The fallacy of “justifiable homicide”

"Justifiable homicide," they call it.

On May 31, George Tiller was shot and killed in the narthex of his church in Wichita, Kansas. Tiller was best known for operating an abortion clinic that performed second- and third-trimester abortions. Scott Roeder, a former member of the Montana Freemen and an associate of anti-abortion extremists, has been charged with Tiller's murder.

Roeder has not made any statement about the shooting, but he had contributed to a magazine called Prayer and Action News which espoused the position that the killing of abortion providers was justifiable homicide.

Defenders of the "justifiable homicide" principle argue that if an unborn child is equal to a born person, the same measures that would be taken to save a born person's life may ethically be taken to stop abortion.  If a man was killing three-year-olds at the day care center down the street, they say, and the police could not or would not stop him, wouldn't you be justified in using lethal force to protect those children? Indeed, wouldn't you be morally obligated to?

It's not just supporters, either. Pro-choicers sometimes use this argument to try to prove that most pro-lifers don't really consider the fetus to be a human being, or to show that such a belief leads to such horrific consequences that it must be abandoned.

People who put forth this line of reasoning are either reacting emotionally and not thinking very deeply, or are hoping that their audience is reacting emotionally and not thinking very deeply.

Let's grant for the sake of argument that the embryo or fetus is a human being who is unjustly deprived of life in an abortion. Even then, killing in defense of self or others must be a last resort.

There are many nonviolent courses of action open to people who want to prevent abortions. They can support effective means of preventing unplanned pregnancies. They can offer direct material and emotional support to pregnant women. They can offer to adopt. They can promote paternal responsibility. They can speak, write, and create art to convince the public to reject abortion. If they are religious, they can pray. Nonviolent options have by no means been exhausted.

At a more fundamental level, to defend Roeder's actions is to undermine the very structure that best protects the right to life.

Some animal rights activists argue that non-human animals should be granted legal personhood. This is a position that is not reflected in the laws of our country. They have every democratic tool available to them to change that reality: they can speak freely, form organizations to promote their beliefs, protest, vote, and lobby their legislators. They can even engage in civil disobedience.

Suppose that, frustrated by their inability to persuade the public to adopt their position, they decided to take violent action to prevent the killing of "animal persons". What argument could the "justifiable homicide" faction of the anti-abortion movement offer to condemn such animal-rights violence?

That non-human animals are not persons? Since they are in favor of killing to protect beings who are not considered persons by our society, they would have no leg to stand on. It's far from inherently obvious that only human beings can be persons — animal-personhood advocates can put forward well-reasoned philosophical arguments for their position, just as fetal-personhood advocates can. If abortion providers are fair game to be targeted under a "justifiable homicide" doctrine, so are those who kill or benefit from the killing of non-human animals.

Under our social contract, people implicitly agree to give up the freedom to do whatever they please in exchange for the protections that accrue from having a stable society. One of those protections is that they may not legally be killed unless they have breached the social contract. To accept that the killing of abortion providers is justifiable homicide is to tear up that contract. Playing by the rules would no longer be any assurance of safety. George Tiller might be killed for performing abortions, or George Foreman might be killed for encouraging the consumption of meat. The laws created by the democratic process could be overridden by anyone who believes that their cause is sufficiently just — which in effect means that there would be no more democracy.

Roeder despaired that the lives of unborn human beings are not protected. If the logic of his defenders were to prevail, nobody's life would be protected. It's hard to see how that's an improvement.

(Originally published June 2009 in the online journal Shared Sacrifice.)