Eduardo Penalver on Abortion and Murder

Eduardo Penalver in a post at dotCommonweal uses the recent heinous killing of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller to argue that prolifers do not really believe that abortion is the unjustified killing of a human person.  The argument, and variations on it that have become more and more widespread amongst supporters of abortion rights, is not persuasive.  But before providing a critique of Penalver’s argument, let me first direct readers to this statement by Robert George which I fully endorse:

Whoever murdered George Tiller has done a gravely wicked thing.  The evil of this action is in no way diminished by the blood George Tiller had on his own hands.  No private individual had the right to execute judgment against him.  We are a nation of laws.  Lawless violence breeds only more lawless violence.  Rightly or wrongly, George Tilller was acquitted by a jury of his peers.  “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” For the sake of justice and right, the perpetrator of this evil deed must be prosecuted, convicted, and punished.  By word and deed, let us teach that violence against abortionists is not the answer to the violence of abortion.  Every human life is precious.  George Tiller’s life was precious.  We do not teach the wrongness of taking human life by wrongfully taking a human life.  Let our “weapons” in the fight to defend the lives of abortion’s tiny victims, be chaste weapons of the spirit.  

Now back to Penalver.  Penalver thinks that prolifers are wrong to think that abortion is murder.  He supports this conclusion with an argument that can be recobnstructed as follows:

  1. If abortion is murder, then killing someone who performs abortion is sometimes justified depending on the circumstamnces.
  2. Abortion is murder.
  3. Therefore, killing somone who performs abortions is sometimes justified depending on the circumstances.
  4. Dr. Tiller is someone who performs abortions.
  5. Therefore, killing Dr. Tiller could be justified depending on the circumstances.
  6. Premise (5) above is inconsistent with statements by prolifers categorically denouncing the killing of Dr. Tiller.
  7. Therefore, since premise (3) follows asa matter of logic from premises (1) and (2), and pemise (5) above follows as a matter of logic from premises (3) and (4) above, prolifers must reject at least one of premises (1), (2), or (4) above.
  8. The only plausible prmise for prolifers to reject is premise (2).
  9. Therefore, preise (2) is false.  Abortion is not murder. 

This argument fails because prolifers may reject premise (6).  There is no inconsistency between prolifers’ categorical denunciations of the killing of Dr. Tiller with the view that killing someone who performs abortion is sometimes justified depending on the circumstances.  The question turns on whether the circumtances surrounding the killing of Dr. Tiller really do justify killing him.  Prolifers can certainly argue that they do not. 

What are the circumstances which show that killing Dr. Tiller was not morally justified?  First, private citizens are not to take the law into their own hands.  Part of what it is to live under the authority of a government is that each of us gives up the right to exact private justice.  Private citizens must allow public authorities to apprehend and bring to justice the perpetrators of crimes. 

But what if the public authorities are incapable or unwilling to bring to justice the perpetrators of crimes?  This happens all the time unfortunately.  Criminals, murderers, rapists, even child rapists sometimes go unprosecuted or are acquited of their heinous crimes on the basis of some legal technicality.  But even still, private citizens may not engage in vigilante justice. 

What if the public authorities are implicated in the injustice.  Does there come a point when private citizens have the right to overthrow that government and create a new one that will not be oppressive or to violently resist injustice?  Yes.  Setting out the precise contours of such a right are difficult.  But, uncontroversially, any such right of revolution or violent resistance  is limited to situations where the government has cut off all legal, democratic and peaceful means of reform.  No one can argue that the United States is an oppressive regime and that prolifers have been denied all legal, democratic and peaceful means of reform.  Moreover, any right of violent resistance to injustice must surely be limited to circumstances where there is some likelihood of success.  To wage war, even war against a clear injustice, uselessly to no effect is immoral.  This kind of “prudential” consideration is part of moral judgement.  It is not that such action is morally justified but imprudent; rather, it is that such action is not morally justified.  Also, even a just war must be waged within certain moral limits.  A campaign of terror directed not at the oppressive regime but at terrorizing civilians is immoral.  The killing of Dr. Tiller was not legitimate violent resistance against injustice, it was an act of terrorism.  

The killing of Dr. Tiller was a heinous act of murder.  Not only was he killed.  He was murdered in his church in front of his wife.  His murder was premeditated, calculated, it was not an act of passion.  There is nothing incompatible with saying this and also saying that abortion is a grave injustice, an unjustified killing of a human person.  In a democratic society we do not resolve political disputes, even ones over a grave injustice like abortion, with violence and terror.


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