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The three tunnels

Ways to oppose abortion

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My favorite childhood movie, The Great Escape (1963), portrays an escape by Allied prisoners of war from a German POW camp. The prisoners dig three tunnels simultaneously, calling them Tom, Dick, and Harry: When guards discover Tom, the tunnel farthest along, the prisoners intensify their alternative efforts.

From the pro-life perspective, America has been in a prison camp ever since 1973, when a Supreme Court majority overrode state laws and legalized abortion throughout the land. Since then the court has killed attempts by state legislatures to tear down the prison walls and fences. Occasionally, the court has allowed removal of a watchtower.

Abortion opponents have responded in three ways. Tunnel Tom: Elect pro-life legislators, pass laws, appoint the right judges. Tunnel Dick: Picket, blockade, or destroy abortion centers, or (at the very rare extreme) shoot abortionists. Tunnel Harry: Give compassionate counseling and help to women surprised by pregnancy, create “a culture of life.”

From the pro-life perspective, America has been in a prison camp ever since 1973.

Each of those three tunnels has had faithful diggers. I don’t want to disparage the sacrifices most diggers have made. Still, I’ve just published a short book on where we are now, Abortion at the Crossroads, that traces the history of all three tunnels. I’ve found that people frustrated at Tunnel Tom’s slow pace sometimes head over to Tunnel Dick, but that often makes things worse.

Operation Rescue from 1988 to 1990 led to 40,000 arrests for blocking abortion center entrances. Its leaders claimed to have saved many lives. But it also led to a big jump in the percentage of Americans approving of abortion, and that would cost the lives of many more.

It got worse in 1993 when Michael Griffin, whom The New York Times called “a fundamentalist Christian and a loner with a bad temper,” shot and killed an abortionist. The Los Angeles Times exulted: “The killing of Dr. David Gunn … has flattened the anti-abortion movement.” In 1994 Paul Hill in Florida killed abortionist John Britton and Britton’s bodyguard. Joe Scheidler, the mighty pro-life tunneler who died this January, opposed such action: “Hill took two lives that could have been changed.”

Matt Waters of Care Net, the umbrella group for pro-life pregnancy centers, called Hill’s action “absolutely negative” for the pro-life cause: Abortion advocates “raise money off of bulletproof vests. It’s a fundraiser for them—a tragedy for us.” One result that year: The U.S. Supreme Court let stand an injunction that kept demonstrators at least 36 feet away from an abortion center. Violence made sidewalk counseling and other nonviolent interventions much more difficult.

As politicians and judges hog-tied pro-life activists, some fiction writers went to town depicting pro-lifers as crazy. In 1994, at the nadir of the pro-life movement, Stephen King came out with Insomnia, which focuses on murderous pro-lifers. Viking printed 1.5 million copies: Insomnia was the No. 1 bestseller in the United States for three weeks.

Many readers that year saw three King pro-life characters as believable. One, Ed, is a wife-beater whose laughter is “a jagged little sound that made Ralph [the novel’s hero] think of rats dancing on broken glass.” The second character, Daniel Dalton, speaks on a television news show with “dour, jut-jawed determination. … His eyes glowed in his long, lean face … nervously snapping his suspenders like big red rubber bands, [he] looked a few sandwiches shy of a picnic.”

The third major pro-life character, Charlie Pickering, has eyes that “floated like strange fish. The expression in them was disconnected and oddly frightened. … The man’s mouth pulled up in a jerky, humorless smile. Flecks of spittle clung to the corners of his lips.” Pickering sets fire to an abortion center, murders its workers, and yells, “Barbecue all Godless women!”

Abraham Lincoln once said, “In this country, public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail. Against it, nothing can succeed.” Abortion center blockades and shootings, and Stephen King propaganda, contributed to the highest percentage of Americans ever—56 percent—calling themselves “pro-choice.” Tunnel Dick in the 1990s was filled with rubble.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books: His latest is Abortion at the Crossroads. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas.



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Another reason I'm cancelling my World subscription; I don't need to read a polemic against Operation Rescue. You say, "I don’t want to disparage the sacrifices most diggers have made," and then do exactly that. I'll spend the time I would have on reading World (and being disappointed by its compromises) reading Randy Alcorn.