The blogs are fairly abuzz with discussions about George Tiller, a late-term abortionist from Kansas who was murdered yesterday by one Phillip Roeder, a radical anti-abortionist. The aftermath of this incident is somewhat predictable. Pro-life groups are scrambling to disassociate themselves from any connection to or endorsement of such action while pro-abortion lobbys have a solid platform to decry their opponents as insane, violent extremists.
However, amidst all this there is some very interesting moral debate taking place. As William Saletan asks, if abortion really is the mass murder of innocent human beings, can we really say that Roeder was wrong for taking action? Damon Linker sounds a similar note:
If abortion truly is what the pro-life movement says it is — if it is the infliction of deadly violence against an innocent and defenseless human being — then doesn’t morality demand that pro-lifers act in any way they can to stop this violence? I mean, if I believed that a guy working in an office down the street was murdering innocent and defenseless human beings every day, and the governing authorities repeatedly refused to intervene on behalf of the victims, I might feel compelled to do something about it, perhaps even something unreasonable and irresponsible. Wouldn’t you?
Rod Dreher claims that the reason pro-lifers shouldn’t be out murdering abortionists is for prudential reasons. Citing the examples of MLK, the abolition of slavery, and things like that, Dreher claims that violence simply isn’t a good way for pro-lifers to achieve their ends. At the end its a question of pragmatism.
This, to my mind seems a pretty weak attempt to find a way out of the logical trap that Linker has sprung on pro-lifers. Sure, violence might not be the best way to effect long-term social change, but if this issue is really one of life and death, such claims can’t get us out of the seriousness of the situation presented. Even if Roeder’s actions might have been ineffectual by Dreher’s pragmatic standards, that can hardly mean they were wrong.
In short, there is no reason to morally condemn the actions taken by Roeder unless one adopts a pretty serious pacifist position regarding the issue of violence. If violence is morally justified in defense of the lives of innocent human beings, and if fetuses are innocent human lives, one cannot say that murdering abortionists in an attempt to keep them from performing an abortion — and the murder of Tiller definitely accomplished this — is immoral.
As such, I submit that there is no consistent way to be pro-life and at the same time condemn the murder of abortionists — unless one is a pacifist. Only if you truly believe that violent action cannot be morally used in the service of life and peace does it make sense for pro-lifers to condemn murdering abortionists. And to my knowledge and experience, the majority of pro-lifers, at least in America, are quite hawkish and would never be caught dabbling in pacifism. This majority brand of the pro-life position is rightly caught in a moral conundrum. They have no consistent moral ground to oppose violence against abortionists so long as they affirm the morality of any and all defensive violence. As such, you can’t be a consistent as a pro-life condemner of actions like Roeder’s unless you are a pacifist.
This is a great difficulty, not only for conservative pro-lifers by for advocates of Christian pacifism. For, as Dan has recently pointed out, the very possibility of nonviolence is quite hard to establish. And, if then the choice is not between violence and nonviolence, but between two violences, which are we to choose? And how, on these grounds could the actions of Roeder be condemned?