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Marissa Haugeberg

I just wrote a review (for a librarians’ journal) of Women against Abortion: Inside the Largest Moral Reform Movement of the Twentieth Century by Karissa Haugeberg, an assistant professor of history at Tulane University. At first, I was put off by the subtitle, because the idea of dignifying anti-abortion zealotry with a term like “moral reform movement” is abhorrent to me. I myself would never use such a phrase for the same reason I never call opponents of abortion “pro-life” — like many feminists, I am sickened by the hypocrisy of that term.

As it turns out, however, one should not judge a book by its cover — or its subtitle. This is a nuanced, sophisticated, and balanced account of three decades of anti-abortion activism in the U.S. on the part of overwhelmingly white, largely working class Catholic and Evangelical women. By the end of the book Haugeberg has made it abundantly clear that there is nothing the least bit moral about the terrorist violence of the anti-abortion movement.

Haugeberg argues against the widespread notion that most acts of violence against women’s health clinic personnel have been committed by white Evangelical men. She demonstrates that women were coordinating violent “rescue” actions (vandalizing and bombing clinics and assaulting and terrorizing staff and clients) “long before Evangelical men joined the movement.” In large part, the Catholic women’s early turn to “rescue” violence was prompted by their frustration with most Catholic priests’ and nuns’ disinclination to actively oppose Roe v. Wade. Juli Loesch, for instance, cut off her relations with a group of Benedictine nuns because of their ambivalence about abortion.

Haugeberg repeatedly notes that most of the (Catholic) women who embraced anti-abortion activism initially went to some effort to portray themselves as seriously interested in women’s welfare. The crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) were set up by these women supposedly as a more female-centered alternative to the male-led and Evangelical-dominated anti-abortion groups, which were overtly anti-feminist, if not misogynist, and which put fetal personhood at the heart of their rhetoric.

But the CPCs quickly degenerated. Though still employing a discourse of concern for women’s health and wellbeing, the CPCs have unashamedly turned to “deception, coercion, and terror” in their attempts to prevent women from accessing abortion. CPC personnel routinely lie to women about how long they’ve been pregnant (thus moving them past the time limit for legal abortion in many states). CPC staff show fabricated abortion videos, make outrageously inaccurate claims about abortion hazards, intimidate and terrorize women seeking abortions, and publish confidential information about them and their families.

Haugeberg’s book is fascinating and well written. But it is not an easy read. She uses their own words as much as possible in chronicling violent anti-abortion fanatics such as Shelley Shannon (attempted murderer of Dr. George Tiller and intimate friend of the killers of Dr. Tiller, Dr. David Gunn, and others). Those words are smug and self-righteous, and it takes a strong stomach to read the sanctimonious justifications of their violent attacks.

Haugeberg criticizes the distinctions often made by scholars and the media between supposedly peaceful arms of the anti-abortion movement such as the CPCs and the terrorists who over three decades have killed eleven people, attempted to kill another 26, and committed close to 2000 acts of arson and vandalism. Violent anti-abortion activists move freely among the various factions of the movement, and their terrorism is virtually never condemned by the national organizations. The actions of female anti-abortion terrorists have met with tepid response by state and federal officials as well. All too often, their repeated violent acts do not lead to criminal charges and rarely result in jail time.

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