Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 108 (December 2000): 35-38.
There are times when it is hard to accept that advocates of legal abortion mean what they say. One wonders, for example, if anyone actually believes that partial–birth abortion is distinguishable from infanticide in any meaningful way; or thinks it perceptive to make the point that many pro–lifers are not advocates of generous welfare payments and increased government spending for child care programs. You will remember the latter proposition, advanced frequently in recent election campaigns: that pro–lifers lack sincerity because they “pretend to be concerned about the life of the unborn child, but refuse to spend money to care for children already born.” By this logic, we ought not toss a drowning man a life preserver unless we are also willing to take him into our homes and support him the rest of his life.
There is one pro–choice argument, however, that in my opinion hits the mark, an argument that I have never heard a pro–life activist answer satisfactorily. It goes something like this: “You pro–lifers are hypocritical. You say that aborting a fetus is the taking of innocent unborn life. Yet you insist that you have no intention of charging a woman who procures an abortion with being an accessory to a murder. You say your intention is to prosecute only the doctors who perform the abortion. But why? If the woman hired a local thug to kidnap and kill her child, you would prosecute her as an accessory. More to the point: you leap to disassociate yourselves from those who employ violence against abortion clinics. Why again? Such reticence does not make sense if you really think you are acting to save a child’s life.”
One cannot dismiss this with a shrug. Consider, for example, how we would react if we found ourselves in a hospital maternity ward as a man with a meat cleaver moves down the rows of cribs. He begins hacking away at the infants. He has killed two infants so far, and there are twenty more to go. You have a pistol with you. What would you do? What would you expect someone else to do in such a situation? What would even the most committed opponents of capital punishment recommend?
Let us be more precise to cover all the bases. Let us posit that it is too late to try to reason with the man, and that the risk is too great that he will kill more infants if you try to use nonlethal force—shooting to wound, for instance—or call the police. Let us assume that it is not debatable: the only realistic way to save the lives of the other infants in the room is to shoot to kill, right away. Let us also assume that you have the training to use the pistol to kill the assailant. Hence there will be little danger to you or anyone else in the room if you fire your weapon. You can save the lives of the infants by pulling the trigger. If you hesitate, they die.
I submit that few would think highly of an individual who let the killings proceed because of a moral punctiliousness over the use of violence. Trying to block the murderer by sitting down in front of him and praying the rosary would be viewed as a shamefully half–hearted response, even though pro–life activists who use these tactics at abortion clinics are considered radicals by many. You may remember the outrage directed several months back at a young man in a Western state who walked away while a friend sexually assaulted and killed a young girl in a public restroom. The scene of the murderer following the young girl into the restroom was caught on tape, shocking the nation. The young man who walked away was treated as a pariah by Ed Bradley in the 60 Minutes coverage of the story. The young man’s college classmates were interviewed as part of the show. Without exception, they expressed contempt for his lack of courage and basic decency. Some wanted him expelled from college for his shameful behavior. They made clear that they would never associate with him if he remained in school.
Now, admittedly, the focus in this story was on the young man’s refusal to even summon the police at the time of the assault. The anger directed at him was motivated by his indifference to the evil being committed by his friend, by his apathy and lack of concern for a fellow human being. Yet I think it fair to say that those who expressed contempt for his refusal to act would have applauded him if he had taken out a pistol and used it to save the life of the young girl—even if it meant shooting to kill. I submit that society would have treated him as a hero if he responded in this manner—once again, if we grant that he could not have saved her life in any other way. Society would also have lionized a young man who ran to his pickup truck to get his shotgun and then used it to kill Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris during their massacre of the students at Columbine High School.
The case could be made that those who bomb abortion clinics or shoot abortionists find themselves facing a moral calculus identical to that of this hypothetical young man with a gun at Columbine High School or the person facing the killer in the maternity ward. They are convinced that abortion is the killing of an innocent baby. Their religious leaders support them in this conclusion. They know that on the day they are carrying the bomb to the abortion clinic, or checking the sights on their rifle and waiting for the abortionist to drive into the clinic parking lot, a number of unborn children will be killed unless they use the lethal force at their disposal.
Pro–life religious leaders and politicians balk at this point. They express horror at the thought of using violence. Perhaps the prospect of serving a long jail sentence plays some role in shaping their spirit of moderation, but this doesn’t seem right. Pro–life leaders are not usually thought to lack courage. Most of them argue that they are reluctant to use force because they abhor violence. We know their responses: “We cannot condone killing even in this case. Violence does not solve anything; we must use legal remedies. Violence is counterproductive, winning sympathy for the abortionists and the pro–abortion forces. Our commitment is to work within the law.” No doubt, those who say these things are sincere. But the logic falls short in key areas.
First, Christian teaching (and secular thought as well) does condone violence when used to defend innocent victims of aggression, especially children. And violence can actually solve a great deal. It stopped Hitler. It ended slavery in this country. The police use lethal force to stop would–be murderers, rapists, and kidnappers in their tracks, sparing their intended victims. Clint Eastwood has made a career portraying men of action who refuse to wait for legal and peaceful remedies to defeat recognizable villainy. We view those characters as heroes.
I would argue that the legal status of abortion does not change this equation appreciably. Few moral theo logians would find fault with members of an anti–Nazi resistance movement who employed lethal force against concentration camp guards to free imprisoned inmates at Auschwitz or Dachau. It is more likely that they would produce educational movies extolling their heroism. And yet religious leaders—Catholic, Protestant, Jewish—almost unanimously condemn violence against abortionists. Why? One can reach no other conclusion than that they see something different about killing the unborn and killing a living, breathing child. I do not charge hypocrisy, or a failure of nerve. I agree with those who are convinced that the fetus is unborn human life, yet I have never contemplated killing an abortionist or a member of his staff to save the children they are about to abort. I do not charge pro–lifers who are reluctant to use physical force with cowardice. There is another dynamic at work.
There are only a few plausible explanations for why pro–lifers refrain from violence in pursuit of their cause. One might argue that the unborn do not feel pain the way infants do, and are therefore less in need of our intervention in their defense. But this argument is weak. Watch a child born prematurely when it is time for its circumcision or first inoculations. It screams as loudly as a two–year old. The fetus flails about when the saline solution is injected into the sac as part of the abortion procedure. That is why the nursing staff during the procedure must hold down the mother. The child’s reactions often cause her midsection to convulse violently. Moreover, the infants sleeping in the nursery about to be slashed to death by our imaginary killer probably would feel no pain if struck violently. They would die instantly, unaware of what happened to them. We would not be more supportive of standing by while their lives were taken if we were assured that they had been anesthetized first. The level of pain involved in the killing simply does not determine our view of murder in any other situation.
Others will emphasize that killing an individual abortionist will not end abortions; that he will be replaced by other abortionists and that abortion on demand will go on; that legal reform is the only way to bring about meaningful change. But, once again, this logic is not the one we apply when dealing with other murderers. We would not react patiently to a German who excused his reluctance to use force in 1942 to free concentration camp inmates if he argued that he was convinced at the time that he could do more good by working within the system to end Nazi control than by risking his own arrest and imprisonment in an armed strike to free a few dozen inmates scheduled for the gas chambers on a single morning. The central issue would be whether the use of force would save those under assault that day, at that moment. Neither would it alter our approval of the use of physical force against the concentration camp guards if we were told that it was likely that the inmates who escaped would likely be captured the next day and executed anyway. We would applaud the guerrilla who used bombs and rifle fire to free them. Long–term calculations are deemed irrelevant to the duty to save the individual lives at risk—except when the evil at hand is legal abortion.
Why the difference? Why do those who continue to scold Germans who stood by and did nothing when German Jews were rounded up excuse themselves from physical confrontations with abortionists? Why do those of us who would live our lives in shame if we stood by while a young child was mutilated by a child abuser have dinner and watch television, read a book and sleep a good night’s sleep, while knowing that there are dozens of unborn children scheduled to be killed in their mothers’ wombs within a short drive from our homes the next day? I trust the reaction would be more militant if euthanasia were made legal and we were faced with scenes of elderly men and woman screaming in resistance as they are strapped to the gurneys for their lethal injections.
I am convinced that the explanation for the reluctance of pro–lifers to use force against abortionists is rooted not in cowardice or in their understanding of what takes place during an abortion (pro–lifers are sure about that) but in their perception of the abortionist and the woman who hires him to take the life of her unborn child; that whether or not we have consciously articulated it for ourselves, we base our response to abortion on an understanding of the fundamental requirements of membership in a democratic society. We intuit that it is impermissible to employ lethal force against our fellow citizens unless and until they have become incorrigible criminals, contemptible individuals deserving of an application of force to halt their ongoing iniquities. We would expect an honorable man to use lethal force to stop Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris or Nazi concentration camp guards. We do not consider our neighbors who work in a local abortion clinic as comparably villainous. This is a crucial difference.
C. S. Lewis once wrote that “when the Round Table is broken every man must follow Galahad or Mordred; middle things are gone.” His point was that the time may come when the societal bonds are so ruptured that forceful confrontation will become necessary with those who, until then, had been our fellow citizens. The corollary, of course, is that we cannot in good conscience call for an application of lethal force against our neighbors until that moment arrives. There must be a marked debasement of the social compact. The Round Table must already be broken. For all but the most radical pro–lifers, such a devolution has not yet occurred. Pro–life Americans are not willing to accept the sight of abortionists, their staff, and the women who employ them lying dead in our streets, because they remain our neighbors. They are neighbors who have fallen into evil ways on the issue of abortion, but neighbors nonetheless, fellow citizens who have permitted material concerns and self–centeredness to cloud their judgment on the question of abortion.
Historical parallels are hard to come by to press this point. After all, we are talking about large numbers of our neighbors reaching the conclusion that it should be legal to kill unborn children. The Civil War offers certain insights, however. It has been well documented that slavery was not the only issue in that conflict. But it was the central issue for Christian abolitionists in the North. By 1860 they were willing to take up arms against supporters of the Confederacy to end slavery. The question is: Why then? Why not before? Radical abolitionists such as John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison had called for military action against the South long before the war, but others were not as militant. They were willing to bide their time, seek a moral conversion of the slaveholders, work for a political solution even if that solution were to take many years.
Yet when war was declared there were few protests from these moderate factions. What had changed? Why was there a new willingness to back the use of force? It was not a result of a sudden breakthrough in their awareness of the evils of slavery. The writings and speeches of antislavery Americans in the middle years of the nineteenth century make clear that they had always viewed slavery as unequivocally immoral.
No doubt the war itself was responsible for much of the change, leading many who had urged compromise to conclude that the Rubicon had been crossed and that their former views were now academic. For whatever reason, the more moderate abolitionists now changed their view of Southern slaveholders and those who defended slavery. For antislavery Northerners the pro–slavery point of view had ceased to be a shortcoming that they were willing to tolerate to maintain harmony within our republican system of government. The Round Table had been broken. Continuing defenses of slavery were no longer the wrongheaded views of otherwise honorable men. Instead, they were culpable evils unworthy of forbearance and conciliation. We cut deals and compromises with those we consider individuals of honor. We make no concessions to the forces of evil.
Supporters of legal abortion in modern America are not seen in such an unforgiving light by pro–life Americans. The defenders of abortion include within their ranks many of our cultural leaders, including members of the clergy, people whose opinion is respected in other areas, whose views are lauded on the talk shows and in academic circles—the proverbial “best and brightest.” Moreover, many pro–lifers have family members who disagree with them on abortion. All this makes a difference. It causes even militant pro–lifers to intuit that there is something markedly different between Nazi concentration camp guards and, say, the pro–choice delegates to the Democratic National Convention or members of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Does a willingness to entertain apologies for the pro–abortion sentiments of their fellow citizens imply a degree of doubt about the nature of abortion on the part of pro–life Americans? To a certain extent—yes. It indicates, at the least, that pro–life Americans understand what causes many of their fellow citizens to err on this question. Let us once again consider the abolitionists to illustrate the point.
One could argue that the willingness to compromise with slaveholders in the years before the Civil War implied some self–doubt among early abolitionists; that their spirit of tolerance indicated, perhaps, that early abolitionists questioned the fitness of Southern slaves for equal membership in American society. This explains why so much abolitionist energy was directed toward returning blacks to Africa after emancipation. It seems fair to conclude that there was considerable sympathy in the North for those Southerners who hesitated to free their slaves in fear of what emancipation would do to their society. The fear was seen as not entirely unjustified. In other words, Southern slaveholders were viewed as being in error on the question of slavery by early abolitionists, but not as irretrievably evil men and women because of that failure. They were to be given time to come around to the truth, time to work out the social adjustments needed to deal with emancipation.
This, I submit, is also the view—more sensed than articulated at this point—of modern pro–life activists toward their pro–abortion fellow citizens. It is what explains why George W. Bush is able to react with such composure to his mother’s pro–choice views. As he phrases it, “Good people disagree about abortion.” While there is no reason to question Bush’s repeated assurance that his goal is to insure that “every unborn child will be protected in law and welcomed in life,” it is unlikely that Bush would have responded with such aplomb if it were discovered that his mother was a racist or anti–Semite. His reaction makes clear he does not think her error in this instance an egregious moral deficiency.
In other words, Bush is not so convinced of the persuasiveness of his pro–life position that he cannot imagine a high–minded individual coming to a different conclusion. I would argue that most pro–lifers are in the same boat. They do not see the mass of their pro–abortion fellow citizens as engaged in a calculated choice of evil. In fact, if pressed, I think most pro–life activists would concede that the fetus, especially in the early stages of its development, is not self–evidently (I repeat: not self–evidently) a human person; that there very well may be an element of religious belief that informs their conviction that human life begins at the moment of conception.
These distinctions are critical. We would not grant rapists, child molesters, or concentration camp guards any benefit of the doubt, regardless of how articulately they defended their behavior. We treat their transgressions as self–evident evils, their attempts at self–justification as crass dissimulation. That we treat differently Americans who promote and participate in abortions indicates our grasp of how easy it is for otherwise upstanding members of society to fall into error on this question—in spite of our own conviction that the act is an abomination.
Pro–lifers who condemn violence against abortionists and abortion clinics are not hypocritical, nor are they inconsistent. Their intuition that shooting a nurse at an abortion clinic is not the same as shooting the man with the meat cleaver in a maternity ward is correct, even though saving innocent lives is the objective in both cases. What the man is doing is outside and against just law. What the nurse does is, alas, permitted by unjust law. It is reasonable to believe that that unjust law can be changed, with the result that innumerable innocent lives will be saved. It follows that it is morally imperative to work for such change, which can be achieved only through the politics of persuasion. Pro–lifers are keenly aware of how difficult that task is. They are wrestling with a moral dilemma unlike any since the Civil War. But the Round Table is not broken, and, please God, it will not be in the future.
James K. Fitzpatrick is the author, most recently, of God, Country, and the Supreme Court (Regnery).