Respecting Life in the Abortion Era: Tiller, Roeder, McCain & Saletan
The recent assassination of Dr. George Tiller, abortion provider, has put the pro-life camp on the defensive. Most are unflinching in condemning his practice, calling him a monster. But they also believe that killing him was wrong: they respect life, and in light of that, taking life is inherently counter-productive both in principle and practice.
Except that it isn’t.
Because we all know that death and killing are part of life: life always ends, and sometimes that end is chosen by another person. What’s more, killing is in many circumstances morally and legally accepted by nearly everyone outside of Jainists and other radical pacifists. These things aren’t pretty. But they are unavoidable in human society. We go to war. We legally sanction acts of lethal self-defense.
And we also kill fetuses in the womb.
No one who’s moral supports doing any of those things with glee or eagerness. No one moral seeks it out, and everyone moral tries to exhaust all other options first. But it’s time we were honest with ourselves in admitting that even good people who respect life still find it necessary to choose to end it sometimes. And whether any of these sorts of killings is morally wrong or right is not something we can determine by simply pretending that we can draw a bright line against any and all cases. We can’t.
Dr. Tiller respected human life, at least as he understood it. He also killed fetuses. These two things are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Many of Dr. Tiller’s cases involved women in the midst of terrible, unthinkable situations. These were not characteristically jet-setting debutantes who flew into his clinic looking to take care of a little baby problem in time for the big country ball. Many were women with fetuses inside of them that were already dead, or doomed to a terrible early death, or risking the lives of their mothers. Respecting life, in those sorts of situations, sometimes means making a hard call: ending a pregnancy. Deciding that a mother’s well-being is a more pressing interest than that of a fetus, pre-viability. Dr. Tiller was, as William Saletan wrote, the end of the line: the guy who’d make take those difficult last-minute calls for help when no one else would.
Dr. Tiller’s killer, Scott Roeder, had a very different understanding of what respecting life meant. He believed that Dr. Tiller’s clinic was the exact moral equivalent of the Hitler’s crematoriums. He seemed to believe that unequivocally. And in that sense, his rhetoric was no different from most people in the pro-life movement. But unlike most pro-life people, he apparently also came to believe that “respecting life” also meant trying to stop an ongoing atrocity against human life. And the fact is: he probably succeeded.
Of course, most people, both pro and anti-abortion seem to think that Roeder’s act was an atrocity itself. And it was. But ultimately, the only truly legitimate reason to think that it was an atrocity is because Roeder’s understanding of what “respecting life” means was wrong. And Dr. Tiller’s understanding was, at least in my opinion, right.
And in this sense, the view of many on the pro-life side is often simply confused. It’s a specially couched and unacknowledged exception to the many exceptions they’ve already made to their otherwise unvarnished understanding of “respecting life.” There are ways to consistently justify abhorring abortion as an atrocity and yet also condemn or at least advise against murders in the service of stopping it. But plenty of pro-life rhetoric has yet to catch up to those subtleties, preferring proud principles over messy talk of unjustified exceptions.
Take Meghan McCain, daughter of the Senator and a laudable supporter of marriage equality. In a recent twitter regarding Dr. Tiller’s assassination, Ms. McCain repeated what many in the pro-life movement believe: “I respect life and only God should ever take life away.”
It’s a humane sentiment, and Ms. McCain seems to be a very humane person. She doesn’t want anyone killed, not someone like Dr. Tiller, not babies, not pregnant women. But it’s also incomplete and unrealistic. It’s directly at odds with other things she accepts. Two of her brothers have served in the military, for instance, and she’s rightly proud of them for it. But they are serving in a job which may well require them kill other human beings: some of whom, while they may be on the wrong side, have never themselves killed anyone and might never have done so. There are reasons why killing these people may be necessary. And why a war, even one with inevitable collateral damage to civilians, may be necessary. We’re stuck with the difficult task of working out what those reasons are, and if they apply to this or that war, this or that act of killing.
In that sense, Roeder’s act of murder is analogous to an Islamist insurgent bombing a US marine barracks. A killer killing the potential killers of his perceived brethren. What makes the Islamist wrong, what makes Roeder wrong, is not that the violated some unflinching principle of absolute pacifism, even in the face of profound justice. In the end, it’s simply that their cause was wrong. US soldiers are good people, but they are also good people who sometimes kill in the service of a higher cause. We can’t take the easy way out and condemn those soldiers as killers, the Islamist as a killer, and then wash our hands and walk away. We are asked instead to make a judgment call: whose cause was just? Whose methods were acceptable and necessary?
Dr. Tiller was not a soldier. He was not at war. But he was asked to make messy choices about life and death, about what was necessary, about whether the interests of his pregnant patients outweighed the interests of their fetuses. That he sided professionally and medically with the interests of the mothers does not inherently mean that he had no respect for the humanity of the fetuses, as hard as it may be for many of those in the pro-life camp to believe. It didn’t even require him to respect the lives of the fetuses any less than the mothers. It’s just that respecting human life alone can’t resolve the issue when interests conflict. Even interests concerning life and death. It’s a much harder call than any simple principle can handle.
If it’s only God that should or can take life away, the hard fact of the matter is that he’s nevertheless outsourced part of that responsibility to us. Not to end life capriciously. But to use our moral judgment, to use our humanity, to make the call about when it is necessary and right.
Acknowledging this does not have to blunt our respect for human life. It can, instead, deepen it