Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
the national interest

The Abortion Protest Moral Panic

Why are we freaking out over a few peaceful demonstrations?

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Last night police descended on the home of Senator Susan Collins in response to what Collins apparently regards as a threat. The threat was a message written on the sidewalk in front of her house asking her to support a pro-choice bill in the Senate.

“The message was not overtly threatening,” allows a police spokesman, as though there was some clear, Vito Corleone–esque undertone of menace. The message in fact read, “Susie, please, Mainers want WHPA —> vote yes, clean up your mess.” I would submit that a message delivered via water-soluble chalk, and including the word “please,” is neither overtly nor covertly threatening.

Collins thanked “the Bangor police officers and the city public-works employee who responded to the defacement of public property in front of our home,” who, working in conjunction, were apparently able to erase the message, without needing to call in an FBI tactical anti-chalk squad.

The fact this episode even made it into a news story (albeit a local one) and that the story was not about elderly snowflakes is a testament to the hyperventilated response to pro-choice protests. Yesterday, rumors that Justice Samuel Alito was forced to flee his home — the source of which turned out to be a right-wing law professor repeating something he thought he saw on Twitter somewhere — was repeated in numerous national news stories. Congress rushed to pass a bill enhancing personal security for the justices.

Moral panics often grow out of real problems, but stripped of any sense of proportion or context. In this case, the base concern about protests staged at the homes of their targets is legitimate. Protesting at the home of a public figure is a moral gray area. Such protests are clearly permitted by the First Amendment, but they also create the potential for menace. In a huge country swimming in guns, public figures have a good reason not to draw attention or regular crowds to their homes. Protests intended to be peaceful can easily provide inadvertent cover for a single armed maniac. There is no reason why a demonstration needs to be held on a street on front of a house when public spaces can accommodate much bigger crowds without a hint of menace.

However, this tactic is not new. Picketers have regularly appeared at the homes of both Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (from the left) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (from the right.) Needless to say, anti-abortion protesters have spent decades staging confrontations at clinics, sometimes giving cover for violent terrorists.

The sins of one side do not justify sins by the other. In any case, protesting at a home is a risky and probably counterproductive tactic that activists should stop doing. But the hysterical levels of media attention to a handful of protests, and the spread of false rumors surrounding them, requires some broader explanation. I see three factors at work.

First is a desire by conservatives to make the focus of the Roe v. Wade story something other than the policy implications of the Court’s forthcoming decision. Republicans leaders have spelled out their fear that an unpopular ruling to overturn Roe will shake up an otherwise favorable midterm election. The protests are simply serving the same function that the leak served last week — giving Republicans something to talk about other than banning abortion.

Second is a desire by conservatives to give the Supreme Court a special sanctity. Having gained generational control over the courts, the right’s objective now is to ensure that its legitimacy is not questioned. The idea that Brett Kavanaugh does not deserve the kind of treatment Pelosi has to endure is a knock-on effect of this belief system.

Third, and most important, the episode reveals once again the asymmetrical commitment between the two parties to upholding institutions and norms. Republicans have welcomed violent extremists into their coalition, their candidates for office frequently brandish firearms in their ads, and the party no longer treats the peaceful transfer of power as a baseline requirement. It is impossible to imagine Republicans giving anything close to the display of unanimous support Democrats supplied in response to the protests against the Court.

Ted Cruz, who has apologized profusely for having previously denounced the insurrectionists, last night described the peaceful protesters outside Samuel Alito’s home as “goons” while in the same breath describing the January 6 protests as peaceful. It is a perfect display of the imbalance at work.

Many progressives complained when the Biden administration denounced threats and vandalism and said judges should not have to fear for their personal safety. The problem here is not the Democratic Party’s institutional commitment to upholding democratic norms, but the Republican Party’s lack thereof.

The Abortion Protest Moral Panic