I recently asked: if you believe abortion is murder, what is the difference between killing George Tiller and killing Osama bin Laden? William Saletan has an article that explores the moral issues raised by my question (although he does not explore the parallel to Osama). Saletan’s piece opens provocatively:
If abortion is murder, the most efficient thing you could have done to prevent such murders this month was to kill George Tiller.
Tiller was the country’s bravest or most ruthless abortion provider, depending on how you saw him. The pregnancies he ended were the latest of the late. If your local clinic said you were too far along, and they sent you to a late-term provider who said you were too late even for her, Tiller was your last shot. If Tiller said no, you were going to have a baby, or a dying baby, or a stillbirth, or whatever nature and circumstance had in store for you.
Saletan viewed Tiller as brave. I agree, but I also agreed with Bill Maher that the 9/11 terrorists were brave. Morally despicable, but brave. Labeling as “cowards” people who put their lives on the line for what they believe in, to me, renders the word “coward” essentially meaningless.
Me, I condemn the murder of Tiller — but unlike Saletan, I don’t agree with what he did. But I don’t consider it murder, and Saletan’s piece addresses those who do, asking: if you condemn his murder, do you really consider abortion to be murder? Because, as Saletan explains, Tiller wasn’t really fungible. Late-term abortion providers don’t grow on trees, and murdering him may actually prevent a lot of abortions:
Tiller’s murder is different from all previous murders of abortion providers. If you kill an ordinary abortionist, somebody else will step in. But if you kill the guy at the end of the line, some of his patients won’t be able to find an alternative. You will have directly prevented abortions.
That seems to be what Tiller’s alleged assassin, Scott Roeder, had in mind. . . . .
. . . . Is it wrong to defend the life of an unborn child as you would defend the life of a born child? Because that’s the question this murder poses. Peaceful pro-lifers have already tried to prosecute Tiller for doing late-term abortions they claimed were against the law. They failed to convict him. If unborn children are morally equal to born children, then Tiller’s assassin has just succeeded where the legal system failed: He has stopped a mass murderer from killing again.
The interesting part, as Saletan notes, is that pro-life groups aren’t supporting Roeder’s actions. They are roundly condemning them, as they should.
I applaud these statements. They affirm the value of life and nonviolence, two principles that should unite us. But they don’t square with what these organizations purport to espouse: a strict moral equation between the unborn and the born. If a doctor in Kansas were butchering hundreds of old or disabled people, and legal authorities failed to intervene, I doubt most members of the National Right to Life Committee would stand by waiting for “educational and legislative activities” to stop him. Somebody would use force.
When I raised the question, most anti-abortion absolutists here explained that they wouldn’t have murdered Tiller because of their respect for the law. But Saletan takes issue with that defense, raising a very interesting point:
The reason these pro-life groups have held their fire, both rhetorically and literally, is that they don’t really equate fetuses with old or disabled people. They oppose abortion, as most of us do. But they don’t treat abortionists the way they’d treat mass murderers of the old or disabled. And this self-restraint can’t simply be chalked up to nonviolence or respect for the law. Look up the bills these organizations have written, pushed, or passed to restrict abortions. I challenge you to find a single bill that treats a woman who procures an abortion as a murderer. They don’t even propose that she go to jail.
If abortion is really murder, why wouldn’t proposed laws target the mother as well?
Ultimately, Saletan suggests that many anti-abortion absolutists aren’t really as absolutist as they claim to be:
The people who kill abortion providers are the ones who don’t flinch. They’re like the veterans you sometimes see in war documentaries, quietly recounting what they faced and did. You think you’re pro-life. You tell yourself that abortion is murder. Maybe you even say that when a pollster calls. But like most of the other people who say such things in polls, you don’t mean it literally. There’s you, and then there are the people who lock arms outside the clinics. And then there are the people who bomb them. And at the end of the line, there’s the guy who killed George Tiller.
If you don’t accept what he did, then maybe it’s time to ask yourself what you really believe. Is abortion murder? Or is it something less, a tragedy that would be better avoided? Most of us think it’s the latter. We’re looking for ways to prevent abortions—not just a few this month, but millions down the line—without killing or prosecuting people. Come and join us.
I don’t sign on to this conclusion wholly, because I believe I am far more anti-abortion than Saletan, and far more disgusted by late-term abortions — at least those done for reasons of convenience, which are the majority of such abortions, the propaganda to the contrary notwithstanding. I condemn what Tiller did, which was to end the lives of babies whose mothers’ lives often were not at risk, at a point in time when those babies were no longer undeveloped fetuses, but rather babies.
But I’m torn, as I always have been about abortion. I’m not an absolutist. I’m not sure I consider what he did murder, the same as if Tiller had been an ongoing mass murderer of grown humans. I think if such a mass murderer existed, and the law were powerless to stop them, people would not be condemning the murder of the murderer — just as most of you would not condemn the murder of Osama bin Laden.
Where am I wrong? As always, be extra polite in discussing this very sensitive issue.