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Abortion Violence Forces Moderates To Redefine Goals

Mon., Jan. 16, 1995

These are not haters or screamers. Most never have been on a picket line or joined “human chains” of protesters surrounding family planning clinics where abortions are done. This is the mainstream of the pro-life movement.

You feel their weariness. Among some, there’s a yearning for peace. Among all, there’s frustration and the feeling they’ve been made to look like nut cases - by the media, by fanatics and, occasionally, by their own leaders.

But since a young hairdresser named John Salvi shot up three family-planning clinics in Boston and Virginia last month, killing two young women and claiming victory on behalf of abortion opponents, something tangible is changing at the grass-roots heart of the movement, according to some members.

Slowly, tentatively, the recent violence has begun forcing moderates to define themselves and to find ways of demonstrating that the movement they call “pro-life” is about plenty more than abortion.

Listen and you hear that to them, their position is a protest against a contemporary culture that, they say, reduces life to its basest denominators: convenience and cash. Theirs is the antithesis of the yuppie notion that everything - even the rhythms of life - is under the control of human expediency.

In their way, some “pro-lifers” share themes - the splintering of the human heart and our loss of connection with nature - with environmentalists and pierced-nosed slackers.

Yet, moderate notions are broached hesitantly because of the inflamed passions on both sides. Some complain privately that one’s stand on abortion can be, in some quarters, a litmus test of one’s politics. And in that climate, moderates can feel intimidated.

“Just by my comments, I can offend both sides,” said Barb Koenig, a San Jose, Calif., homemaker and mother of two children.

Nearly all dismiss Salvi’s behavior as “unbalanced,” the act of “a madman.”

“It makes us look like a bunch of lunatics,” said Koenig. “Obviously, if you are pro-life, you believe that life is a gift from God and that we don’t have a right to destroy it.”

And yet, while they deplore the Salvis and Paul Hills, who fatally shot a doctor and an escort at a Florida clinic last July, they save their worst anger for the media.

“There is such a stereotype” on television and in newspapers of those who oppose abortion, said the Rev. Albert J. Soto, pastor of the Family Life Center in San Jose. “The image of the religious right is of ignorant, insensitive, self-serving individuals.”

Many Americans form their impressions from the oversimplified caricatures presented by the media’s attention to the extremes, these abortion opponents say. Reporters find it easier - and in some ways more certain - to gravitate toward spokesmen who use exaggerated rhetoric to make themselves heard above the din of public discourse. This habit, coupled with the shootings, polarizes efforts by moderates to discuss the issue, they say.

They are left feeling alienated, defiant and resentful, dismissed as violent extremists.

“When pro-lifers see that kind of unbalanced treatment, it makes them even more committed to their cause and even more convinced that the world around them simply won’t listen,” said Helen Alvare, pro-life planning and information director for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Now, a movement that began in churches is being tainted by criminals, some members fear. But that violence shows signs of pushing the movement to explore new directions.

Like winter creeks converging on a river, the opinions of some mainstream abortion opponents seem to be gathering around the idea that their movement should be known for principles of personal and societal responsibility.

It is time, said Cathy Miller of South San Jose, Calif., to emphasize service to families, pregnant women and unplanned children over the angry, judgmental clinic confrontations.

Miller, a 39-year-old psychology student at Santa Clara University and parent of two, believes that abortion is murder.

But she also believes abortion is less a political issue than a spiritual issue.

“We get caught up in these judgments, and we miss the opportunity to just be there for somebody,” she said.

The recent shootings made her think about how people from the middle of both factions could work together.

“It would be great,” she imagined, “to see honest counseling. Or housing.”

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