Abortion and Murder, Again

Here is Randall Terry's reaction to the murder of George Tiller in his church yesterday:

Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue states, "George Tiller was a mass-murderer.We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God. I am more concerned that the Obama Administration will use Tiller's killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions.Abortion is still murder.And we still must call abortion by its proper name; murder.

"Those men and women who slaughter the unborn are murderers according to the Law of God.We must continue to expose them in our communities and peacefully protest them at their offices and homes, and yes, even their churches."

No condemnation; no horror that a man was killed in his church, while his wife was just a few feet away singing in the church choir. Just regret that he did not repent in time. The thing to recognize, though, is that this is absolutely an appropriate reaction for someone who, as Terry does, thinks abortion is "murder," full stop. If you are (1) not a pacifist; and (2) believe abortion is murder (without some sort of qualifier to make it clear that you are using that term in a metaphorical sense); then you should not be morally horrified by Tiller's killing in the way you would of any other murder (i.e., as an intrinsic evil). If you are morally horrified by the killing in this sense (as I think you ought to be), then you cannot simultaneously hold positions (1) and (2). If you do hold both (1) and (2), you might think Tiller's killing was imprudent; you might regret it (even very deeply) because you think it will harm the anti-abortion cause. You might even regret the death of the doctor as you would regret the death of an enemy soldier or the violent criminal you kill in self-defense (or, to make the parallel more complete, in the defense of a stranger). But you cannot be mortified by it as intrinsically wrong, as itself murder. You can only disagree with it on tactical grounds. This is the consequence of categorizing abortion as murder, full stop (as Terry correctly suggests).

Let me be clear: I am not saying that one cannot think that abortion is evil, even gravely evil, and still oppose the murder of abortion doctors. But consider this statement by Archbishop Sobrinho during the controversy over the excommunication of the people involved in the abortion given to the eight-year old rape victim in Brazil earlier this year: "Abortion is much more serious than killing an adult. An adult may or may not be an innocent, but an unborn child is most definitely innocent. Taking that life cannot be ignored." If you agree with this sort of rhetoric, then you must embrace the consequences of that position, and one of those consequences is that the killing of abortion doctors is not itself necessarily murder but an arguably justified killing in defense of the innocent. You also shouldn't be too surprised when people reach a different prudential conclusion than you might about the wisdom of killing abortion doctors. For me, these are reasons to back away from the position that abortion is literally murder. Others will (obviously) disagree.

UPDATE: In response to a fair point in the comments below about the ambiguity of the point I was trying to make, I've modified this post to try to make clearer that I am not saying that believing abortion is murder mandates that you support killing abortionists. But I do think it rules out a certain sort of moral reaction to such killings (i.e., the reaction that views them as intrinsically wrong in the way that murder is wrong). This does not, of course, rule out the sort of regret we might feel even for those we kill under situations where that killing is justified. Terry's regret that Tiller died before he could repent seems to fall into that category, for example.

UPDATE II: Bill O'Reilly (via TPM) provides some examples of the sort of rhetoric I'm talking about.

Eduardo M. Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. The views expressed in the piece are his own, and should not be attributed to Cornell University or Cornell Law School.

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