There is a compelling logic to the pro-life position, and so it would seem to the thinking that led Scott Roeder to kill George Tiller, M.D.:
Everyone recognizes that it is murder to kill a one-day-old baby. But there’s no material difference between a one-day old baby and a fetus one-day before its due date. It’s nonsensical to think that the mere act of being born and breathing the air makes the one-day-old a “person” with legally-cognizable rights in a way that the about-to-be-born fetus is not. The one-day-old is completely clueless. He sleeps and sometimes cries, and doesn’t open his eyes much. His life could be snuffed out without him really knowing what he’ll be missing, without the fear and anguish of loss that characterize how his older brethren contemplate death and that makes death seem so horrible to them, and with no more physical pain than is needed to snuff out the life of the about-to-be-born fetus. In this respect, how much “better off” and conscious relative to the one-day-old is the two-year-old? The six-year-old (seven being the traditional age of reason, at which a child was deemed to begin to be morally responsible)? And again, how much “worse off” and less conscious relative to the one-day-old is the about-t0-be-born fetus? The fetus two months before his due date? The fetus eight months before his due date? There is no point along the continuum from a six-year-old child back to his conception in the womb at which we can say: “today the child/fetus is a ‘person’ but yesterday he wasn’t.”
The gestational point of “viability” is a completely arbitrary line invented by the Supreme Court and not material to a determination of whether it is moral to end a human life. A one-day-old baby will not continue living without the active support of his parents or other adults, either. That is, he is not a viable life form in the absence of the life support necessary and proper to him, just as a fetus conceived one month ago will not continue living in the absence of the life support necessary and proper to him in the womb. That goes for all of us. As a friend of mine likes to point out — strip a Supreme Court Justice and leave him at the North Pole, and he is not a viable life form.
Some think that despite all this, and regardless of the personhood and innocence of the unborn child, a pregnant woman has no duty to carry her unborn child to term. They characterize the pregnancy as parasitic and the fetus as an intruder, from which the woman has the right to defend herself by removing it from her body or hiring somebody to do so, even if the removal has the unintended collateral effect of causing the fetus’ death. This argument is persuasive only in cases of rape. Even though the unborn child is innocent of the rapist’s crime, the woman is not responsible for the child’s presence in her body, and therefore may not have a duty to continue carrying such a burden. But if the pregnancy resulted from consensual sex, both she and the father are responsible for the child’s presence in her body, no matter how “responsibly” they may have practiced birth-control, and therefore have a corresponding duty to the unborn child.
In the wake of the Tiller assassination, several pro-choice commentators have pointed out how the foregoing logic would appear to justify the assassination, and have called into question the quickness and unreflectiveness with which mainstream pro-life organizations have condemned the assassination. If it is morally permissible to use lethal force if necessary to prevent the murder of a born child, and if the personhood of unborn children is really equal to that of born children, then why was it not permissible for Tiller’s killer to use lethal force to prevent Tiller from continuing to murder thousands of unborn children? Most pro-lifers, after all, are not complete pacifists, and recognize the legitimacy of using force, and if necessary deadly force, to defend one’s self or others. These pro-choice commentators have challenged pro-lifers who’ve condemned the assassination of Tiller to reconsider, in light of their condemnation, whether they really believe in their heart of hearts that abortion is “murder.”
I confess to a real ambivalence in my own mind over the issue of abortion. On the one hand, I can’t find fault with the logic of the pro-life position as outlined above. On the other hand, while I find virtually all abortions morally disgusting and despicable, I just can’t equate the woman who aborts her unborn child in the first-trimester for reasons of convenience and money with the woman who, say, murders her spouse for reasons of convenience and insurance proceeds. I find the equation easier to make for those women who abort healthy fetuses in the third-trimester, which was Tiller’s specialty (although supposedly the health of the mother had to be at risk for such abortions to be legal), but again, I can’t articulate a principled moral distinction between first-trimester and third-trimester abortions.
Perhaps my ambivalence reveals an attitude that is more anti-abortion than it is unreservedly “pro-life.” Perhaps with the Buddhists I think there is something to be said for their notion that life as we know it in this world as a mixed blessing, is bound up in its essence with suffering, and constitutes a “fall” into self-hood and selfishness from which it is our duty in life to free ourselves. Miscarriages happen every day. Death eventually comes to all of us, and objectively considered is the natural end of each of our natural lives in this world. Perhaps my condemnation of murder really does have a lot to do with the anguish of loss inflicted on a fully-conscious victim and the family members of the victim who loved him and wanted his life to continue, conditions which generally do not obtain in an abortion. Life, although a mixed blessing, is a blessing to those who want it to continue, and that is what makes murder a terrible crime.
Although I’m ambivalent about this issue, I don’t favor the criminalization of abortion, for pragmatic reasons and because any doubts about any act should be resolved against criminalization. If we grant that it is not a crime for a woman to procure an abortion in the case of rape, criminalizing other abortions might create a perverse incentive for false accusations of rape. There may be genuinely ambiguous situations where consent is ambiguous. Women who have been raped should not be required to publicly declare they’ve been raped and to press charges, especially when it may be very difficult to prove the charges against the rapist. Moreover, we don’t want every woman who has a miscarriage to become a potential suspect subject to a criminal abortion charge. Enforcing criminal laws against abortion would necessarily entail an expansion of government power (in itself a bad thing) and an extension of the government nose into private concerns where it has no business. And contrary to the mainstream “pro-life” position, it would make no sense and would be wholly unjust to only prosecute abortion providers while giving a woman who hires a provider to terminate her unborn child’s life a pass. (On the other hand, I would like to see abortion providers sued to the gills for their pervasive and willful failure to inform women considering abortion about the significantly increased risk of breast cancer following an abortion.)
None of this really vitiates the compelling logic of the pro-life position, however, or the logic that presumably led Scott Roeder to believe that his killing of Tiller was necessary to defend and save the lives of innocent others. (He may have had less principled motivations, such as the desire to impress others in the pro-life movement, but suppose for the sake of argument he was motivated principally by the desire to defend innocent life and the sincere belief that he was doing so.) Who am I to say that the lives of the relatively undeveloped and unwanted are less worthy of protection than the lives of the relatively developed and wanted? Most abortions are not of pregnancies caused by rape or that threaten the life or health of the mother. The State shouldn’t and ordinarily wouldn’t have a problem with someone who intervened lethally to defend and save the life of a newborn baby. Such a person would in fact likely be lauded by the public and the baby’s parents as a hero. Is the moral difference between such a person and a person who intervenes lethally to defend and save the life of an unborn baby in the third trimester so great that the former is a hero while the latter deserves the death penalty? I don’t think so. Fortunately, neither does Kansas law.