes. Developing the courage to approach, she began to tell me her story, deep brokenness becoming apparent. In some conversations you teach others, but today, she taught me the heart-breaking reality of mothers abandoning their infants in trashcans. Of a mother who lost her war with depression, committing suicide as no psychiatric treatment alleviated her pain. Committing suicide, she orphaned her children by throwing herself out a window.
Katia shared her story of being raised in Russia. Arriving in Canada as an immigrant, she navigates her teenage years as a stranger in a foreign land. How would she face an unexpected pregnancy? Fully aware of the child within, yet hardened by life, she thinks abortion is a kinder fate than life. Abortion to her is an exit from an endless cycle of generational trauma passed between parent and child. Dear Katia. If by grace you are reading this, I want you to know that life is cruel yet worth living. Your past does not define your future. This cycle continues unless each child has an opportunity to live. Abortion denies this opportunity. If you or any pregnant woman needs help, please visit choice42.com amongst other resources like pregnancy care centres. I care and see you.
Lindsey contrasted with Katia, with her infectious energy making the absurd seem joyous. Amongst counter-protesters, she stood out by creatively vying for attention. She held a cardboard sign engaging traffic to honk, “If you are horny.” Her message was not hostile, unlike other protestors whose objective was to shut CCBR down. She is a filmmaker who tells stories from the perspective of the “other.” The outcasts, the forgotten ones. Dear Lindsey. If by grace you are reading this, please know that there is none more othered than abortion victims. Children who are denied their humanity.
You have a quick wit and bright intellect. You asked why photos are used to expose abortion. As a filmmaker, you know the power of media to “other” people as our culture reduces children to a clump of cells. The graphic images we display are armour to protect against the lies that deny children their humanity. Yes, abortion is shocking. The reality of a brutal act that ends a child’s life. The photographs pierce through the mask of choice to ask what choice is abortion.
Society’s moral consciousness calls for justice. It becomes personal, as reflected by your shirt calling to end police brutality. Black Lives Matter challenged narratives like the American dream as flawed due to the systemic denial of freedom. Today I challenge our collective moral consciousness for the 300 Canadian roses killed daily through abortion. I challenge us to question the narrative of choice, which creates a grave of bloody roses.
For more of our posts on personal journeys, see:
On Being a Consistent Chimera / Rob Arner
Why Conservatives Should Oppose the Death Penalty / Destiny Herndon-de la Rosa
My Personal Journey on Veganism, War, and Abortion / Frank Lane
Off the Fence and Taking My Stand on Abortion / Mary Liepold
Sharon Long: My Personal Pro-life Journey / Sharon Long
Nukes and the Pro-Life Christian: A Conservative Takes a Second Look at the Morality of Nuclear Weapons / Karen Swallow Prior
by Ms. Boomer-ang
For the second time in 13 years in the same state, an abortion-promoting governor has resigned because of sexually “liberated” practices that displeased women. Besides Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo, other prominent “liberals” have acted the same. Some have gotten in trouble for it, some have gotten away with it. But their actions show that supporting abortion is compatible with sexually exploiting women, and that many women don’t like “liberated” sexual experiences.
Legal abortion has deprived women of once-accepted justifications for refusing a man’s sexual advances. In return, sexual libertinism helps generate demand for abortion. An early supporter of the post-1965 abortion push was Playboy’s Hugh Hefner. Is it any wonder that some men labeled as “women’s allies” for supporting abortion have sexually harassed, exploited, and/or abused women?
Powerful men have promoted abortion for both reasons related and reasons unrelated to sexual libertinism. For various reasons, including to wipe out justifications for rejecting their sexual advances, they imposed a sexual revolution about 50 years ago.
The sexual revolution put both men and women under pressure to increase their sexual activity. Men were told it was abnormal not to make more sexual advances. Women were told, “Don’t consider it harassment or exploitation. This is what you really want. This is what you really long for. Yes, you do! Be liberated! Shut up and enjoy it!”
Sexually demanding associates and bosses like Harvey Weinstein were portrayed as not abusers but teachers. How many men exposed for their sexual shenanigans react with, ‘I was just doing what was expected of me’? How many women endured their abuse convinced it was remedial sex education for their own good?
For years, the message has been: “The Sexual Revolution has won. If you complain or disrespect this victory, you’re a Religious Right, Puritan enemy of freedom.”
After all, didn’t the media report stories about Thomas Jefferson’s and John F. Kennedy’s extramaritial dalliances with happy excitement? Did not it treat Bill Clinton’s episode with Monica Lewinsky as happy entertainment?
For decades, Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon – a Republican abortion advocate – took sexual advantage of his female staff. Compatible with the image of exploiter as teacher, “at one point . . . he suggested it was his ‘Christian duty’ to have sex with a woman he thought deprived of it.”1 In 1981 or 1982, Mary Hefferman of NARAL was in his office, finishing up a discussion of abortion legislation, when he touched and kissed her in unwanted sexual ways. After that, Ms. Hefferman avoided being alone with him, but “she did not complain to anyone about the incident out of concern that it would adversely affect the abortion-rights cause.”2
But unlike many sexual harassers, Mr. Packwood did not get away with his behavior. In 1991, he and his first wife, Georgie, divorced. Soon after, a Washington Post investigated rumors about his womanizing and unethical activities. In 1995, the Senate concluded that his actions had “discredited” it, and he had to resign.
Georgie, quoted in the Buffalo News on September 10, 1995, said that his “shadow life made a mockery of my marriage . . . [and] a mockery of Bob’s dedication to equality for women.”
About a decade later, Eliot Spitzer was the Attorney General of New York State, and his agenda included closing down crisis pregnancy centers. In 2007, he became governor and championed a drastic bill to reduce a woman’s right to escape abortion and reduce a professional’s right not to participate in it. Roe v Wade denies women any protection from unwanted abortions in the first trimester. Spitzer’s bill would have extended that denial to all three trimesters. Pro-life publications suggested the bill could allow even chiropractors and massage therapists to cause miscarriages at any stage of pregnancy without the woman’s explicit permission and could require health care professionals to perform abortions in order to get licenses.
Before the bill was finalized, someone discovered that Spitzer was indulging in luxury prostitutes. His wife Silda, whatever she thought of his social agenda, looked very unhappy in the photo accompanying the news story about the prostitutes. In March 2008, Mr. Spitzer resigned. The Spitzers divorced in 2013.
But the media and prominent voices continued mocking those who objected to sexually libertine behavior – except if the exploiter espoused a “cultural conservatism” cause or belonged to a pro-life entity.
But then some women remembered that Harvey Weinstein had treated them as badly as the media was noticing Donald Trump had treated other women.
Weinstein was known as a big supporter of “women’s rights,” the New York Times acknowledged, but the story was too big to shove aside. Ironically, right after Trump’s election, the story of Weinstein’s sexploitation of women came out, and the #MeToo movement arose.
Meanwhile, Andrew Cuomo, who had succeeded Spitzer as Attorney General, became Governor of New York in 2011. He and his wife, Kerry Kennedy, had divorced in 2005. His agenda was “culturally liberal.” In the middle of the last decade, he told pro-lifers (as well as people culturally conservative in certain other ways) that we don’t belong in New York.
In 2020, he proudly and excitedly signed a version of Spitzer’s abortion-promoting law. I don’t know how it compares with the Spitzer proposal. But one of its proud points is making it easier for parents to force a minor to abort against her will, no matter how late in gestation they discover the pregnancy. To celebrate this violent law, Cuomo had his girlfriend flick a switch that turned lights in New York City pink.
However, late that year, it came to light that some women complained about Cuomo’s making unwanted sexual moves on them. His misdeeds, from reports I read, seem less severe than Packwood’s. Would Cuomo have gotten into trouble if this were before the Weinstein exposure? Would he still have gotten into trouble if he were moving more quickly and energetically in enacting more points of a culturally/ ethically “liberal” agenda? Where was First Girlfriend now? In any case, some of Cuomo’s fellow Democrats rumbled about impeaching him. In August 2021, he resigned.
(New York State got its first woman governor, Kathy Hochul, as a consequence, but I don’t have high hopes for her. That’s a different story.)
In his resignation speech, Andrew Cuomo said, “In my mind, I never crossed the line with anyone. But I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn. There are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate.”
However, the “line” between acceptable and unacceptable sexual behavior had been redrawn before to the position he was used to in about 1970, before he entered his teens. That was the “generational and cultural shift” everyone spoke about. Maybe the line has been redrawn again since the Weinstein exposure, but it still is looser than it was before 1970, and we don’t know how long it will keep its new position.
They say baby boomers made the sexual revolution. But I was born at the height of the baby boom, and by the time I entered high school, the line was already at the position Andrew Cuomo was used to. Most women of my cohort felt they had no choice. Cuomo is a couple of years younger than me; maybe he didn’t remember the line’s pre-1970 position.
On August 13, the New York Times published a letter from a Gail Griffin saying, “Who drew the line in the first place? Whom did the [c.1970-2017] ‘rules’ serve? And most important, do you actually believe that the women being harassed approved of those ‘rules’ or enjoyed that treatment? . . . The fact is that women adjusted. Accommodated. Endured . . . The final test of a man’s ‘good intentions ‘ and respect for women might be whether or not he can identify enough with women to see how the . . . ‘rules’ dehumanized, demoralized, terrified, hurt, and deranged us.”
The media told us that sexual libertinism is what women really want, but only now are some taking seriously that a lot of women don’t like it.
1Helen Dewar, The Packwood Report, released September 7, 1995, Forward p. vi
2Testimony to Senate Ethics Council, Ibid, p. 65
For some of our other posts on abortion and women’s rights, see:
Abortion and Violence Against Pregnant Women / Martha Shuping, M.D.
The Myth of Sexual Autonomy / Julianne Wiley
How Abortion is Useful for Rape Culture / Rachel MacNair
Oppressors of Women Scapegoat Fetuses to Preserve Patriarchy / Richard Stith
by John Whitehead
Simply Asking Questions
Andrew Young, the civil rights activist, politician, and diplomat, was present in Selma, Alabama, during the “Bloody Sunday” violence of March 7, 1965. When hundreds of Black Americans and others tried to march for voting rights only to be beaten and tear-gassed by Alabama state troopers, Young helped the wounded and others retreating from the violence. He also faced the challenge of talking down people who wanted to respond with violence of their own.
As Young recalled,
[T]here were people who…started talking about going to get their guns. You had to talk them down…and you had to talk them down by simply asking questions,
“What kind of gun you got, .32, .38? You know, how’s that going to hold up against the automatic rifles and the 12-gauge… you know 10-gauge shotguns that they’ve got? And how many have you got? There are at least 200 shotguns out there with buckshot in them. You ever see buckshot? You ever see what buckshot does to a deer?” You know, and most of them had. And you make people think about the specifics of violence, and then they realize how suicidal and nonsensical it is…
I mean there were, in other situations, when people would really get bad, and we couldn’t turn them…we couldn’t physically restrain them, [and] we’d say, “All right, go ahead. Help yourself. Go ahead and… who are you going to kill first, you know? And what’s going to happen when you kill that one?” See? “Where are you going to go after you’ve killed two or three white folk?” See. “You got an escape plan?” Say, “Where are you going to hide? Where are you going to get money to live? Are you ready to take on an underground terrorism movement?” And you know, once they realized they hadn’t thought about even violence…and that what they were really doing was a kind of macho foolishness…they’d calm down.
But you… you see, we were convinced that violence was weakness, that violence wasn’t strength, and that violence was the surest way to get a whole lot of people killed.
I have repeatedly thought about Young’s story when I reflect on another infamous act of violence, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Specific, Practical Questions
Like most Americans, I watched with horror as the hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. I remember being very afraid, in the days that followed, about future terrorist attacks. I remember being very angry about the pre-meditated murder of 2,977 people. I also remember being uncertain about how best to respond to the attacks.
I wasn’t then (and still am not now) a pacifist, but I also wasn’t sure if the US invasion of Afghanistan that followed 9/11 was a good or just response to the attacks. I vacillated for months in my views. Then, I eventually settled on a generally supportive attitude toward the hawkish policies that the Bush administration pursued—which, I deeply regret to say, included support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Many years would pass before I came to take a far more skeptical, nonviolence-minded view of American wars and military policies.
Looking back, some 20 years after 9/11, I ask myself what would have convinced me back then to take a different course. What would have persuaded me that war and a generally violent response to terrorism wasn’t wise? And I think of Young’s story.
I appreciate how Young and his colleagues asked specific, practical questions. Asking such questions about the response to 9/11 might have made a difference:
Will denying al Qaeda terrorists a base in Afghanistan really be that big an obstacle to their committing more terrorist attacks? Couldn’t al Qaeda establish new bases in other sympathetic or unstable communities—such as areas of neighboring Pakistan? What kind of longer-term responsibility in Afghanistan is the United States taking on by invading? What might the costs of such a responsibility be? If the policy is to stop further attacks by killing al Qaeda terrorists, does that mean also killing them in countries other than Afghanistan? What are the implications of such a wide-ranging license to kill? How confident can we be that those targeted in this way are really guilty of terrorism? These and similar questions were ones that deserved serious thought back in 2001.
Twenty years later, the price of the US response to 9/11 has been enormous. To highlight just a few costs, over 7,000 US military personnel and civilian Defense Department employees have been killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as related military operations.
Estimates of others killed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars include over 1,000 allied military personnel; over 7,000 US contractors; and perhaps over 100,000 security personnel, over 200,000 civilians, and over 80,000 opposition fighters in the nations where these wars have been fought (these imprecise estimates might well understate the numbers of dead). Not all these people were directly killed by US forces, but US policy created the context in which they died.
What has all this loss of life achieved? Granted, no terrorist attacks on a scale comparable to 9/11 have occurred on American soil since 2001. Yet terrorist attacks and plots by people allied with al Qaeda or ISIS, or who have similar ideologies, have still occurred in the United States. Examples include the 2009 plots to bomb New York’s subway system and a Northwest airlines flight, the 2010 attempt to bomb Times square, the 2013 Boston marathon bombing, and the 2016 Orlando massacre. Almost 100 people have died from such attacks and that number could easily have been higher except for pure luck: the bombs on the Northwest flight and in Times Square failed to work properly.
The United States’ costly wars and counter-terrorism policies failed to prevent such attacks or near-attacks. In fact, these policies might have contributed to them: for example, the would-be subway bomber Najibullah Zazi, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and Orlando killer Omar Mateen all cited US-sponsored violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere as justifications for their acts. Such a record is not very reassuring, especially given how much the anti-terrorism policies have cost Americans and many others.
Looking back, I cannot help but think that a more restrained, less militarized response to 9/11 would have been better. Such a response might have emphasized measures such as seeking to track down, arrest, and legally try individual terrorists; improving transportation security; and securing dangerous materials that could be used to make chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, so they couldn’t end up in terrorists’ hands. Such a response may have been equally if not more successful in preventing further attacks and have left far fewer people dead.
I wish I had thought harder about the practical questions of how to stop terrorism. I wish someone had pressed these types of questions on me as Young and others pressed questions on their colleagues in Selma.
Twenty years later, the anniversary of 9/11 is a time to mourn: to mourn all those killed in the September 11th attacks and the many people killed because of the responses to those attacks. The anniversary is also a time to resolve in the future to ask the hard, practical questions about responding to terrorism.
For more commentary by John Whitehead on historical events, see:
International panel. Left to right, clockwise: Luke Silke, Ireland; Maria Oswalt, moderator; Kristina Artukovic, Serbia; Stephanie Midori Komashin, Japan; Martha Cecilia Villafuerte, Ecuador
John Whitehead comments:
The Rehumanize 2021 Conference sessions on Global Perspectives on Abortion and on Nuclear Nonproliferation both touched on a common challenge for activists: overcoming apathy.
Kristina Artukovic and Stephanie Midori Komashin observed that in Serbia and Japan abortion is not a controversial topic. The practice is largely accepted, with little debate. Pro-life activism is minimal in both countries. Further, this indifference toward abortion is part of larger patterns. Kristina commented that abortion generates little debate in Europe generally. In Japan, Stephanie explained, indifference about abortion is consistent with a general apathy toward politics among young people.
Tim Wainwright sounded a similar note in his talk on working against nuclear weapons. In contrast to the vibrant, engaged anti-nuclear movement of the late 20th century, peace activists today struggle to generate interest in the nuclear threat (Tim’s comments here definitely echoed my own experiences).
Such apathy is disheartening, but it also has a hopeful aspect. A general lack of interest in certain life issues also means that defenders of life don’t have to face highly motivated opposition. For example, Stephanie observed that her pro-life activism generates very little active opposition in Japan. For my part, I have been somewhat heartened by how anti-nuclear activism hasn’t become a highly fierce, emotionally charged “hot button” issue. When people haven’t yet become deeply invested in an issue, they might be willing to listen to the pro-peace, pro-life perspective on it.
Julia Smucker comments:
The most striking presentation I heard at this conference was by Sabrina Butler-Smith, who shared her experience of being wrongfully convicted for the death of her child. Her descriptions of coerced confession, prosecutorial misconduct and inadequate defense demonstrated how skewed the US criminal legal system is toward finding someone to punish rather than finding out the truth. Parts of Sabrina’s story reminded me of similar ones recounted in Bryan Stevenson’s memoir Just Mercy, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in learning more about wrongful convictions and related issues.
Anita Cameron, director of minority outreach for Not Dead Yet, also spoke powerfully about the ableism that undergirds the push for assisted suicide, pushing back against the demeaning assumption that it’s better to be dead than disabled – a point that Beth Fox, another disability rights self-advocate, also added to in her breakout session that immediately followed Anita’s keynote.
I also found it refreshing to simply meet and reconnect with other consistent life advocates in the regionally-based chat session and virtual expo booths. This allowed us at least a small taste of the social dynamic of an in-person conference, an experience I hope we can safely return to sometime in the not-too-distant future. Meanwhile, I commend our friends at Rehumanize for putting together another full and dynamic online conference
For more posts on consistent conferences, see:
Intervention: What a Red Rose Rescue Reminds Us About Civil Disobedience in the Consistent Life Movement
by Sonja Morin
Susan B. Anthony being arrested for voting when female suffrage was not yet attained. Henry David Thoreau refusing to pay taxes to support unjust war. Abolitionists flaunting the attempts of slave catchers to arrest escaping Black families. The sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and marches of the civil rights movement of the last century. Civil disobedience has long been an essential part of advocacy, especially in our country and for the consistent life movement.
Much of the pro-life movement has shied away from this type of action. My theory is that, due to the fragile state of our cause, many fear bad publicity. Regardless of the reason, civil disobedience is crucial to any social cause because it interrupts normalcy to draw attention to an issue that concerns the whole community. It makes the issue impact the individual, to the point where they are forced to confront its consequences and be encouraged to act.
An act of civil disobedience was undertaken on Friday, August 27 in Philadelphia at the city’s Planned Parenthood clinic. Red Rose Rescue was undertaking sidewalk advocacy. Participants offered the namesake flower to those going into the clinic, as a last effort to rescue them and their pre-born children from the abortion giant. The morning had been successful, with several patients turning away from the clinic to a life-affirming pregnancy resource center close by.
Since their actions were interpreted as an obstacle to Planned Parenthood’s business, workers summoned local police forces and a SWAT team to intervene. They forcibly attempted to remove the sidewalk advocates. One activist in particular, who still remains unnamed, did not want to comply with the orders. He successfully entered into the facility and locked himself in the men’s restroom. He was eventually arrested, but his entry closed the clinic for the whole day, halting all abortion appointments.
When I spoke with Terrisa Bukovinac, founder of Pro-Life San Francisco, who is an atheist and a staunch human rights advocate, she expressed how tense it was being on the scene that morning. The atmosphere was rife with anxious anticipation as to what was going to happen next. Planned Parenthood employees waited alongside sidewalk advocates, waiting to see what would happen, and if the facility would reopen that day. While there was some “heated discussion,” some productive conversation arose between the two camps.
Since that tumultuous Friday scene in Philadelphia, I waited to see if any media coverage would detail the event. I wasn’t surprised when I found only one local news article in response to the event, which didn’t cite the activist’s reason for entering the Planned Parenthood location, or acknowledge the fact that he posed no harm to anyone inside. What did stun me is the silence from most pro-life circles in response.
We should be celebrating! Several lives were saved that day, and parents were spared the pain of abortion. Employees confronted sidewalk advocates and were exposed to the truth. Planned Parenthood at large was reminded that their days will be numbered, as justice resets the recognition of all human life as having dignity in our country.
I decided to highlight this event, not only because of the good it accomplished, but as a reminder of what we as consistent life activists are meant to do. We are meant to intervene through civil disobedience, letting truth and human dignity guide our actions. Our advocacy is not just limited to an online presence or occasional conversation, but includes legitimate attempts in the public sphere to influence change.
May the efforts of the sidewalk advocates who were present at Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia inspire us on our continuous mission for the good of all human lives, and their protection from violence. Now, let’s move onwards in civil disobedience for the cause of civil rehumanization!
For a post on a similar action, see:
For more posts about nonviolent action, see:
Making a Nonviolent Revolution: Review of Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know
Remembering Gandhi at 150: The Power of Nonviolence and Respect for Life
by John Whitehead
Nonviolent civil resistance helped change history 30 years ago this month. When a group of hardline communists within the Soviet Union attempted a coup in August 1991, they were met with significant resistance from other Soviet citizens, including both ordinary people and elites. The civil resisters ultimately prevailed over the coup plotters. The failed coup set the stage for the Soviet Union’s dissolution later that year.
The thwarted Soviet coup is an inspiring example of what nonviolent civil resistance achieved. Viewed three decades later, in light of subsequent, grimmer historical events, this episode also provides an occasion to reflect on what civil resistance failed to achieve.
A Fracturing Nation
The August 1991 coup and the resulting resistance were the climax of years of change in the historically repressive Soviet Union overseen by the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1989, elections to a national assembly took place in which candidates not affiliated with the ruling Communist Party could run for office. These non-establishment candidates won a significant minority of seats. The following year, the regime moved further away from one-party rule by allowing greater freedom for non-Communist political parties to operate. Later in 1990, multiparty local elections brought more non-establishment candidates to power, including reformist mayors of the major cities Moscow and Leningrad. In June 1991, 80 million Soviet voters elected a new president for the most important Soviet republic, Russia. The winner was Boris Yeltsin, a former Communist turned regime opponent.
These changes were accompanied by greater popular willingness to challenge the Soviet regime. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of people participated in an anti-government demonstration in Moscow in February 1990, the largest such protest in Soviet history. The protest may have influenced that year’s decision to allow for greater electoral freedom. A similar demonstration took place in Moscow in March 1991, in open defiance of a government ban and despite the presence of police and troops on hand to repress demonstrators. However, the protest occurred without violence.
Journalist Vitaly Korotich described the change taking place: “The people in this country have always been afraid of power . . . Now, maybe, the powerful are becoming a little afraid of the people.” (quoted in David Remnick, Lenin’s Tomb, p. 222)
Popular resistance was met with violence elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Non-Russian Soviet republics that defied the Russia-dominated regime became flashpoints for conflict. In 1989, troops attacked a crowd of nationalists in Georgia, killing 19 people. In early 1991, government forces responded to independence movements in Lithuania and Latvia with violent crackdowns that left 20 people dead.
Faced with an increasingly rebellious, divided nation, Gorbachev compromised. He agreed to a new structure for the Soviet Union, in which the various Soviet republics would have more autonomy and those republics who wished to leave the Union altogether could more easily do so. A treaty establishing this new structure was scheduled to be signed on August 20, 1991. Then the coup intervened.
Coup and Resistance
Members of Gorbachev’s inner circle such as Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov and KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov formed a plan to take power before the new Union Treaty could be signed. Gorbachev was then away from Moscow on vacation; on August 18, the conspirators cut off his communication with the outside world and placed the Soviet leader under house arrest. Early the following morning, the conspirators broadcast a TV announcement of a state of emergency in the country. On Yazov’s orders, military units occupied Moscow, taking positions around the parliament, city hall, and TV and radio stations.
Resistance to the coup swiftly took shape, helped by the conspirators’ failure either to arrest all potential opponents or to gain control of all communications and media outlets. Yeltsin rushed to the Moscow parliament building and, together with other Russian politicians, issued an appeal denouncing the coup and calling for a country-wide strike. Yeltsin was even bold enough to venture outside, stand on one of the hostile tanks around the parliament, and declare “[W]e proclaim all decisions and decrees of [the conspirators] to be illegal…We appeal to citizens of Russia to give an appropriate rebuff to the putschists and demand a return of the country to normal constitutional development.” (Lenin’s Tomb, p. 466]
Russians of all kinds joined in the resistance. Tens of thousands of people gradually converged around the parliament, setting up barricades made out of debris. A printer’s strike at the newspaper Izvestia forced the paper’s management to print Yeltsin’s appeal. Some military units sent by the conspirators were met by people shouting “Don’t shoot your own people! Turn against your officers!” People brought soldiers food, flowers, and resistance leaflets.
The resistance wasn’t philosophically nonviolent. Many of those who defended the parliament carried weapons. Yet in practice the civil resisters remained largely nonviolent. (One notable exception was when a clash between demonstrators and a tank led to three protestors being killed; other protestors then set fire to tanks.) A line of women protected the parliament while holding a sign reading: “Soviet Soldiers: Don’t Shoot Your Mothers.”
Nadezhda Kudinova, a seamstress who joined the protestors, later commented, “The people in the [parliament] ordered us to step aside, not to jump on the tanks if they came . . . But we knew that if the tanks came, we would step in front of them.” Another woman protestor, Regina Bogachova, said simply, “I am ready to die right here, right on this spot. I will not move.” (Lenin’s Tomb, pp. 478, 481-482)
The stand-off dragged on for days. The conspirators faced the problem that they could prevail only by violently overrunning the resistance at the parliament. However, they couldn’t count on general support for such action: military commanders and even KGB officials expressed skepticism about the coup. They eventually decided to quit: on August 21, Yazov and the military commanders sent the troops in Moscow back to barracks. In the early morning hours, Kryuchkov called the parliament to say, “It’s okay now . . . You can go to sleep.” (Lenin’s Tomb, pp. 484-485)
Most of the coup conspirators went to prison. By December 1991, most Soviet republics had agreed to bypass any new Union Treaty and simply become independent nations. The Soviet Union ceased to exist by the year’s end.
At the time, all these events seemed a near-miraculous triumph for freedom and democracy over repression. Viewed 30 years later, the August 1991 coup and its defeat seem more bittersweet.
As president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin proved far less devoted to democracy and nonviolence than he had been as a rebel. A little over two years after facing down tanks in Moscow, Yeltsin would send tanks against the Russian parliament building he had once defended, now to crush his own political opposition. The 1990s brought terrible political and economic chaos to Russia. Meanwhile, Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, moved early in his tenure to curtail independent Russian TV media. Putin’s 20-plus-year career as president reached a culmination of sorts earlier this year when he amended Russian law to allow him to continue as president until 2036.
Does this dismal history mean that the nonviolent civil resistance of 1991 was a failure? In one sense, the answer is clearly “no.” The civil resisters succeeded in their primary, immediate goal of thwarting the attempted coup. Their nonviolent resistance was likely far more effective, and certainly less bloody, than violent resistance to the coup would have been. Further, the persistence of repressive politics in the region indicates that more civil resistance, not less, is needed in post-Soviet nations.
Nevertheless, what recent history also suggests is that civil resistance by itself is not sufficient to bring justice and peace to a society. The possibilities that civil resistance opens up must be used wisely to build a new, stable, non-repressive political system. This requires activists to cultivate an additional set of political skills beyond mastery of resistance. In nonviolent resistance as much as violent resistance, one can “win the war but lose the peace.” The resistance of August 1991 thus is both an inspirational and cautionary tale for activists today.
For similar posts from John Whitehead, see:
Making a Nonviolent Revolution: Review of Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know