The murder of Dr. George Tiller cannot be smoothed over with a speech. This is the lesson the Obama administration must learn from it.

Since Tiller was gunned down — at Sunday morning church services — the administration has correctly offered increased law enforcement protection to the hundreds of abortion clinics and doctors who have, for years, been targets of violence and vandalism, and whose patients are routinely harassed and intimidated. This necessary measure is only temporary.

As most of the public surely knows, the abortion wars have become a permanent and ugly part of American political discourse.

That Tiller performed late-term abortions — a legal medical procedure in Kansas and across the country — is given as an excuse for the intensity of the hatred that was directed at him. But in truth, the clinic blockades, the verbal harassment and threats, and the angry demonizing of women are carried out on a broad, national scale by anti-abortion demonstrators who say they are not extremists.

Their particular form of hatred is not directed solely at women who seek a late-term abortion or at the handful of doctors who perform them. It is aimed at anyone who dares to enter the offices of a reproductive health facility for any reason. That includes teenagers in need of birth control or treatment for a sexually transmitted disease and, yes, women seeking prenatal care to ensure a healthy baby at the end of a full-term pregnancy.

It does not matter to the demonstrators that women come in all shapes, sizes and colors — and have all manner of reproductive health needs. It matters only that these activists believe the women somehow are complicit in abortion, which to the demonstrators means they are complicit in murder.

This is how it has been for much of the past three decades, despite the pleas of politicians who, like President Obama, seek “common ground” and call ever so earnestly for a respectful debate. Inevitably, these politicians say that one answer to the abortion problem is to reduce the need for them — that is, to reduce the appalling number of unplanned pregnancies in the United States. “So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions,” Obama said during his commencement speech at Notre Dame University last month. “Let’s reduce unintended pregnancies.”

The phrase has taken on the triteness of “have a nice day.”

Nearly two decades ago, Bill Clinton said he believed abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” The “rare” part was supposed to come from greater support for birth control and better sex education for young people.

Here is how the anti-abortion movement and its supporters in Congress responded: They carried out a campaign, which continues to this day, to curtail women’s access to birth control and severely limit teenagers’ access to comprehensive sex education.

Working first through the Republicans who took over Congress in the mid-1990s and then through the Bush administration, they blocked access to emergency contraception, birth-control pills that are taken after unprotected sex. They continue to promote state legislation and a movement among anti-abortion pharmacists to allow druggists to refuse to fill birth-control prescriptions. They wish to expand the current “conscience clause” allowing medical professionals who have ethical objections to abortion to cover birth control and abortion referrals for rape victims who might be pregnant. They spent billions on abstinence-only sex education that has been proved, time and again, to be ineffective at keeping teenagers from having sex.

When the original House version of the economic stimulus bill included a bureaucratic change to make it easier for state Medicaid programs to offer family planning services to poor women, Republicans caused such a fuss that Obama prevailed upon Democratic congressional leaders to remove it. His gesture won not a single Republican vote for the stimulus package in the House.

“The common ground is family planning,” says Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. Yet Maloney has spent much of the past decade in the forefront of congressional efforts to push back the right-wing assault on family planning.

It is time to stop hoping that somehow, through pleasing rhetoric or even genuine efforts to build bridges, those who oppose allowing women to control their reproductive lives can be persuaded to some other view. Continuing the pretense on this point isn’t naive. It’s cynical.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group


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