Posted by: irreparabiletempus | June 4, 2009

The Post That Will Tank My Future Political Career

Again, for the purpose of this post, I will be assuming the position of a pro-lifer who is convinced that abortion is murder. I recognize that this is a minority position at Merging Lanes and in American political life generally, but it is still one that is held by a large, sincere minority of the population, and deserves consideration.

When I was reading about the murder of the abortionist George Tiller in his own church in Kansas (pretty horrific, huh? I’m guessing that the killer, who I presume from his political orientation to call himself a Christian, has no sense of irony in picking the location/timing of the murder), it brought back to mind a sermon that I had heard back in January of this year on “render unto Caesar.” The sermon was preached in the context of Obama’s inauguration, and generally argued that we should support the government and pray for their success even if we disagree with them. In the context of supporting Obama, this seemed innocuous enough; while I disagree with the man on a lot, his ultimate goals (peace, prosperity, etc.) are essentially mine, and I do pray for his success.

But what I pressed the pastor on later on what I thought was the contextually-limited nature of his analogy-ie, the same sermon could not (should not) have been given in say, Munich in 1935. That is, if the state is sufficiently oppressive (and given the history of the 20th century, such a hypothetical is not too difficult to imagine) then a Christian has the right, if not the duty to resist such oppression. If I had existed in the 1930s Germany, then I’d hope that I would be with Dietrich Bonhoeffer in trying to assassinate Hitler, and not with Ludwig Muller in providing Church support for the Nazi regime. (

But of course, there’s a middle ground between egging on an oppressive regime, and trying to assassinate its leader. If you are a pacifist, of course there can be no support of Bonhoeffer’s plot to assassinate Hitler. More to the point, if you are a deontological pro-lifer, who believes that any taking of human life is wrong, then of course you are on firmly principled ground in opposing the Tiller killing.

My guess is that very few pro-lifers are pacifists or firm deontologists. Most pro-lifers support (some form of) the war on terror, which includes killing terrorists to save other folks’ lives; many even support the death penalty, a far less justifiable instance of state violence. Moreover, in our daily lives, people are generally utilitarian-we constantly sacrifice our principles, large and small, for what we perceive as the greater good. None of this goes to say anything bad about deontology as a school of thought, which I think has a lot of smart things to say; it’s merely to point out that, like Peter Singer’s (utilitarian) theory of charitable giving, pure deontology is a lot easier to endorse in theory than in practice.

There are perhaps some deontological distinctions between taking innocent life (that of the presumed fetuses) and guilty life (that of terrorists or criminals on death row). However, if like the more conservative Christians, you believe that we’re all born into sin, then these distinctions tend to fade away, if not disappear. Moreover, I am uncomfortable with killing someone based upon deserts. Even the non-Calvinist among us can appreciate that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. I don’t really think a Christian sense of humility would permit a human to decide that someone “deserved” death. Fn1. If we’re going to kill a terrorist, I prefer to do so upon the basis that failing to kill him (or her) will result in more deaths.

If you’re not a deontological pro-lifer (and I would, as you may guess from the above paragraph, put myself in the utilitarian pro-life camp-utilitarians can recognize that a baby may impose serious constraints upon its mother, while still arguing the life of the fetus is more important than those constraints.), then one of the pluses is that you can support compromises that fall short of banning abortion, while lessening the overall number of abortions performed each year. Another minus, however, of being a utilitarian, is that you really have no qualms about killing, say, a terrorist when killing that terrorist will prevent him from killing other folks.

In that case then, the difference between the murderer of Tiller and myself is not really one of principal but of degree. The murderer no doubt thinks of Tiller as a mass-killer; and I can’t really disagree with him there. The murderer also made the logical calculation that killing Tiller would decrease the abortion-rate in that particular area of Kansas; again, even progressives admit that this will probably be the case.

So the difference between Tiller’s murderer and the moderate pro-lifers is really one of a prudential assessment of the situation. Tiller’s killer sees the number of fetuses lost to abortions performed since Roe that is roughly 5 times the number Hitler killed in the Holocaust, and decides that violence is justified. (Lest you think I’m some sort of crazy militant pro-lifer, Tiller’s murderer is hardly unique in this political position. Imagine if every police station in America utilized torture. Or if the Supreme Court had constitutionalized fetal personhood, and thus instituted a ban on abortion that even 70% majorities in New York and California couldn’t overturn. I think some liberals would give armed resistance a serious look-see then.)

I look at those same numbers, and hope against hope that civil persuasion, assistance to under-privileged women, and tinkering around the margins with judges and restrictions on late-term abortions can achieve, if not justice, at least some improvement. More to the point, I see a civil society bound by the rule of law as a marvelous accomplishment, and not one that should be readily thrown away in a fit of violence against abortion doctors. I hope, perhaps entirely unjustifiably, that things can change, that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it tends toward justice, that Christ can make all things new.

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe future generations will remember passive pro-lifers the same way we (don’t) think of passive anti-slavery advocates now. Maybe Tiller’s murderer is the John Brown of our generation. But I’d rather put my hope in civil change than give in to the chaos of murder.

Fn1. “Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.”-Gandalf


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