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Abortion Clinic Violence: Is "Pro-Life" Murder An Oxymoron?


Wednesday, Jan. 09, 2008

Last month, the New York Times reported that Albuquerque, New Mexico has recently seen a spike in violence aimed at abortion clinics. This increase stands in marked contrast to an overall decline in such attacks since 1994, when the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act became law.

Pro-choice commentators frequently view as self-evident the hypocrisy of such "pro-life" violence. Within the pro-life community, however, the status of such attacks is more controversial. This column explores the moral-philosophical ambiguity of pro-life opposition to clinic attacks.

Does Pro-Life = Peaceful?

After recent attacks in Albuquerque, Dauneen Dolce, the Executive Director of the Right to Life Committee of New Mexico, offered a condemnation, explaining that "[w]e never encourage violence of any nature. After all, there's enough violence going on in these clinics." To many ears, these words serve to confirm the view that killing in the name of "life" is incomprehensible. If one believes in the sanctity of life, then it necessarily follows that the lives of doctors and support staff at abortion clinics are sacred and worthy of protection as well.

There is a competing view, however, one that is more disturbing but no less internally coherent, as a moral-philosophical matter. Rev. David C. Trosch, a priest, in 1994 expressed the view as follows: "They [the unborn] are persons worthy of defense, like any born person, and they must be defended by any means necessary to protect them, including the death of the assailants, which in this case would be the abortionists and their direct accomplices." To elaborate his view and that of others at the fringe of the anti-abortion movement, Trosch cited Nazi atrocities committed during World War Two: "You're comparing the lives of morally guilty persons against the lives of manifestly innocent persons. That's like trying to compare the lives of the Jews in the incinerators in Nazi Germany or Poland or wherever, with the lives of the Gestapo."

Trosch also said that he had been close with Paul Hill, a former Presbyterian minister who was executed in 2003 for the murders of an abortion provider and his escort, and who had similarly described the murder of those who perform abortions as justifiable homicide. Hill, in turn, had compared anti-abortion violence to the force used by John Brown, an abolitionist who used violence to fight the institution of slavery prior to the Civil War.

Such comparisons and justifications likely sound insane and profoundly offensive to pro-choice readers. It is important to understand, however, that what makes the position offensive is intimately linked with a rejection of the premise of the pro-life movement: that providing an abortion is the moral equivalent of murder. If, in other words, one accepts this premise, then condemning the violence becomes a far more challenging enterprise.

An Analogy

Imagine, for a moment, that you live in a hypothetical society in which males are devalued. Everyone wants a female child, but no one wants a male. Pregnant women routinely terminate pregnancies when they learn that they are carrying a boy, but not everyone finds out the sex of her baby in time for that.

Imagine, further, that to dispose of the unwanted male children who are born, parents begin bringing their sons to an infanticide center. At this center, each set of parents checks in with a counselor, confirms the joint desire to terminate the boy's life, and hands him over to the counselor. The counselor then brings the baby to a room, and the parents watch through the window as a technician injects their baby with poison. The child's body is then brought back to the parents, and they decide whether to bury or cremate the remains.

If you learned of this practice, you would likely be appalled and want it stopped. Your first move might be to investigate whether there are laws barring the killing of these boys. You might be astonished to find, however, that in the criminal code of your (hypothetical) state, there exists an exception to the homicide law for the killing of a baby under six months old when both parents consent to the killing and it is performed by a licensed professional.

You might then talk to other people about the practice. Imagine that you heard the following from your neighbors: "Babies aren't really people until they are six months old. They're barely human. And if their parents don't want them, then it's not really wrong to kill them." You protest, but find that almost no one agrees with you. At this point, you face a moral dilemma. You can try to change hearts and minds, in order to alter the law, or you can resort to violence. Though you might take the non-violent route, it is probably not clear to you that the use of force against an institution that kills infants is truly wrong.

The analogy between the hypothetical example above and abortion should be apparent by now. Many of us reject the view that an embryo should, or does, have the same status as a baby. However, the pro-life movement unquestioningly embraces the position that it does. Many of us also believe that killing a separate baby is morally distinct from removing a baby from inside one's body - even though death results in both cases. But the pro-life movement rejects this distinction as well, arguing that the dependence of a fetus on a pregnant woman is no different from the dependence of an infant on the assistance of a caring adult.

Once one appreciates that the pro-life movement views the practice of abortion in the way that you might view the infanticide center described above, the moral appeal of violent resistance, from the point of view of some within the pro-life movement, becomes quite comprehensible.

Rejecting Pro-Life Violence in Theory and Practice

Thankfully, most people within the pro-life movement do not embrace such violence. They condemn it and urge peaceful resistance, in the form of lobbying for legal change and in the form of protests (which may be more or less peaceful) in front of clinics and courts. The question, however, is why they do so.

The legally-recognized use of violence against an assailant is ordinarily a self-help remedy that people can employ when they (or third parties) are attacked, and there is no alternative means of saving them from death or substantial bodily harm. If, for example, you see a man about to shoot a child, then you are legally justified in killing that man to prevent him from firing his weapon.

When a practice - such as abortion - is legal, however, the law does not treat a killing to prevent it as anything other than murder. What happens, then, if you disagree with the law?

You might think that the law does not matter, because it does not reflect the moral truth, in this particular case. You might also worry that working to change the law will come too late to save the particular "people" who are about to die at the hands of the putative "assailant." Still, the fact that the law rejects your position might be important to you for several reasons.

First, if the law rejects your view of right and wrong, this might tell you that many or most people around you also reject your view. This is frustrating, of course, but it means that people who commit what you view as an atrocity will likely be, in other respects, perfectly kind and good people. Why? Because a moral consensus - even when, in retrospect, it is clearly wrong - dulls the conscience of those who otherwise avoid harming their fellow beings.

You might, then, eschew violence against the assailant because, unlike a legally-recognized murderer, this particular murderer may not be a bad person, one who is beyond redemption. Rather, you might see him as simply operating within a social universe that fails to see what you see. Your goal might accordingly be to show him the light, rather than to kill him. After all, since so many people share his view of things, the assaults that you deplore are likely to continue (even against the particular person you have saved), and your act of resistance to have been entirely in vain. Changing the mind of someone and causing him to switch sides, by contrast, can send a powerful message to others who continue to hold the view he has renounced.

Second, if the law rejects your approach, you might view it as counterproductive to commit violence against practitioners. If your goal is to persuade people, for example, that the infanticide technician is a murderer, then the last thing you want to do is to generate sympathy for that technician by turning him into a martyr. People are likely to respond with outrage and disgust to your entire position if it becomes associated with terrorism and violence.

In assaulting an infanticide technician, then, the unintended effects may be to turn public attention away from what, in your view, was the violence and cruelty that inspired your actions and to highlight your own cruelty, in society's eyes, instead. If your hope is to save lives, it may be far more effective to persuade people to change their views, through your own nonviolence, than to act violently on a moral premise that the population at large finds unconvincing.

Hope for Nonviolence

In hearing about clinic attacks, my initial response is anger and outrage, as I suspect it is for virtually everyone who shares my view that abortion is not the same thing as murder. For those who disagree, however, the reaction may be different and far more complicated. It may include an understanding for the desire to save lives, by any means necessary.

Still, this understanding is likely to be tempered - for most - by the sense that taking up arms against lawful institutions is far more likely to slow progress and to alienate potential converts than it is to effect any true change. Thus, it is perhaps the expected pro-choice moral outrage at clinic attacks that rightly inspires pro-life restraint and nonviolence.

Those who are tempted by violence may wish to consider that it is non-violence that has so often proved a powerful tool of revolution. To quote a renowned pacifist, Mohandas Gandhi, "Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man."

Sherry F. Colb, a FindLaw columnist, is a Visiting Professor at Columbia Law School. Her book, When Sex Counts: Making Babies and Making Law, is currently available on Amazon.

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