Is it wrong to murder an abortionist?

Science, technology, and life.
June 1 2009 2:44 PM

Tiller's Killer

Is it wrong to murder an abortionist?

Photograph of George Tiller.
George Tiller 

If abortion is murder, the most efficient thing you could have done to prevent such murders this month was to kill George Tiller.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

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.

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To me, Tiller was brave. His work makes me want to puke. But so does combat, the kind where guts are spilled and people choke on their own blood. I like to think I love my country and would fight for it. But I doubt I have the stomach to pull the trigger, much less put my life on the line.

Several years ago, I went to a conference of abortionists. Some of the late-term providers were there. A row of tables displayed forceps for sale. They started small and got bigger and bigger. Walking along the row, you could ask yourself: Would I use these forceps? How about those? Where would I stop?

The people who do late-term abortions 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-choice. You think marching or phone-banking makes you an activist. You know nothing. There's you, and then there are the people who work in the clinics. And then there are the people who use the forceps. And then there are the people who use the forceps nobody else will use. At the end of the line, there's George Tiller.

Now he's gone. Who will pick up his forceps?

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. According to the Washington Post, Roeder told other pro-lifers that he condoned deadly violence to stop abortions. He admired the Army of God's "Defensive Action Statement," which endorses the murder of abortion providers on the grounds that "whatever force is legitimate to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child."

Is that statement wrong? 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.

So is Roeder getting support from the nation's leading pro-life groups? Not a bit. They have roundly denounced the murder. The National Right to Life Committee says it opposes "any form of violence to fight the violence of abortion," preferring instead "to work through educational and legislative activities to ensure the right to life for unborn children, people with disabilities and older people." Americans United for Life agrees that it was wrong to kill Tiller because "the foundational right to life that our work is dedicated to extends to everyone."