Radicalizing pro-lifers: The line from “Roe” to Randall Terry

Why is anti-abortion violence spiking–with George Tiller’s death at the hands of alleged shooter Scott Roeder just the latest and most high-profile episode?

Jon A. Shields, an assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of an intriguing new book, “The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right,” finds an explanation in the history of the abortion rights movement in which Roe v. Wade was the spur to radicalization–and things went downhill from there. Shields explains in an essay in The New Republic:

In 1973, Roe v. Wade dramatically changed abortion politics and the right-to-life movement in particular by pushing much of it out of the state houses and into the streets. Activists began staging “sit ins” as early as 1975 in Washington D.C. The pioneers of the “rescue” movement, as it came to be called by its evangelical heirs, reasoned–correctly, as it turned out–that they had little chance of passing a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution or changing the makeup of the court. “It was frustration and despair that split the anti-abortion movement in two,” Risen and Thomas explain. “Those who refused to accept the mainstream, incremental lobbying efforts moved into a ‘direct-action’ movement.”


That’s been said before, and is not so controversial. But he continues:

By the late 1980s, the movement had grown bigger and more aggressive from an influx of evangelical fundamentalists. Unlike the small sit-ins orchestrated by leftist Catholics, Operation Rescue orchestrated large clinic blockages in cities from New York to Los Angeles. The promise of this campaign–and the influence of Operation Rescue–actually controlled violence-prone extremists. Throughout the 1980s, for instance, there was an inverse correlation between abortion-related violence and the success of civil disobedience. As Christopher Keleher found in the DePaul Law Review, “the drop in the number of violent incidents correlated with increase in the number of nonviolent protests.” The nonviolent, civil disobedience seemed to control violence-prone radicals by providing them with an outlet for their pro-life zeal.


But this institutional restraint largely disappeared when Operation Rescue imploded in 1992, partly because of the autocratic management style of its leader, Randall Terry. And perhaps more importantly, many activists simply exhausted their energy and vacation time in jail. These internal failures were greatly compounded by the passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act under the Clinton administration, which made it a federal crime to participate in clinic blockades. The collapse of Operation Rescue released violent radicals from any institutional constraints, leaving them to their own darkest desires. As Risen and Thomas explain, “Within two years of [the collapse of rescue], what was left of the movement was dominated by extremists who refused to place any limits on direct action to stop abortion.” Fueling radicalism even further, the Supreme Court upheld Roe just months after the collapse of Operation Rescue.


Violence soon followed…

He concludes:

“It is, of course, impossible to rerun history without the intervention of the Supreme Court and a federal crackdown on civil disobedience. We don’t really know if the passions this issue excites could have been channeled in a more constructive and peaceful direction, and it is likely that violence would have increased without the government’s involvement. Nonetheless, it is ironic that turbulent 1960s was the decade in which the coolest heads prevailed in abortion politics–and that the lack of radical institutions today may be what has bred the latest round of violence.”

Shields’ analysis strikes me as well-informed and challenging to all sides.


Comments read comments(11)
post a comment
Wingnuttia-Free Zone

posted June 3, 2009 at 11:01 pm

Scott Roeder, the Right-Wing Authoritarian (RWA) follower who assassinated Dr. Tiller, is a poster-child for what happens when the psychological drivers within RWA followers reach a critical mass state: intense internalized FEAR (looks like HATE, but it’s FEAR) combines with a very high level of SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS to produce EXTREME AGGRESSION against whoever and whatever threatens the follower’s leader or ideology (in this case, ironically, “pro-life”). Roeder’s psychological disorder is defined by the following: illogical thinking, a highly compartmentalized mind, double standards, hypocrisy, blindness to himself, a profound ethnocentrism, and dogmatism.
Roeder is not a Social Dominator or a Double High (these are “leaders” as opposed to “followers”) because people with these disorders rely on easily manipulated RWA followers like Roeder to do their dirty work. In this case, the Social Dominators and Double Highs are the “pro-life” extremist political (Republican Party, Operation Rescue) and religious leaders, including members of the clergy, hate radio commentators and right-wingnut TV pundits who keep the baseless hysterical anti-choice rhetoric ramped high. Gullible suckers like Roeder take the bait. Then, the amoral, hypocritical “leaders” knock themselves out distancing themselves from the inevitable destruction they sowed.
Roeder did exactly what his leaders directed him to do. Only Roeder walked into that Lutheran church. Many fingers pulled the trigger. How else does a doctor whose activities are 100% legal become the victim of a politically-motivated assassination?
Dr. Tiller’s assassination by political and religious right-wing terrorists had NOTHING to do with saving the unborn and everything to do with psychotic obsession of many.

report abuse


posted June 3, 2009 at 11:43 pm

Wingnuttia-Free Zone
“Dr. Tiller’s assassination by political and religious right-wing terrorists had NOTHING to do with saving the unborn and everything to do with psychotic obsession of many.”
Which is why they should be considered TERRORISTS and treated as such!
This was an example of the American Taliban at work. It was both political and religious and it needs to be presented as such.

report abuse


posted June 4, 2009 at 12:13 am

I’m learning more than I ever wanted to know about this WebSite and other ‘Faith Based’ outlets. My feelings are not too favorable to anything having to do with ‘ProLife’ or any anti-abortion type group. I’m wondering how long it’s going to take before enough of you finally realize that ‘Society at Large’ is simply NOT going to let you continue along the paths some in your groups have chosen. You can expect an overwhelming back lash from all of the groups you fear most, but primarilly it will be the US Federal Government. No matter how Noble sounding the cause, organized humanity just simply won’t allow splinter factions such as yours to continue unabated! Get your radical membership in hand and under someone’s control, or I feel the whole world is very soon to come knocking on your BIG Door!

report abuse


posted June 4, 2009 at 9:58 am

This man’s actions were indefensible not only (and most importantly) because all human life, including Dr. Tiller’s, is sacred but also because it sets back the cause for the pro-life movement.
Why is there violence surrounding abortion? Well, first let’s consider that the Catholic Church teaches that every abortion is the taking of innocent life. That is violent.
Christ said to Peter, “He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.” Now, Jesus was not stating that this justifies killing. Rather, he was making a point that violence breeds violence and must be avoided. It was a call for peace.
If we are building a society that allows for the mass legalized violence of abortion, we should not be surprised when other cases of violence ensue.
Our response to this act should be to pray for and work towards an end to all violence at all stages of life.

report abuse

The Lady of All Nations

posted June 4, 2009 at 10:16 am

Dear Sir,
I think that this man, Scott Roeder, did not kill him, Tiller.
Scott is “Innocent” and should be let go.
Let it be.
-Active Princess

report abuse


posted June 4, 2009 at 10:18 am

….What was that doctor doing “working” at a Church as an usher… that part is what really does not make any sense… The doctor of course was free to come and sit , but to work…. the whole scene is iconic of what happens when the purity and righteousness of the Word of God is compromised by so called science which debases that which is created in the image of God,man…. if for no other reason, God allowed Satan to come in a “clean” up that church through that ‘murderer’, for the bible says ” no murderer has eternal life in him”, that goes for the Doctor as well as his killer… we never , never , never, should have had immoral procedures on the books such as abortion… indeed, the things which lead to the need for an abortion should have been addressed… rape, incest, ect… should receive

report abuse

Your Name

posted June 4, 2009 at 10:56 am

“I think that this man, Scott Roeder, did not kill him, Tiller.”
And Leight ‘thinks’ doctors shouldn’t be (working – as an usher, no less!) in a church.
It is no wonder why the radical ‘right’ gets called delusional.

report abuse


posted June 4, 2009 at 12:12 pm

Fr Daniel Berrigan SJ and Cardinal Bernardine were the early anti abortion people who wanted a seamless garment/ consistent ethic approach to the anti abortion effort. Berrigan was willing and did go to jail/prison to back up his words. Who in the Catholic heirarchy gave over the leadership of the Catholic anti abortion agenda to the likes of Randal Terry and the ‘deny communion bishop shouters’? Where are these bishop shouters/’know-it-alls’ now that the effort has degraded to guns? Cardinal Law was one of the early deflaters of Bernardine’s efforts and now Law is ‘working’ in Rome where a Catholic baby being born is as rare as a hens tooth!

report abuse


posted June 4, 2009 at 6:41 pm

I don’t agree that anti-abortion violence is spiking. We are talking about one murder here. Scott Roeder sounds like a disturbed man. Killing someone is not “pro-life.” However, Dr. Tiller is responsible for ending many lives. Two wrongs don’t make a right. The lives that Tiller took also had value. It must be remembered that there are more who women die as a result of abortion than there are abortion providers who are murdered. What happened to Dr. Tiller is not a common occurence.

report abuse

Tom Tito

posted June 5, 2009 at 1:53 pm

In my opinion the pro life movement has accepted destruction of embryos as part of fertility treatment.
Only when an embryo is used to help the sick do they fight it. When these tiny human beings are left to die in a freezer they are silent.
Was any effort made to stop this during Bush’s term? I may have missed something, I know the media does not believe in the right to life and does not report on what we do unless it involves violence.
I believe this is because the movement became partisan and could not criticize Bush or his financial sponsors in the Medical/Drug industry.

report abuse


posted June 7, 2009 at 9:45 am

If Shield’s analysis holds true, then we will likely see an uptick in violence against those who support a woman’s right to chose for herself.
It is chilling to note that violence against gays and transgender has been on the upswing recently – in lockstep with the granting of human status to us in more and more states.
Even the most hard-core anti-human rights for gays and transgender, anti-choice for women Christians must have comprehended by now that not only are the Republicans out of power, but the chances of their coming back into power before the Supreme Court retirements have been replaced with moderate to liberal Justices is basically null.
So what follows next? It is now just a question of a few years before we gays are granted fully human status throughout the US. Will the conservative Christians in Texas start lynching us? How many more true-blue-patriotic-Christians in Kansas will decide they have to kill and bomb and terrorize even more desperate women and doctors/clinics when Obama, Congress and the Supreme Court decide yet again that women are free agents and not private property?
As near as I can tell, the approaches made by Obama towards the Christian right on finding ways to reduce abortion have been rejected utterly – it’s either no sex ed, no contraception, no abortion or nothing for the far right.
Where do we go from here? Frankly, I don’t see folks on the left extending the hand of friendship forever, not when we are getting beat up and shot at…and the “he got what he deserved” luke-warm comments from the religious right – even Catholics! – has not exactly made us optimistic.

report abuse

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

More blogs to enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting Pontifications. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here are some other blogs you may also enjoy: Faith, Media and Culture Prayer, Plain and Simple Happy Blogging!!!   ...

posted 2:38:01pm Aug. 27, 2012 | read full post »

Moving on, and many, many thanks... recent vacation and related absences also coincided with an offer from to cover religion for them, as editor Melinda Henneberger announces here in her roundup on the site's very successful first 100 days. That ...

posted 8:29:24pm Aug. 02, 2009 | read full post »

Calvin at 500, Calvinism 2.0
If you thought you knew John Calvin--who turned 500 last week--you probably don't know enough. For example, that he was French, born Jean Cauvin. And if he was in fact scandalized by dancing, he was also a lot more complex than that. I explored ...

posted 11:53:35am Jul. 16, 2009 | read full post »

Apologia pro vita sua...Kinda
 In my defense, I've had computer outages and family reunions and a few days of single-parenthood, which is always a bracing reminder of what many parents go through all the time. And this weekend it's off for a week's vacation. Anyway, ...

posted 10:51:36am Jul. 16, 2009 | read full post »

When Benny met Barry: "I'll pray for you!"
The first word via Vatican Radio and first image (that I saw) via Rocco: Speaking to Vatican Radio, Press Office Director Fr. Federico Lombardi said "moral values in international politics, immigration and the Catholic Church's ...

posted 12:54:28pm Jul. 10, 2009 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.