During debate last weekend on the health care bill, Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) yelled out "It's a baby killer!" on the House floor and, in doing so, joined legions who have invoked this powerful defamation. American University professor Allan Lichtman says the phrase holds a prominent place in the catalog of public accusations.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: During debate last weekend on the Health Care Bill, Republican Congressman Randy Neugebauer of Texas yelled out, “It’s a baby killer” on the House floor. Later he said that he was referring to the bill itself, not Representative Bart Stupak, a Democrat of Michigan who was then speaking at the podium. Nevertheless, it quickly generated headlines as one of history’s most notable legislative outbursts. Of course, Neugebauer joins legions of those who have invoked this powerful defamation. American University professor Allan Lichtman says that the phrase holds a prominent place in the catalog of public accusations.
ALLAN LICHTMAN: That's right. Even as applied to so-called abortionists, the term “baby killer” dates back at least to eighteen-hundred and ninety-four (1894) in the United States. In that year, the Associated Press published a story about a raid on the office of alleged abortionists. Of course, in those days abortion was illegal, and they called the abortionists “the baby killers.” And the story was extremely lurid, although brief, and it talked about finding dead babies on the floor of the office and condemned the unnamed, unknown perpetrators as the baby killers of 1894. So sensationalizing the whole issue, the sensitive emotional issue of abortion, is absolutely nothing new. It dates back well over 100 years in American history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, of course, the use of the phrase “baby killer” isn't limited to abortion. In the early 20th century you say that peddlers of patent medicines were sometimes called baby killers. How come?
ALLAN LICHTMAN: Public health reformers in the early 20th century, around the year 1910, launched a campaign against these patent medicines, you know, Dr. Cure-All’s Magic Elixir, because it turned out that a lot of these were quite toxic and were at least implicated in the deaths of babies. And these patent medicines were damned as “the baby killers.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it sounds like these patent medicines were killing babies. Prohibitionists also used the term?
ALLAN LICHTMAN: Prohibitionists in the early 20th century called the saloon “the baby killer.” And, of course, the reference here was indirect. The argument was that the saloon contributed to turning good husbands into bad husbands, making them wife beaters, even child beaters, causing them to lose their jobs, to break up their families, and all of these things could ultimately result in the deaths of babies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it’s a phrase [LAUGHS] that has seen repeated service during wartime. Many of us can remember – at least there were reports of antiwar activists yelling “baby killer” at returning Vietnam vets. It’s also been used by government propaganda units in the military to demonize the enemy. We can start with Winston Churchill during the First World War.
ALLAN LICHTMAN: Winston Churchill, then head of the British Navy, seized on the naval bombardment of the town of Scarborough to brand the Germans as “the baby killers of Scarborough.” Of course, the Germans responded, [LAUGHS] well look, the British are blockading Germany, they're depriving us of medicines and foodstuffs and maybe indirectly killing far more babies, but somehow the idea of blowing babies to bits in bombardment had more resonance. And there were stories of Germans singing and laughing and bayoneting children in the streets. An iconic image of the war that demonized the Germans was the image of a young child with his hands cut off. Now, the Germans did kill a lot of civilians, and undoubtedly the British blockade did too, but these particular atrocity stories were later shown to be false and, again, were part of the demonization of the enemy and the attempt to whip up public opinion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The accusation of baby killing resurfaced during the Second World War, and once again in 1991. In the run-up to the first Gulf War, there was a young woman who appeared before a kind of unofficial congressional committee to talk about Iraqis seizing babies from Kuwaiti incubators in Kuwait City and dashing them to the ground.
NAYIRAH: While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come in to hospital with guns. [CRYING] They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators and left the children to die on the cold floor.
ALLAN LICHTMAN: Congresspersons repeated the story. President George H. W. Bush repeated the story.
PRESIDENT GEORGE H. W. BUSH: Kids in incubators and they were thrown out of the incubators, so that Kuwait could be systematically dismantled.
ALLAN LICHTMAN: Amnesty International picked up on the story. Later it was shown this young woman was an absolute plant. She was a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family, and she was the daughter of the ambassador to the United States. She had not been a nurse in a hospital. She had not witnessed any of these events. These events were pure fabrications planted by the Kuwaiti Royal Family, obviously, who had a great interest in the United States intervening to drive out the Iraqis and restore royal control over Kuwait.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And they did it with the assistance of the American public relations firm Hill & Knowlton.
ALLAN LICHTMAN: Hill & Knowlton planned the campaign, with the explicit aim of getting the United States to go into war. And it worked.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, it strikes me that another altogether different context in which “baby killer” is used as an accusation is in the mid-1970s against the Nestle Corporation. In that case, there are actual dead babies involved.
ALLAN LICHTMAN: Absolutely, and in this case the accusations were that by marketing formula in the Third World for babies and essentially discouraging breastfeeding, Nestle Corporation was contributing to the ill health, and indeed, if indirectly, to the documented deaths of many babies. There was a pamphlet that was published called “The Baby Killers” directly relating to Nestle’s operations in the Third World, and the publicity was quite devastating.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bringing this back to abortion, more recently Dr. George Tiller, who performed abortions and was murdered by an anti-abortion activist, was nicknamed “Tiller, the Baby Killer,” and it was a phrase that was often repeated by Bill O’Reilly on The O’Reilly Factor.
BILL O’REILLY: Dr. George Tiller, known as “Tiller, the Baby Killer” as some call him, the notorious Tiller, the baby killer.
BILL O’REILLY: I wanted George Tiller, Tiller, the Baby Killer, going, hey!
BILL O’REILLY: If you want to kill a baby, you hire Tiller. You got to pay him 5,000 upfront, and he’ll kill the baby.
ALLAN LICHTMAN: Certainly when you call a particular individual a baby killer that is definitely an incitement to vigilante action, because you’re essentially placing them outside the pale of our common humanity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what should we think when we hear the term being used?
ALLAN LICHTMAN: We should think that this is not an appropriate term for political dialog. You foreclose the possibility of any kind of reason or negotiation. Back in 1979, when Nellie Gray, the founder of the March for Life, was approached to try to reach some kind of compromise with the pro-choice movement, she responded, “I do not sit down and negotiate with baby killers.” This argument is not about whether one side or another is more pro-life, that is, cherishes life more. Both sides, we can say, cherish life. The difference is a fundamentally core, unresolvable dispute about when life begins.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Allan, thank you very much.
ALLAN LICHTMAN: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Allan Lichtman is a professor of history at American University in Washington D.C.