The horrific assassination of Dr. George Tiller is obviously a tragedy for both American women and for those on either side of the abortion debate who care deeply about democracy and civil discourse. At the same time, it is also an unsettling reminder that the hardcore anti-abortion movement in the United States continues its efforts to finesse an inherently untenable position on the subject of anti-abortion violence. Within hours of Tiller’s death, Operation Rescue issued a statement branding the murder a “cowardly act” and deploring vigilantism. However, this same organization has repeatedly described Tiller’s work as “genocide” and a “holocaust”—arguing that no meaningful moral distinction exists between the “murder” of a fetus and the killing of a living human being. I have no way of knowing whether groups such Operation Rescue and the National Right to Life Committee are sincere in their opposition to anti-abortion violence. I do hope that they are. However, as an ethicist, it is difficult to understand how their opposition to anti-abortion violence can be reconciled with their belief that abortion is genocide.
Surely, if one believes that men like George Tiller are perpetrating a holocaust comparable to the mass murders perpetrated by the Nazis, then it is cowardly not to engage in acts of violence to stop them. I recognize that there are a handful of true pacifists in the world who believe unequivocally in the Biblical admonition to turn the other cheek; given the opportunity to kill Adolf Hitler in 1941, and thereby prevent the slaughter of Europe’s Jews, these individuals would draw a line in the sand and refuse. However, I am confident that the vast majority of people would endorse such a killing of Hitler as justifiable homicide—sacrificing one depraved and evil life to save millions of innocent ones. According to this same logic, if fetal lives have the same value as born lives—as the hardcore anti-abortion activists claim—then men like Dr. Tiller’s killer, Scott Philip Roeder, should be hailed as heroes. That is exactly what some anti-abortion extremists, such as Wiley Drake of the American Independence Party, have argued in the wake of Tiller’s death. Drake’s position, while terrifying, is also chillingly logical. It mirrors that of John Brown, the radical abolitionist who raided the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry one hundred fifty years ago, intent upon overthrowing an American government that he viewed as inherently corrupted by its sanctioning of African-American slavery. In contrast, the more “moderate” positions of Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry and the organization’s current president, Troy Newman, are not remotely logical. These individuals should be challenged to reconcile their seemingly inconsistent public view—or warned to temper their rhetoric.
I strongly support a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy, because I do not believe that fetuses possess personhood. However, I acknowledge that well-intentioned people of good faith may feel otherwise: Those who wish to criminalize abortion may believe that fetuses have inherent value, or they may oppose legal abortion for a whole host of other reasons (eg. that legal abortion promotes sexual activity, leads to gender imbalances in the population, etc.) A reasonable person might argue that while developing fetuses are not fully human, they have intrinsic value and should not be destroyed, even if women’s liberty must be restricted to preserve them. I do not agree with that position; at the same time, I do not think it is at all beyond the bounds of reasonable discourse. This is the very sort of question that should be decided in the marketplace of ideas. However, the belief that fetuses have the same inherent moral value as living human beings—that “killing” a fetus is no different that slaughtering a ten-year-old child—is a breathtakingly dangerous position. Because if this is true, then abortion providers are indeed “murderers” and “maniacs,” and the United States Supreme Court is complicit in genocide, and this great democratic nation that we live in is rotten to its very core. I doubt many people truly believe that—not even the most vocal opponents of legal abortion. I certainly hope few people believe this. But if the hardcore anti-abortion activists do not believe this, then they have a moral obligation to step back from this rhetorical brink before more physicians die.
The senseless death of Dr. Tiller ought to be a wake-up call to moderate Americans of all political persuasions that the language of the anti-abortion movement—while likely protected by the First Amendment—is none-the-less socially and morally unacceptable. No other political lobby or interest group in the United States dares use such fiery language. A powerful contrast can be drawn to opponents of capital punishment. While I deeply believe that state-sanctioned executions are immoral, I do not refer to them as “genocide,” nor do I brand the physicians who facilitate these executions murderers. No mainstream opponents of the death penalty do so. Similarly, well-intentioned citizens may oppose American military ventures overseas, particularly those that result in civilian casualties, but our society does not tolerate the incendiary language of those extremists who brand American soldiers as "baby-killers." Nor should it. So why are those who oppose abortion indulged in their use of such inflammatory language? Why do television networks and radio stations invite them to speak? Why don't advertisers withdraw their sponsorship? To be fair, not all opponents of legal abortion use such language. Many do not. But those who do undermine meaningful discourse. Their extreme words lead inevitably to horrors like the bloodshed in Wichita.
George Tiller may now become for American women what Medgar Evers became for African-Americans. That is no consolation for the heroic physician’s friends and family, but it is the lesson of hope to be drawn from this act of terrorism. I am also hopeful that March 31, 2009, will become ground zero in the struggle against anti-abortion extremism and its fanatical rhetoric. From this point forward, we should discuss abortion with the same civility that we do all other matters of social policy, leaving epithets like “murderer” and “holocaust” to those beyond the pale of decency. So the next time someone refers to an abortion provider as a “murderer,” I am hoping that he will be challenged to explain himself more thoroughly: Is he merely exaggerating, embellishing upon what he believes is a moral wrong, or does he really believe that the actions of men like George Tiller’s killer are justified?
Read a response to this article from Suzanne Venker, George Tiller's Late-Term Abortion Were Murder.