In response to Robert Lewis Dear’s killing spree at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, pro-abortion columnist Jill Filipovic resurrected one of abortion supporters’ most insidious (and that’s saying something!) refrains in asking:
If you actually believe abortion is legal mass murder on par with the Holocaust, then how is it 100% wrong to kill abortion providers? Answer: most prolifers don’t even believe their own claims and don’t think abortion is quite the same as murder. Because it’s not.
This pops up every now and then among abortion defenders trying to trip up pro-lifers on our own principles. Slate’s Will Saletan accused pro-lifers who condemned the slaying of George Tiller of not “mean[ing] it literally” when we call abortion murder. Evangelical pastor-turned-humanist/atheist Bruce Gerencser asks “those who say abortion is murder” if “you support the execution of murderers.” Jason Brennan of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog thinks it’s “implausible” and “absurd” for people who equate abortion with murder to confine themselves to stopping it through legal and peaceful means. California law blogger Mike Cernovich argues that peaceful pro-lifers are suffering cognitive dissonance, basing our beliefs “on psychological comfort rather than intellectual rigor.” We see it on a fairly regular basis in comment threads.
The truth is that this isn’t a sincere argument. They know they can’t win a fair argument on whether the unborn are human or abortion is killing, so they hope to indirectly discredit the truth by conjuring up inane reasons to claim we don’t believe it. So now would be a good time for a refresher course on the just use of force in a free society.
The first principle is that generally speaking, yes, lethal force is legitimate if used to defend yourself or someone else against violence. If somebody is coming at you or another defenseless person in the vicinity with a knife, most people agree that you would be justified in shooting him.
Case closed! Pro-aborts would say. You say abortion kills babies, so why wouldn’t you shoot an abortionist to stop him from killing again? This brings us to the second principle: we are a nation of laws. As we discussed back in 2011 when I tackled this question the first time, the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution were founded largely on the Lockean social compact theory of government. The social compact theory says that nature bestows upon everyone the right to punish transgressions against ourselves, but by agreeing to live in civil society, we trade our power to do so unilaterally for doing it collectively through representative institutions such as police forces and courts.
The advantage of submitting all such grievances to recognized authorities who are supposed to be impartial—and binding ourselves to either accept their outcome or only appeal it through a lawful process—is that, as John Locke writes, without government “it is unreasonable for men to be judges in their own cases” because “selflove will make men partial to themselves and their friends,” “ill nature, passion and revenge will carry them too far in punishing others,” and “he who was so unjust as to do his brother an injury, will scarce be so just as to condemn himself for it,” which means “nothing but confusion and disorder will follow.”
In debating this challenge over the years, one of the most depressing things to encounter is how casually pro-aborts dismiss the rule of law as a legitimate factor for pro-lifers to consider. Usually they’ll flippantly reply that we’re just hiding behind the law because we’re too cowardly to get our hands dirty. Really? Do you guys really want to add the downsides of anarchy to the list of concepts you don’t understand?
It’s doubly depressing when one considers that we have a well-known historical precedent that’s already weighed in on this question rather decisively. Abraham Lincoln passionately opposed slavery and today we revere him as the Great Emancipator for his key role in ending it. Yet he also advocated an incremental strategy against it for much of his career and steadfastly opposed illegal means of fighting it, including his condemnation of abolitionist John Brown’s armed insurrection against slavery:
Old John Brown has just been executed for treason against a state. We cannot object, even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong. That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed, and treason. It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right.
So we have two possibilities: either pro-aborts don’t know their history, or they think Lincoln was a wuss and/or faker. Good luck with that.
Admittedly, though, this isn’t to say violent lawbreaking to save lives is never justified. But our third principle settles that question, too. Illegal killing for a greater good is only permissible when the law’s role as an impartial arbiter of justice has broken down so fully that peaceful channels of recourse are closed off to us.
Note that I didn’t say “difficult” or “failed,” i.e., we have trouble persuading people to change the law or an election didn’t go our way—I said closed off. Meaning there are no free and open elections through which we can change the law, no free speech, press, or assembly rights through which we can appeal to the electorate, etc. King George III denied the American colonies democratic representation and dissolved colonial legislatures. Nazi Germany was a police state without true elections or the basic freedom to dissent.
These weren’t the circumstances abolitionists found themselves in, and aren’t the circumstances American pro-lifers find ourselves in today. Despite a variety of political and cultural obstacles, the American people are open to our arguments, and everything we need to do to criminalize abortion is possible through the legal process.
But you say you believe babies are dying now, the pro-abort replies, so how can you justify waiting? Again, just go back to history. We declared independence in 1776, but didn’t abolish slavery until 1865. Eighty-nine years is more than twice the time it’s been since Roe v. Wade made abortion-on-demand the law of the land. If you really think pro-lifers advocating peaceful resistance to abortion makes us phonies, then you also have to say that every abolitionist less extreme than John Brown was a phony, too. And we all know that’s nonsense.
Lastly, let’s give pro-aborts a taste of their own medicine. Few of them, I think it’s safe to say, would be willing to go out and kill someone they believe is guilty of a violent crime but escaped prosecution on a technicality, on the grounds that they’d be saving his future victims. And most of them opposed the war in Iraq despite the millions of people Saddam Hussein had killed, raped, and tortured.
According to same logic with which they assail pro-lifers, that must make them hypocrites, cowards, or frauds, right? Nope. Fortunately for them, real logic tells us this simply means they recognize more factors in play than the perpetration of violence.
But unfortunately for them, it also means they don’t have a leg to stand on in this assault on pro-lifers’ sincerity. Which brings us back to the central, uncomfortable truth they need to confront: there are no shortcuts to winning an argument if you can’t refute pro-lifers in a fair fight. If the merits don’t vindicate your position, then it’s well past time to abandon it.