A common sentiment from antiabortion activists is the juxtaposition of what they want versus what the clinic staff and volunteers want. For example, Gerry McWilliams, an incorrigible protester at Allentown Womens Center, is fond of saying to women as they cross the parking lot with clinic escorts (who wear green AWC vests), “We want your baby to live. Those people in the green vests want your baby to die.” It’s a perfect example of a logical fallacy in public debates on politics, ethics, and religion. As a straw man, this protester attacks a position not held by the other side (in fact, staff and escorts respect what women want), then acts as though the other side’s (the escorts in the vests) position has been refuted. This straw man is easy to defeat and is a sign of a weak, desperate man who knows he is losing. It’s also an indication that the woman is symbolically dismissed.
The notorious Flip Benham, Director of Operation Save America, writes about abortion in an ironic twist “there are no cheap political solutions to the holocaust presently ravaging our nation” (operationsaveamerica web site). Yet, outside the Hebron, NC clinic, he uses cheap political solutions that are grotesque, bordering on pornographic. Standing on a raised platform, he uses a bullhorn to broadcast to women entering the clinic “the devil inside that door will drink the blood of your child.” Again, the appeal is for the sensational and the want of the fetus. It’s not about what the woman wants. She is symbolically dismissed as unimportant.
When prolife pundit Abby Johnson tells her story on college campuses about why she resigned her position at Planned Parenthood, she appeals to emotions. Claiming to have witnessed an ultrasound-guided abortion that horrified her, she claims she was compelled to cross over to the prolife side. Of course, she obscures the fact that she was about to get fired. She also fails to mention the money she earns for her new-found celebrity status. But that’s another story. In telling her story over and over, she attempts to create a logically coherent narrative to convince her audiences that abortion is wrong. But, like others who just don’t get it, she ignores the very reality that abortion is right for one out of every three women of reproductive age. She, too, ignores these women.
Another common prolife sentiment, especially among the women, is talk about life being precious. A tender-hearted Lutheran minister in Allentown, PA, suggested these women just loved babies. They prattle on with what is essentially their own desires, “Love your baby” or “Life is precious. Don’t kill your baby” or “Give your baby up for adoption. It’s the selfless thing to do.” But their suggestion of adoption as a selfless option fails to consider the documented disadvantages of adoption. It fails to recognize that life’s preciousness can and should mean the concerns of the woman who is considering her options with an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy. But for these prolife women, symbolically dismissing the pregnant women, while favoring “the babies” is simply what they do best.
At clinics across the nation, antiabortion activists stand on sidewalks and streets with signs that 1) not only make it easy for women to locate the clinics (because they are warned about the trolls) but 2) illustrate their own obsessions and utter disregard for the very women they hope to attract. They use grotesque fetal images that exploit fetal death, that strip any human dignity from the fetus, and that turn death into leering pornography. These faux moralists cheapen their brand when they stigmatize women through grotesque imagery and powerful language of condemnation. Their monster talk is convenient. It frees them from thinking about the sacredness of women. And with predictable frequency, the protesters create a circus of the bizarre for women and their companions, with performances of religiosity, banal rituals of fear mongering, and social repudiation directed at women and their companions. And while they claim to direct their efforts toward women, in reality, they are simply performing acts of self-righteousness while ignoring what women want. In other words, they symbolically dismiss women in favor of what they want.
It was Gaye Tuchman (1978) who coined the phrase ‘symbolic annihilation’ when she was describing how women were underrepresented or misrepresented in media and society. She divided symbolic annihilation into three aspects: omission, trivialization and condemnation. It is within these aspects that symbolic annihilation is evident in the prolife industry. They omit women’s agency. They trivialize women’s reasons for wanting an abortion. And they certainly condemn women who consider abortion and who choose abortion.
Symbolic annihilation of women through omission, trivialization and condemnation: it’s the hallmark of the antiabortion zealots who care less about the rights of girls and women.