Leading pro-life activists are denouncing yesterday's murder of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller, but I'm not sure I understand why. "It is immoral and it is unchristian," says the Rev. Rob Schenck of the National Clergy Council. Calling the killing "a cowardly act," Operation Rescue President Troy Newman says his group "has worked tirelessly on peaceful, nonviolent measures to bring [Tiller] to justice through the legal system, the legislative system....We are pro-life, and this act was antithetical to what we believe."

Yet if you honestly believe abortion is the murder of helpless children, it's hard to see why using deadly force against those who carry it out is immoral, especially since the government refuses to act. It may be unwise or counterproductive to the cause, as Schenck suggests when he worries that the killing could be "a greater setback to the pro-life movement than anything the so-called pro-choice movement could do." Promoting an image of pro-life activists as murderous extremists might dim the prospects for legislation restricting abortion, thereby leading to more deaths of unborn children than eliminating one abortionist prevents. But this is a tactical question that does not have to do with the inherent morality of killing in defense of innocent children.

Nor is it sufficient to note that killing Tiller was against the law. When the law blesses the murder of babies, it is hardly worthy of respect, any more than laws blessing the enslavement of Africans or the gassing of Jews were, and violent resistance against such enactments surely is justified in principle. Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry implicitly condemns Tiller's murder, saying, "We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God." Yet Terry continues to call Tiller a "mass murderer" and insists "the pro-life movement must not be browbeaten by Obama or the child-killers into surrendering our best rhetoric, actions and images," adding, "We hold absolutely no responsibility for [Tiller's] death."

The less militant anti-abortion organizations embrace a similar contradiction. Here is National Right to Life's statement:

National Right to Life extends its sympathies to Dr. Tiller's family over this loss of life.

Further, the National Right to Life Committee unequivocally condemns any such acts of violence regardless of motivation. The pro-life movement works to protect the right to life and increase respect for human life. The unlawful use of violence is directly contrary to that goal.

As I said, killing abortionists may be contrary to that goal for tactical reasons. But how is it possible to believe that fetuses are people with a right to life yet also believe that using deadly force to defend that right is wrong?