On May 10, PBS hosted a town hall conversation about gun violence and faith in America and invited anti-choice extremist Troy Newman to participate. During the town hall, PBS and host Michel Martin failed to identify Newman’s history of extremism and allowed him to downplay his organization’s role in harassing abortion providers.
Newman is the long-serving president of Operation Rescue and is best known for his ties to extreme anti-choice groups and history of harassing abortion providers with violent rhetoric. A 2014 Rolling Stone profile called Newman “one of the nation's most prominent anti-abortion activists.” His reputation is so infamous that in 2015 Australia deported Newman out of concern that his “presence would be ‘a threat to good order’” and that he would “compromise the safety and wellbeing” of abortion providers and those seeking care.
A number of reproductive rights groups warned PBS that giving Newman a national platform to “whitewash” his history of anti-choice extremism was “not only irresponsible” but also “downright frightening and potentially dangerous.” NARAL Pro-Choice America senior vice president Sasha Bruce argued that given the unprecedented uptick in anti-choice violence over the past year, “PBS should be ashamed of itself for giving weight to Troy Newman's dangerous opinions."
Despite all of this, PBS provided Newman a platform to downplay his history of anti-choice extremism -- and that’s exactly what he did.
At the beginning of the town hall, Martin identified Newman as the “president of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue” with no explanation of the group’s extreme history or current work. For the rest of the town hall Newman was identified on screen exclusively as a “Presbyterian Minister” with no further mention of Operation Rescue.
Similarly, at the conclusion of the town hall, Martin allowed Newman to spread misinformation about the safety of abortion and mischaracterize Operation Rescue’s goal of ending patient access to the procedure. In his final remarks, Newman claimed that because of abortion, “the most dangerous place to be in America today is in the womb.” Martin did not challenge Newman, allowing him to continue that Operation Rescue’s goal is to “close abortion clinics through peaceful non-violent means”:
TROY NEWMAN: I have to say yes and amen to that. Preach it. I will continue to do what I have done for the past 25 years and that is advocate for the least of these among us. We talk about violence. The most violent place or the most dangerous place to be in America today is in the womb. Over 1 million babies die from abortion. And I will continue to advocate for their lives. And you talk about beating your swords into plowshares, what we do is we close abortion clinics through peaceful non-violent means, so that’s what I will continue to do. I will continue to preach non-violence everywhere it rears its ugly head. And I would just close by saying this: I so appreciate this forum, I appreciate all of you, I appreciate the discourse.
Although Newman has claimed Operation Rescue is peaceful, this characterization ignores the organization’s history and current pattern of harassment against abortion providers.
For example, in 1987, Operation Rescue vice president Cheryl Sullenger was sentenced to prison for conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic. Sullenger also communicated with Scott Roeder, the convicted assassin of Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, providing him information about Tiller's schedule and location.
Far from Newman’s characterization, Rolling Stone’s profile explained Operation Rescue’s strategy as a “smear campaign … to shut down abortion clinics by systematically harassing their employees into quitting.” The article said Operation Rescue members “rummage through employees’ garbage … tail them around town as they run errands … picket clinic staffers at restaurants while they’re inside having dinner and castigate them while they’re in line at Starbucks.”
Newman also told Rolling Stone that he wanted providers and clinic employees to know that, “As long as they're embedded in the abortion industry receiving blood money, they can't live a normal life.” Treating abortion as abnormal or shameful reinforces abortion stigma -- the “shared understanding that abortion is morally wrong and/or socially unacceptable." Abortion is both common and overwhelmingly safe, but Newman’s demonization of abortion providers is part of a larger strategy by anti-choice groups to “exploit the stigma of abortion” in order to deter patients from accessing this essential health care service.
By failing to identify Newman’s history or call out the extreme nature of his anti-choice views, PBS and Michel Martin gave him a free platform to stigmatize abortion and normalize the further harassment of abortion providers.