Reckless Anti-Abortion Rhetoric

Protected speech.

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Connecting political rhetoric to acts of terrorism is a dicey business, easily subverted by ideological or partisan agendas. In a nation that not only encourages but requires robust freedom of expression to nurture a dynamic culture, condemnation of political speech should be a last resort. Yet political actors who aspire to leadership should honor that freedom by taking the trouble to speak responsibly.

At a Republican presidential debate in September, Carly Fiorina described a video of a Planned Parenthood clinic: “Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’” No such video exists. Yet Fiorina has continued to conduct herself as if it does, facts be damned.

In crossing that line, however, she had company. Chris Christie has condemned Hillary Clinton for supporting the “systematic murder of children in the womb to preserve their body parts.” Mike Huckabee carried that metaphor further, attacking a practice that sells fetuses “like they’re parts to a Buick.”

Abortion is an issue that divides Americans along fundamental principles. Opponents of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, and of the millions of abortions it has made legal, have every right to denounce that decision in passionate language.

But when political leaders falsely equate fetal tissue research -- a morally and scientifically complex effort to advance medical discovery -- with the commercial sale of baby parts, they do nothing to support public debate.

We don't know what specifically inspired the gruesome shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs last week. But the setting should surprise no one. Other abortion providers have been targeted, shot and killed. Kansas doctor George Tiller, a regular subject of lurid accusations in conservative media, was murdered in 2009.

Abortion is not the only cause capable of inspiring violence. In the 1970s, leftist radicals similarly armed with righteousness killed in the name of justice. This week in Chicago, authorities arrested a 21-year-old man accused of plotting mass murder to avenge the shooting death of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police. Perhaps the accused reached that decision in isolation. Or perhaps his rage was inflamed by violent rhetoric. We can't know precisely what pushes an unstable mind over the edge.

Political culture doesn't exist in a test tube. It lives and evolves in the real world, and it is influenced by the expressions and actions of the day. Political opinions should not be censored. But responsible citizens can speak freely without distorting the truth, or exploiting passion for political gain.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.