The moral madness at the heart of the pro-life movement
As it's become clearer that suspected Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooter Robert Lewis Dear was at least partially motivated by a desire to ensure that the clinic would produce "no more baby parts," pro-lifers have understandably become defensive. I should know — I'm one of the people who put them on the defensive.
Pro-life rhetoric is irresponsible, I argued earlier this week. By talking incessantly about millions of murdered and dismembered babies, anti-abortion activists make it sound like resorting to violence is a perfectly reasonable response.
The New York Times' Ross Douthat has penned a lengthy and very thoughtful response to my argument. It's a measured, civil, and tightly argued reply that I very much appreciate. But it also amounts to a dodge.
The core of Douthat's claim is that if the abolitionists who opposed slavery in the 19th century were right not to resort to violence, then surely opponents of abortion today are, too. Instead of taking up arms, pro-lifers need to keep slowly drilling hard boards and work through the political process to get abortion more broadly restricted.
But the analogy between slavery and abortion doesn't cut it.
Don't take my word for it. Listen to pro-life firebrand Erick Erickson. Writing in response to those who have drawn parallels between Dear's actions and Islamic terrorists who kill in the name of God, Erickson lashes out, highlighting how little anti-abortion violence we're seen, especially given the moral provocation:
[Planned Parenthood president] Cecile Richards is about the closest we have come in the United States to Joseph Mengele. Under her leadership at Planned Parenthood, doctors have been killing children and harvesting the children's organs. In some cases, the children are born alive. In some cases, whole children are born and then carved up…. Planned Parenthood butchers millions of children. [Erick Erickson]
I'm grateful to Erickson for speaking so honestly, and for drawing the proper analogy — one that in my original column I deliberately avoided, largely because I have an aversion to the Reductio ad Hitlerum. But the fact is that in this case the parallel fits.
Slavery is obviously immoral. I like to think I would have strongly opposed it had I lived two centuries ago. But slavery is also a commonplace in human history — a practice that has come to be widely rejected only in the last 200 years or so. It is not and has never been treated as the moral equivalent of murder, let alone the moral equivalent of mass murder.
The pro-life movement does not believe that the contemporary United States is engaging in the moral equivalent of slavery. It believes — or rather, its rhetoric strongly and consistently implies — that the United States is perpetuating something akin to the Holocaust.
Approximately six million people were murdered in the Holocaust, most of them Jews, but also a fair number of homosexuals, political prisoners, and disabled men and women. By contrast, the pro-life movement contends that well over 50 million of America's weakest and most vulnerable members have been murdered since abortion became a constitutional right in 1973. And the killing continues, with hundreds of thousands more murdered every year, with no end anywhere in sight.
Now, there are differences, of course. Instead of the state actively, systematically committing the mass murder, the American government merely proclaims that private citizens have a constitutional right to engage in this killing and acts to ensure that the right can be exercised without interference. It also provides funds for Planned Parenthood, which "butchers millions of children."
That is indeed a difference between Nazi Germany and the United States. But how significant of a moral difference? In one country, the government sends six million to gas chambers in the space of roughly half a decade. In the other country, the government for 42 years has protected and facilitated the contract killing of over 50 million innocent children.
However you tip those scales, pro-life rhetoric implies that the United States is more or less morally equivalent to Nazi Germany.
What is a reasonable response to this situation? Douthat thinks acts of terrorism are unjustified. He makes a powerful argument to defend that view, drawing on the moral calculus employed in just war reasoning. If only Robert Dear, Michael F. Griffin, John Salvi, Scott Phillip Roeder, and many others were capable of following such careful, nuanced logic. But let's concede the point. As Douthat fairly points out, reform movements can't be held responsible for the actions of every unstable person who chooses to take matters into his own hands. So the pro-life position does not require or permit John-Brown-style terrorism directed at clinics and doctors. But what about organized, armed insurrection?
It so happens that I used to work for a pro-life religious magazine that once entertained that very possibility. Back in 1996, five years before I took a job as an editor at the journal, First Things magazine ran a notorious symposium that explored the question of whether, in light of judicial rulings that (among other things) refused to overturn Roe v. Wade, the country had reached "the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime." The "sobering" fact, according to Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of the magazine and author of the unsigned introduction to the symposium, was that "law, as it is presently made by the judiciary, has declared its independence from morality." And among the most "elemental principles of Western Civilization is the truth that laws which violate the moral law are null and void and must in conscience by disobeyed."
Worried that readers might think of the limit case of National Socialism, Neuhaus insisted that America "is not and, please God, will never become Nazi Germany." Yet he also declared that "it is only blind hubris that denies that it can happen here and, in peculiarly American ways, may be happening here." To clarify the point, Neuhaus went on suggest that "what is happening now is the displacement of a constitutional order by a regime that does not have, and will not obtain, and cannot command the consent of the people." To deny this fact was a "recklessly myopic response." Hence the stark and radical options confronting American citizens, ranging "from noncompliance to resistance to civil disobedience to morally justified revolution."
The First Things symposium provoked a furious response on the American right, with three members of the magazine's editorial board resigning in protest, and dozens of authors penning sharply critical essays in reply.
To this day I don't quite understand what all the fuss was about. Oh, I get why people, like myself, who reject many of the assumptions that animate the pro-life movement, would be scandalized. But why those who do accept those assumptions would be bothered by the suggestion that it might become necessary to take up arms to stop the slaughter — that doesn't really make sense to me.
By the way, in the 19 years since the symposium raised the possibility of armed insurrection to stop the killing, more than 14 million additional babies have been butchered.
Maybe anti-abortion violence remains relatively rare because, as Douthat implies, pro-lifers have been persuaded by just war reasoning not to take up arms. But there's another possibility.
Perhaps most abortion opponents refrain from actions that their rhetoric would seem to incite because they don't actually believe what they're saying. At least not fully, entirely, all the way down. Yes, they think abortion is morally wrong, but not that it's murder in quite the way that killing tens of millions of 5-year-olds, or 30-year-olds, would be murder.
This comes to mind whenever I get into an argument with a pro-lifer about penalties for abortionists or women who employ their services. If abortion at every stage of pregnancy is murder, shouldn't the perps be thrown in jail? Sure, some favor very severe punishments. But far more often the response is to say that abortion is a special case that doesn't cry out for tough penalties, especially for the women who abort their babies.
I'm grateful for such expressions of humanity and mercy. But I'd like to humbly suggest that instead of thinking of abortion as a special kind of murder that somehow doesn't warrant jail time upon conviction, it might be more humane and merciful, less incendiary, and truer to what are often the muddled moral facts of the matter to say that in all but the rarest, latest, post-viable elective abortions, terminating a pregnancy isn't an act of murder at all. It's rather something else — something in between removing a cyst and the infliction of lethal violence against a human being possessing full dignity and rights.
Why isn't that bad enough?