Posted by: Ken Brown | June 2, 2009

Tough Questions About George Tiller’s Murder

By now I think everyone has heard about the murder of late-term abortionist George Tiller by pro-life activist Phillip Scott Roeder. My initial reaction was disgust and disappointment, and I think rightfully so, but many have pointed out that the matter raises some deep and difficult questions for those who really believe that the unborn are human beings. Halden quotes Damon Linker who notes:

If abortion truly is what the pro-life movement says it is — if it is the infliction of deadly violence against an innocent and defenseless human being — then doesn’t morality demand that pro-lifers act in any way they can to stop this violence? I mean, if I believed that a guy working in an office down the street was murdering innocent and defenseless human beings every day, and the governing authorities repeatedly refused to intervene on behalf of the victims, I might feel compelled to do something about it, perhaps even something unreasonable and irresponsible. Wouldn’t you?

Halden picks up on this and insists that you cannot be pro-life and simultaneously condemn Roeder’s actions unless you are also a pacifist:

Sure, violence might not be the best way to effect long-term social change, but if this issue is really one of life and death, such claims can’t get us out of the seriousness of the situation presented. Even if Roeder’s actions might have been ineffectual by… pragmatic standards, that can hardly mean they were wrong.

In short, there is no reason to morally condemn the actions taken by Roeder unless one adopts a pretty serious pacifist position regarding the issue of violence. If violence is morally justified in defense of the lives of innocent human beings, and if fetuses are innocent human lives, one cannot say that murdering abortionists in an attempt to keep them from performing an abortion — and the murder of Tiller definitely accomplished this — is immoral.

As such, I submit that there is no consistent way to be pro-life and at the same time condemn the murder of abortionists — unless one is a pacifist.

See also his follow-up here. I think he is right about the inconsistency in many “pro-life” positions, but one need not be a full pacifist to believe abortion is murder and legitimately condemn the murder of abortionists. There is a distinction to be made between vigilante violence and legitimate government authority (though, obviously, the latter can be abused as well!), and one can condemn the one without rejecting the other.

As several commenters on Linker’s post observe, there are many political issues that one might–rightly or wrongly–believe lead to innocent deaths–the war in Iraq, Global Warming, our non-intervention in Darfur–but that doesn’t give us the right to take pot-shots at those who support them. Or to take another example: just because American slavery was reprehensible wouldn’t have given private citizens the right to gun down slave owners in their churches, and the same is true of abortion.

Nevertheless, if abortion really is what we pro-lifers say it is, we ought to be doing a lot more than we do to both improve the law (which doesn’t necessarily mean criminalization), and fight the root causes that lead people to choose it in the first place. We shouldn’t be killing abortionists, but if fanatics like Roeder are guilty of over-reaction, too often we moderates are equally guilty of inaction.


  1. Unless one is a true pacifist, one cannot morally condemn Roeder’s actions if one believes that abortion is murder. One can – and hopefully would – still demand that he stand trial for his crime though.

    • Very true!

    • Yes, one can.

      Roeder doesn’t have the right to decide who should die for their offenses.

      Murder doesn’t justify murder. I’m not a pacifist, but in no way does the Roeder act rise to the level of a justified killing.

      • Agreed. My “very true” was referring to the fact that even if one thinks Roeder’s actions moral, they still deserve punishment under the law. I hope my post made it clear that I consider Roeder’s actions despicable, regardless of Tiller’s own guilt.

  2. Your post makes some good points. I just wanted to let your know it’s SCOTT Roeder, not Philip.

    • Ack! You’re right! I’ve fixed it.

  3. Megan McArdle at the Atlantic, herself an abortion supporter, had similar things to say about the consistency of belief that leads someone like Roeder to kill to prevent further murders. I was impressed that she got it, frankly. The more difficult question is just how far does Christ permit us to go in fighting evil? I use Bonhoeffer’s dilemma as a framework for discussing that question in a new post, and would be happy to get your comments, Ken.

  4. Dr. Tiller was killed by idealism. He met the most dangerous creature on earth: the man who knows that God is on his side.

  5. Edward Feser’s response is worth reading in terms of his attitude to Tiller and Roeder.

    • Interesting post, though Feser seems much too confident in his ability to know the state of Tiller’s heart. I agree that Tiller’s crimes do not justify Roeder’s, but the question of whether a man who knows what he does is wrong (and “can’t help himself”) is better or worse than the man who does evil without realizing it is a difficult one, and I would be much more cautious about trying to say which man was “more evil” than the other. That’s not for me to judge.

  6. There’s also a very clear post on the subject at First Things, here.

  7. Roeder is a modern Raskolnikov, for any who have read dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov murders an old pawnbroker who has made a living ripping people off in St. Petersburg, Russia. However, after the murder Raskolnikov suffers from deep regret; Dostoevsky succesfully portrayed his christian convictions, for only God can judge a man’s actions. Having said that, I think caling Dr. Tiller a woman’s rights avtivist or whatever other praises are unnecessary and excessive. When he won his most recent court case I suspected a private citizen would try to take matters into their own hands. Late-term abortions are evil. There is no way around it. Roeder should still suffer the same punishment as any other murderer, but I must admit I’m intrigued by a man who so forcefully imposed his beliefs in a country that is completely void of firm foundations and convictions.

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