Letting Bill Clinton Off Easy
When I saw the popular YouTube clip of pro-life protestors from Franciscan University of Steubenville interrupting Bill Clinton’s speech at a campaign rally in their town this week, my first reaction wasn’t the satisfaction that was registered all over the Catholic blogosphere—at either their audacity or Clinton’s cherry-faced loss of aplomb. Instead I felt chagrin, tinged with sadness for a lost opportunity.
I’m sure the protestors were well-meaning. Given their university’s reputation for doctrinal orthodoxy (and here I’m assuming that the protestors in the video were, in fact, from the Steubenville pro-life group), I’m sure their activity was motivated by genuine horror at the silent violence of abortion, and a burning desire to let the world know that politically correct jargon won’t obscure for them the daily reality of that atrocity. Perhaps they did pray together before the speech—for Clinton, for their mission, for unborn children, and for the softening of hearts—as Bill Christensen pointed out in his post about the video.
Yet I think advocates of abortion, whether staunch or tentative, could take only one message from the protest. What they saw, I’m afraid, was exactly what I did: a convenient reinforcement of the pro-life stereotype: self-righteous, obtrusive and shrill, instead of rational, charitable and nuanced—an approach easy to dismiss.
I winced when I watched the clip. Not only did Bill Clinton succeed in putting words in their mouths, when he charged them with wanting to criminalize women who have abortions, but the national media’s spin on the event was mostly in favor of Clinton and against the protestors.
Have we come no farther in our battle against abortion than poster-waving, with slogans that reflect merely a keen sense of the obvious? Not a few abortion proponents will readily acknowledge that “abortion kills children,” as the main sign shouted; scores of confessionals reveal that women who have abortions know instinctively that the procedure will destroy their baby. They acknowledge it, and they shrug, or they despair and proceed anyway.
That “anyway” should be at the crux of our pro-life effort; we must seek to provoke not more reaction but more reflection—a quickening not only of consciences—as critical as that is—but of hope-filled alternatives to abortion that imply generous sacrifices of our own.
Emerson wrote that sometimes a scream is better than a thesis, and I’m sure there are many who believe that restraint is inappropriate in the face of sheer evil. I wonder, though, if there’s a middle ground we can find here between the timid and the brazen—a voice both inviting and prophetic as it advocates for life.
What if the clip’s viewers could hear, from the pro-life side, not raucous shouts, but a torrent of pointedly well-crafted questions for Clinton, questions that demonstrated careful reasoning, self-control, and inspiring conviction? What if, instead of overt disruption followed by smug, self-congratulatory applause from the pro-choice audience, they saw hundreds of pro-life students kneeling in prayer at the lecture hall? If signs needed to be waved, what about the pro-life movement’s more thought-provoking slogans: “Your mom chose life;” “Some choices are wrong,” “Abortion: one dead, one wounded.”
Perhaps the praying students and the more thoughtful signs and posters were there; perhaps there were even better responses. I have only this video clip of the incident on which to base my perceptions… but so does the rest of the world.