Stop calling them “pro-life.”

Laurie Veninger of North Truro

by Laurie Veninger, IMC Feminist Action Team Chair

Imagine the scene: a “pro-life” organizer sends an email to her followers in which she appears to label reproductive rights activists, including legitimately ordained clergy, “the enemy” and accuses them of “killing, stealing, destroying, and deceiving.” She calls on followers to join her “spiritual army” and to be “ambassadors of His Truth.” 

They attend a church service with dire warnings of “demons,” where a celebrated former abortion doctor speaks. He asserts that “women are damaged severely, many for years and years, psychologically, and many physically” — despite all studies to the contrary. He also assures those in attendance that only they “have the Truth” and everyone else is “making up the truth.” 

This might not be especially newsworthy if it weren’t for the fact that this misinformation and inflammatory rhetoric is not just a scene to be found in “red” states. It’s happening right here in Hyannis, Massachusetts. Indivisible Mass Coalition’s Frontline Feminist Action Team, including many local activists, aims to alert the public to this alarming trend.

The pro-life organizer working with Texas-based 40 Days for Life, had staged prayer vigils outside of the only reproductive health clinic on Cape Cod. She is supported by several Catholic churches that are behind the move to bring the anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center, Your Options Medical, to Hyannis. Donations brought its mobile ultrasound unit to Cape Cod, and on October 14, St. Francis Xavier Church hosted anti-abortion doctor Haywood Robinson. 

One might point out that their rhetoric is metaphorical — yet this type of inflammatory language has been used throughout history to motivate violence by extremists. It is worrisome that Catholic churches are now leaning into the misinformation and rhetoric of extremism. We know what happens: extremism only becomes more extreme. And it is only a matter of time before some confused “lone wolf” — who is not really confused or alone, who is motivated by the rhetoric, who believes that only his side knows “the Truth,” and who feels sanctioned by the Church — puts action to the words with violence. This happened in 1994 in Brookline, prompting the Catholic Church to stop its protests at clinics, yet Cape Cod churches have forgotten that lesson. 

Indeed, in the six weeks of our standouts to support Health Imperatives, we witnessed how the Catholic Church’s 40 Days for Life organizer stirred tensions between the two opposing groups, verbally harassing, hovering and gesticulating behind the backs of pro-choice supporters, and on two occasions coming so close as to make physical contact. Ironically alternating scripture and name-calling, she encouraged a few others to do the same, but for the most part, the others quietly prayed.

Since the Dobbs decision, half of US states have implemented total or near-total abortion bans, and the anti-abortion movement has now turned its sights to states like Massachusetts. For the most part, Cape Codders are unaware that the churches spearheading 40 Days for Life are the movement’s pawns and are priming the ground for division and violence. 

Shaming patients and staff at health centers or enabling non-medical crisis pregnancy centers is not pro-life. The money that Cape Cod parishioners spent on the mobile ultrasound unit would have been much better spent on actually helping women with the material costs of an unplanned pregnancy. Praying for 40 days in front of a clinic does not address the expense of raising a child, nor address the very real dangers of carrying a child to term in our country’s tangled healthcare system. Maternal mortality in the US is double that of any other developed country.

Being pro-life means more than praying or haranguing vulnerable people. With the exception of fatal fetal anomalies, the issues that are at the root of need for abortion must be addressed. Banning abortion won’t stop it. It is well known that countries with the strictest abortion bans have the highest abortion rates.

The Netherlands has one of the lower abortion rates in the world. It also has universal healthcare and free birth control, comprehensive sex education (resulting in Dutch teenagers delaying first sexual encounters), generous paid parental leave and support for new mothers. In the US, the states that have adopted the Affordable Care Act have fewer abortions. In 2010, the US counties adopting Obama-era programs addressing teen pregnancy saw a 3% drop in abortion rates before the programs were killed by the Trump administration. In Colorado, abortions and teen pregnancies declined by half after implementing comprehensive family planning and free birth control.

Being pro-life means voting for politicians who support the programs that other modern, developed countries routinely offer, that stop people from facing unplanned pregnancies and provide help when they do. This should be the subject of public discourse, but such discourse becomes impossible with religious extremists who believe they are proprietors of truth and everyone else is wrong.

Metaphorical rhetoric connoting warfare and battles with demons does not engender love or compassion. Instead, it fosters division, polarization, and eventually, violence. It is not pro-life.