S.T.’s note: I wrote most of this story on Wednesday morning. Wednesday afternoon, I was just finishing up when the news of the San Bernardino shooting broke. That mass shootings pile up on top of one another so rapidly that one occurs as I wrote about one from a few days earlier is both tragic and outrageous. As of now, we do not know what was behind the San Bernardino shooting, if anything. I decided to go ahead with this piece because there is a link between words and actions, between violent speech and violent deeds; we see that link in violence against women, in violence against black men and women, in violence against Muslims. But the only thing that connects every single mass shooting that has occurred in the U.S.—in 2015, by the way, there have been more mass shootings than days in the year so far—is the guns. I am at a complete loss as to how we address gun control. So I talk and write about the things I feel capable of talking and writing about.
Some days—some weeks—it feels impossible to find the good in news about women’s reproductive health and rights. Still, it is important not to lose hope completely, so I will tell you that the state of Alabama has stopped trying to defund their (two) Planned Parenthood clinics, and is even covering Planned Parenthood’s legal fees. That is about all the good news I feel I can bring you today, but the resilience of Colorado’s Planned Parenthood clinic and spike in donations after Friday’s devastating shooting cannot be overlooked.
Now, let’s talk about the shooting. Where do we begin? Do we begin with the event itself? On Friday, November 27th, the day after Thanksgiving, a man entered Colorado’s only Planned Parenthood clinic, and murdered three people, wounding nine others. Do we talk about the murderer, Robert Dear? He certainly fits the profile. His ex-wife, Barbara Micheau, divorced him in 1993, describing him as a “serial philanderer and a problem gambler, a man who kicked her, beat her head against the floor and fathered two children with other women while they were together.” According to both Micheau and Dear’s own statements, he has a history of justifying his actions through the “belief that he will be saved.” Dear has a clear history—domestic violence, vandalizing a different Planned Parenthood clinic, praise for other anti-abortion terrorists—of radically violent misogyny.
Or do we talk, again, about gun control, hoping desperately we aren’t just throwing our voices into the wind? In a sharp condemnation of the way much of America reacts to this sort of senseless violence, President Obama said Saturday that “If we truly care about this — if we’re going to offer up our thoughts and prayers again, for God knows how many times, with a truly clean conscience — then we have to do something about the easy accessibility of weapons of war on our streets to people who have no business wielding them.” Just days later, another mass shooting occurred in San Bernardino, with 14 killed and 14 more injured. I am, in all honestly, too exhausted to say anything further on gun control. Over and over and over, Americans cower in fear in movie theaters, malls, schools, offices, because we cannot, or will not, take real action on gun control. I don’t know how to talk about it anymore.
Maybe we talk about the victims. There are three in Colorado—I made a donation to the Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic in their name, and if you have the means to do so, I urge you to do the same. Their names are Garrett Swasey, Ke’Arre Stewart, and Jennifer Markovsky. All three of them leave behind young children. All three of them were there to help others. Garrett Swasey, a police officer, was killed responding to the call from the clinic. Ke’Arre Stewart, an Iraq war veteran, had gone to Planned Parenthood to accompany a friend. He was shot outside the clinic, and ran back in to warn others with his dying breath. Jennifer Markovsky was also there to support a friend (her friend was also shot, but is not critically injured), and has been widely described by those she left behind as a kind-hearted person who would do anything for her friends, husband, and children.
But more than anything, I want to talk about the way we talk about abortion. As an individual, Robert Dear is a misogynist Christian extremist, a right-wing terrorist, no more connected to Christianity than Jihadist terrorists are to Islam. As individuals, each of the three victims cared for the people in their lives—the friends they accompanied to the clinic, the children they raised, the citizens they died protecting—and leave behind devastated families. As national phenomena, gun control and large-scale violence are issues we need to fight with everything we’ve got. But while this violence and the devastation it has caused are being described, and rightly so, as “senseless,” it is not random, nor, in a sick way, is it all too difficult to understand.
I do not think that responding to this atrocity by talking about abortion rights is simply a calculating move to further a political agenda while in a national spotlight. I think it is insulting to those who have died to pretend that there was no reason they were killed, nothing behind the violence. In particular, Stewart and Markowitz were killed because they made the decision to be there for their friends as their friends sought basic healthcare. They were killed—Robert Dear killed them—because, whatever their respective personal beliefs, they assisted women they cared for in getting necessary medical care from one of the only places in the state that offers it, or at least offers it at an affordable price.
I do not know what sort of care those women were seeking. I do not know if they were there for abortions or ultrasounds, pap smears or breast exams. I don’t care. If anyone tells me that “they weren’t even there to get abortions,” or repeats the statistic that only 3% of Planned Parenthood’s services are actually abortion, my stomach will tighten. Yes, the other 97% of Planned Parenthood’s services are very important. Yes, millions of women—and some men, too—will lose access (do lose access) to important healthcare when Planned Parenthoods are shut down or attacked because of that 3%. But when we justify Planned Parenthood’s existence through all the other wonderful and important work it does, we suggest that abortion needs to be justified. That maybe there’s something a little icky about abortion. That maybe we should just focus on the other things, and not talk about that too much.
Let me be clear: I fully understand why, as an individual, religious or not, some people feel that they would never be able to get an abortion. I fully understand why some people are deeply, deeply uncomfortable with the idea of anyone getting an abortion. And perhaps for some people, some of that discomfort will never go away. But I also feel certain that the more we talk about it, and the more open and varied ways we find to talk about it, the more that discomfort will dissipate. Still, it is okay to feel discomfort around abortion; what is painfully necessary is to extend that discomfort to include empathy. And the way the most vocal advocates of the anti-abortion movement speak does everything it can to quash any semblance of empathy for women seeking abortions.
So, let’s talk about talking about abortion. When I was thirteen, I was in DC’s Dupont Circle with my dad and some classmates. What looked like a mini version of one those buses designed for tours—railings and a megaphone affixed to the top—drove by. But this bus was plastered with pictures of tiny, half-formed fetuses, covered in blood and goop, faces contorted as if they were crying out in pain. The megaphone at the top blared rhetoric about “baby-killers,” “murderers,” “sin,” but mostly I remember those pictures, so much larger than life and so graphic. That was fourteen years ago; since then, anti-abortion rhetoric has gotten a stronger hold in American media and politics, and reproductive rights have been rolled back across several states. Over the summer, an undercover video making it seem as if Planned Parenthood runs some sort organ farm, made waves and inspired even more regressive legislation; despite being debunked, these videos succeeded in generating more fear and hate around both abortion itself and Planned Parenthood in particular. It is widely reported that after he was taken into custody, Robert Dear said “no more baby parts.” It would seem that these videos had an impact on him. As Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus succinctly puts it: “inflammatory rhetoric inflames.” Marcus cites the rhetoric of those like Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina. Let’s not forget Ben Carson’s comparison between abortion and slavery. And that’s just this political season. The extreme right-wing rhetoric is toxic and dangerous, and the extreme right-wing terrorists who follow this rhetoric (not just around abortion) are a national crisis. But to return to my earlier point, we also need to talk about how pro-choice people discuss abortion, because often, there are issues there too.
For some people, abortion is a decision made out of desperation, an incredibly difficult one, a sacrifice for already existent children. Two women I know have told me very similar stories about their mothers: pro-life Catholic women who got pregnant when they already had children to care for, whose pregnancies—for health reasons, for financial reasons—would have rendered them incapable of caring for the children who needed them. Both of these women did something they believed was ‘sinful’ in order to provide a life for the children they had. On the other end of the spectrum are women like Emily Letts, who knew immediately that she did not want to be pregnant, and for whom an abortion was a simple medical procedure. There are as many reasons for getting an abortion, as many feelings about one’s own abortion, as there are women who have had them. There aren’t right or wrong reasons for not wanting to continue a pregnancy or have a child. There are not right or wrong ways to feel about one’s decision. It is important to note that 95% percent of women who have abortions do not regret them afterwards (and there will always be a small percent of people who regret any major decision, this is inevitable).
This is what we need to talk about. Not only the women who we think of getting abortions out of desperation—young teenagers, rape victims, women with health issues—they are very important. But the women who simply know that they are not ready to have children, that they do not want to spend nine months of their life going through major body changes, conducting their lives differently, are just as important. While, on the one hand, we need to work on sex-education and access to birth control to make abortions rare in addition to safe and accessible, we also need to normalize abortions. We need to hear more stories. We need to say the word out loud, and not in hushed tones or with euphemisms. The Colorado shooting was an act of terrorism, meant to both punish people for going against an extreme ideology and scare people away from seeking abortions or providing them. We need to push against this terror, to make the world safer for women seeking abortions and the men and women who provide them. So let’s talk about gun control, let’s talk about violence, let’s talk about extremism, let’s honor the dead. But let’s also talk about abortion, and do so openly and unafraid.