Justifiable Homicide?

The recent murder of late-term abortion specialist Dr. George Tiller has renewed an ethical discussion among pro-lifers about the consistency of their own position.  Those who are not pro-life may think they can use this event as a springboard for a reductio ad absurdum argument against the pro-life position.  In other words, the pro-choice proponent can argue in the following manner:

Premise 1: The pro-life position, taken consistently, entails that killing abortion doctors is morally acceptable, even a moral duty.

Premise 2: Yet the vast majority of pro-life proponents know by ethical intuition that killing abortion doctors is wrong, and thus resist this conclusion.

Conclusion: Therefore, the pro-life position is discredited because it leads to an absurd conclusion that most pro-life proponents will always resist. 

The challenge, then, for the pro-life movement is to demonstrate that Premise 1 is faulty.  The pro-life position does not logically entail justifiable homicide.  The argument for Premise 1 normally goes this way: If you were walking down the street and saw in an alley a man who was about to slit the throat of a child, your moral duty would be to do whatever is possible to save that child, including killing the potential murderer if necessary.  Those who intervene with violence to protect the innocent are hailed as heroes.  Why, then, are those who kill abortion doctors not given the same kind of praise?

The best argument I have read on this is found here, in another sermon addressed to President Obama (this time from a pastor named David Bayly).  Pastor Bayly formulates an ethical argument that closely resembles the one that I personally formulated when this question was posed to me a few months ago.  Let me unpack it for you. 

What is the difference between the one who intervenes to save the child in the alley and the one who ambushes the abortion doctor out on the street (or, in the case of Dr. Tiller, in a church service) and kills him?  The answer is context.  The one who intervenes in the alley is operating within a context where the civil government has authorized him to use violent force and even take life if necessary to save another life.  The one who murders the abortion provider has no such authorization from the civil government.  Basically, the issue boils down to the legality of the act: the one who saves life in the alley has not broken the law.  The one who murders the abortion doctor has broken it. 

Why is this detail so important?  It is important because God has given the power of the sword to the state, not to zealous individuals, no matter how righteous their cause may be.  Individuals do not have the right to appoint themselves judge and jury in society.  Where the state has said, “Thou shalt not kill,” God himself has said, “Thou shalt not kill.”  If it were otherwise, then total anarchy would be the result.  If every regular Joe had the ethical duty to bypass the authority of the state and become an executioner of the unrighteous, there would be no order in society at all. 

Of course, I realize that I am saying this in reference to a civil government that has abdicated its responsibility to protect unborn human life.  When the state says to the abortion doctor, “You may kill,” where God himself has not authorized it, then the authorities of the state will have to answer to God for that.  Not everything the state permits is right.  And not everything the state forbids is wrong.  But when we are talking about taking human life, the only human authority who has a justifiable right to do so is the state, acting in accord with God-ordained principles.  And the state has authorized the individual to take life only in a few exceptional situations.  The murder of George Tiller simply is not one of the exceptional situations for which our government has authorized the use of violent force.  Therefore, the person who committed this murder, in spite of his good intentions, defied not only the authority of the United States but also that of God himself. 

Of course, some may wonder about those situations where the civil authorities have become the targets of violence that is apparently justifiable.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s plot to assassinate Hitler, for example, comes to mind.  Obviously, Bonhoeffer was not authorized by the state to kill Hitler, but could he have been authorized by God to do so?  I think it is important for us to acknowledge that not even Bonhoeffer himself was fully convinced of this.  He thought of his act as sin, even if it was a lesser evil than the alternative.  This is an area where I continue to struggle.  Is it ever morally permissible to rebel against the authority of the state?  And if so, under what conditions?  The United States of America was born out of rebellion against the British crown, but that act was not perpetrated by rebellious individuals but by an authoritative body established by the people as a whole.  Bonhoeffer’s case is very different, but even then I am tempted to say that once a government has gone past the point of moral reform and has become an agent of such severe evil, then the moral equation might change.  And yet, I tend to lean more toward the Lutheran view on this question.  If I were going to err, I would probably err on the side of submission to authority rather than rebellion.

But coming back to the murder of George Tiller, we must acknowledge that the United States is not Nazi Germany.  President Obama is not a new Hitler (knock on wood).  Our Constitution has taken a beating, our checks and balances may not be functioning properly, but as a nation we are not beyond the hope of moral correction.  To this point, certain state governments may help fund abortions, and even the federal government may begin to do so eventually.  But we have not reached the point where abortion has become government policy as genocide was for the Nazis.  And that is a significant difference.  The pro-life movement rightly recognizes that submission to the governing authorities must be its modus operandi, especially when we are talking about the right to bear the sword.


One Response to “Justifiable Homicide?”

  1. Luke A. Says:

    Good post Aaron; here’s a similar analogy I like to use when describing Utilitarianism.

    What would you do?

    SITUATION 1: You are crossing some railroad tracks when you notice a train barreling down on 8 innocent children playing on the tracks. You see the switch and can divert the train to another set of tracks, but notice one child playing there as well. If you do nothing, 8 children will perish. If you flip the switch, one child will perish.

    Do you throw the switch?

    SITUATION 2: You are a doctor in a hospital with 8 patients needing variuos transplants to live. A man is in a recoverable coma in your operating room and he is a perfect donor match for all 8 sick patients. If you terminate the comatose patient and harvest his organs all 8 other patients could be saved.

    Do you harvest the organs?

    Utilitarianism would, of course, say yes to both questions. But common-law and morality would likely excuse the first scenario while rejecting the second.

    In the same fashion, while utilitariansim may support your premise one, common-law and morality would reject it; just as you described in your post. And of course, if premise one is rejected, there is no reductio ad absurdum but only straw.

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