Roeder's Rescue

Why is killing abortionists wrong?


Scott Roeder, whose trial begins this week in Wichita, Kansas, wanted to argue that killing the abortion doctor George Tiller was necessary to prevent a greater evil: the murder of unborn children. Since that is not how the law views what Tiller did for a living, it is not surprising that the judge would not let Roeder present a "necessity" defense.

But it is surprising that so many people who proclaim that fetuses have a right to life reject Roeder's argument out of hand. Killing abortionists may or may not be a good long-term strategy for saving unborn babies, but it is hard to see why the use of deadly force is not morally justified, at least in principle, once you accept the premise that abortion is tantamount to murder.

After Roeder shot Tiller in the doctor's Wichita church last May, anti-abortion groups rushed to condemn the attack. "The National Right to Life Committee unequivocally condemns any such acts of violence regardless of motivation," the organization declared. "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."

The more confrontational Operation Rescue sang the same tune. "Operation Rescue has worked for years through peaceful, legal means, and through the proper channels, to bring [Tiller] to justice," it said. "We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place this morning." The group nevertheless welcomed the resulting closure of Tiller's clinic. Similarly, Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry implicitly condemned Tiller's killing even while continuing to call him a "mass murderer."

Obeying the law is generally a good idea, but there are exceptions. 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 can be justified. A pro-life position does not require pacifism in the face of a murderous assault; it allows and arguably demands the use of force in defense of oneself and others.

That is the logic of the "Defensive Action Statement" formulated in response to the 1993 murder of Florida abortion doctor David Gunn. "Whatever force is legitimate to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child," the 30 activists who signed the statement declared. "If Michael Griffin did in fact kill David Gunn, his use of lethal force was justifiable provided it was carried out for the purpose of defending the lives of unborn children."

It is not clear why Operation Rescue and the National Right to Life Committee reject this argument. Both say they are committed to legal, nonviolent change, but they are hazy as to whether that course is morally mandatory or merely prudent. Perhaps they think it is morally mandatory because it is prudent—i.e., because it is ultimately the most effective way to stop abortion.

A campaign of anti-abortion violence could very well undermine the cause in the long run by alienating the public and inviting legal repression. "It has been said by people I respect that the flurry of violence against abortion clinic personnel and abortionists in the 1990s set our Movement back the better part of a decade," writes Dave Andrusko of the National Right to Life Committee. "In much of the media coverage, the image of pro-lifers as crazed militants was at the expense of much of the work that 99.999999% of us were doing in the legislatures, in the courts, and in crisis pregnancy centers."

But does this bad press mean that Scott Roeder's supporters are indeed "crazed militants"—or, as Operation Rescue President Troy Newman puts it, "loons" and "wing nuts"?  It seems to me they share the moral premises espoused by other anti-abortion activists but disagree about how best to implement them. Either that, or they take seriously what others only pretend to believe.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2010 by Creators Syndicate Inc.