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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1. The dawn of cyberwar. 2. Don't smoke pot; vaporize  it. 3. An ad for drinking recycled urine.)

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