Imagine that a mass murderer of children, one who openly admits his intention to go right on killing, is loose in your community. And imagine that your government not only has failed to prevent the slaughter, but perversely has enshrined in law this killer's right to murder. Would you not be morally justified in ending this man's rampage by killing him? Indeed, if presented with the opportunity to kill him, would you not be morally negligent in permitting him to go on living and murdering more children each day?
Scott Roeder, as you may recall, murdered Wichita, Kansas abortion provider George Tiller in 2009. Listening to Roeder explain at his sentencing why he killed Tiller, it is clear that his actions made perfect sense in light of a belief professed by him and millions of Americans. That belief: A fetus is a human being with the same right to life as you or I, and killing a fetus is murder. If you believe that, then you believe that to kill George Tiller was to stop a mass murderer against whom the government could do nothing.
Yet since 1977 there have been only 8 murders and 17 attempted murders of American abortion providers or clinic staff--fewer than one such incident per year. Which is why I don't believe that Americans believe what they say about abortion.
The moral right to use deadly force in defense of another is recognized almost universally. And although the law limits this privilege to situations of immediate peril, surely that restriction has no moral force when its premise--that government (e.g. police) will step in given time--is untrue. Some abortion opponents who condemned Roeder fell back on the old standard that you can't kill in the name of "respect for life," but if you really believe that George Tiller was a serial killer on the verge of striking again, this is akin to saying that out of "respect for life" police ought not to have shot Charles Whitman as he picked off passers-by from the University of Texas bell tower.
We are not morally obligated to prevent every harm that may befall another. But if we know where a serial killer lives, works, and worships, to stand by while he strikes again and again would be an indefensible omission. If you believe about fetuses what Scott Roeder believes about fetuses, then killing abortion providers is not only justified, but virtuous and perhaps morally imperative.
And yet it happens so rarely. Why? Fear of punishment, lack of opportunity, and cognitive dissonance in light of apparently conflicting moral duties may provide partial explanations. But I don't think these rationalizations alone--or indeed primarily--explain the scarcity of such killings.
In a 2008 essay for the Times of London, philosopher Jamie Whyte suggests that the apparent persistence of Christian belief, which he regards as "pre-Enlightenment gobbledegook," has a simple explanation: people don't actually believe it. Rather, he argues, people who profess Christian beliefs "are expressing their hopes rather than their beliefs--substituting 'I believe' for 'I wish' in the unconscious endeavour to convince themselves." "The real test for genuine belief," Whyte argues, "is not what people say, but what they do. To believe something is to be disposed to act upon it. The vast majority of Western Christians fail this test."
As one example, Whyte examines abortion. Imagine, he suggests, a network of government slaughterhouses in which a million children are exterminated each year.
It is a horrifying idea. Anyone who believed it to be happening would surely rise up against the regime, with violence if necessary. . . . To do nothing . . . would display despicable moral complacency.
Yet British Roman Catholics allegedly believe that such slaughter is really happening. They claim that humans have immortal souls from conception, and that killing a foetus is no less murder than killing a ten-year-old. . . .
If they believe what they claim to, they are no better than those who turned a blind eye to Nazi atrocities. But I do not think they are that wicked. It is just that they don't really believe the things they say about foetuses and immortal souls.
I don't know that I would go so far as to conclude that Christians don't believe in Christianity. But I do take Whyte's point that most people who believe abortion to be murder act in a manner inconsistent with that belief. In America, there are no government-run abortion clinics. But there are individual abortion providers who, it would seem, believers in fetal equality should regard as justified, and even morally imperative targets for assassination. And like Whyte, I suspect that most people's unexpressed beliefs about fetuses can be discerned from their illogically peaceable behavior.
I suspect that most people don't kill abortion providers because in their heart of hearts they intuitively recognize that fetuses are not equal to born human beings. The magnitude that individuals assign to the fetal life-right may differ signifcantly. (If you think you place it at zero, imagine abortions were free but contraceptives cost 25 cents per month. Would you find no moral problem in foregoing contraception solely because aborting would be cheaper?) But by not acting like Scott Roeder, nearly everyone reveals they believe the right falls somewhere below the level meriting defense by deadly force. And to believe that is to accept that fetuses have a lesser right to life than you and I--because our lives are subject to that level of protection.
If nearly everyone believes this, why will so many not admit it, even to themselves? I suspect it is because they at some level recognize their intuition is fatal to the anti-abortion cause. It is self-evident that citizens of a free society possess a strong interest in exercising bodily autonomy without government interference. It is further obvious that women can have powerful motivations to abort. Among the most universal are escaping the continued agonies of pregnancy and childbirth--for all women a physical toll, for some the risk of intra-family violence or social opprobrium; and, for the many who know they could not bear to surrender an infant to adoption, the avoidance of undesired parenthood.
If a fetus had a life-right equal to yours and mine, these interests and motivations would be of little consequence to the anti-abortion position. No matter how strong a pregnant woman's interests in obtaining an abortion, short of saving her own life few would say those interests justified the killing of a being with rights exactly equal to the woman's own. (There are arguments defending abortion even assuming fetal equality--Judith Jarvis Thomson's violinist is perhaps the best known--but they are too elaborate to persuade many but the already-persuaded.)
But to admit that the fetal life-right is less than equal with your own is to admit that the morality of abortion is complex, and susceptible at best to a case-by-case balancing of interests. If that is true, then justly-administered state prohibition of abortion is hopelessly impractical. Such an admission also risks acknowledging that the true magnitude of the fetal life-right could be so low that a woman's interest in bodily autonomy--regardless of her other motivations--is always sufficient to outweigh it. If so, the government could not justly prohibit abortions even case-by-case.
Many Americans claim to believe abortion is the same thing as murder. Their refusal to stop it by violence suggests to me they know it isn't. Thankfully, there are very few Scott Roeders.