Friday, January 29, 2010

Mitigating Circumstances

The ongoing abortion-doctor murder trial in Wichita is an interesting event spiritually and ethically. About the facts, there is little debate. There is no doubt that Scott Roeder walked into the church of an abortion provider. He then approached Dr. George Tiller, and in a church sanctuary shot him dead. Roeder affirms that he did this, and also states that he is not remorseful, and that he would be willing to do it again.

What is interesting is why. Scott Roeder killed Dr. Tiller because he believes with absolute certainty that abortion constitutes the taking of an innocent life. In his understanding that Dr. Tiller had engaged in that willful killing and would continue to do so, Roeder felt morally compelled to stop him. That is the entirety of his defense.

I do not agree with this, obviously. I believe that abortion is ethically difficult. It is a nasty, bloody thing. It is a sign of relational dysfunction. It should be reduced through contraception and teaching a healthy sexual ethos over and against the endless belch of self-indulgent skeeving presented by our culture. But from both reason and Scripture, I know that it is not the same thing as murder.

The challenge here is that Roeder's essential argument justifying his actions is not in any way different from the core of the pro-life movement. It is just that he has taken the rhetoric to it's logical conclusion. Though I reject his premises, I see that within the context of those premises, his argument in his own defense has integrity.

If there was a man above the law in my home town who was murdering with impunity, I would be compelled to act to stop him. Let us imagine for a moment that he was a racist in a racist society, who every once in a while killed a member of a hated and disenfranchised minority. He could be a Klansman in the South. Or, if you want Biblical precedent, an overseer in Egypt. With the power of the state on his side, and the community unwilling to act, what other options would there be?

This, I think, presents a deep ethical challenge for the pro-life movement. If you hold the pro-life position, then you must at least admit to there being significant mitigating circumstances in this case. Yes, Christians are to be non-violent. But if you hold the tenet that abortion is murder, then the long tradition of Just War theory within Christianity applies. Under those rubrics, defense of self is not permitted...but defense of the innocent Other is permitted.

When I hear the Catholic Church and other pro-life groups saying (rather quietly) that they condemn this killing, I find myself wondering: given what you say about abortion, on what grounds? If, as you say, abortion is a Holocaust, would you have condemned Bonhoeffer if he'd succeeded in killing Hitler?

It is a gut check moment. Which is why the pro-life movement is eager for this case to simply disappear.


  1. Hear, hear. Excellently put, my brother.

  2. Being the good "Fundy" that I am, I couldn't disagree with you more, of course. ;o) There is no inconsistency in condemning the murder of Dr. Tiller and simultaneously condemning the killing of children in the womb.
    Abortion is not simply a "naughty practice." Nor a "deviance from the norm". It is evil. Walking up to a man and shooting him to death at point blank range is evil. It is not "vengeance for the innocent". Nor is it a righteous act. It is evil.

    Would you call MLK Jr. and his followers inconsistent for not taking up arms against those in the South of the '50's and '60's who actively murdered their fellow civil rights activists and supporters? All they did was talk, march, sing and pray about it. No taking up of "the sword" on their part. That was a Biblically consistent response on their part, I might add. It was a long arduous battle but was won without violence on the part of Dr. King Jr. and his followers.

  3. As an aside, I read that Numbers chapter 5 passage you cited and I don't see any temple sanctioned abortions there. I am pretty slow, however.

    I do get from the text (in the ESV and NASB, at least) what appears to be a woman being made 'sterile' because of her adultery.

    I think your argument for the Exodus 21:22-25 passage as speaking to only the harm done to the woman in this case is a stretch as well. The language in verses 23-25 would seem to be speaking about someone else. The object in particular of "but there is no harm" in verse 22 and of "but if there is harm" in verse 23 appears to reinforce that.

    I didnt read all the combox input over there on Xanga, but will chip away at it later.

    Just my 2 cents.

  4. Excellent post and writing style. Bookmarked.

  5. @ how to ollie: Thanks!

    @ Jonathan: Xanga...why does that sound familiar? I feel I know that name, but can't quite place it.


  6. "@ Jonathan: Xanga...why does that sound familiar? I feel I know that name, but can't quite place it."

    Yes, many many moon ago I ventured forth onto the wasteland that is the Xangaverse. I regret deleting the old "...with all humility of mind" page. I've got a page over on Xanga's red headed step-child, revelife, however.

    Since you mentioned Bonhoeffer in this post I thought I'd post a really great article I had bookmarked and forgotten about til recently. It deals with his posthumously published "Ethics" and speaks directly to the abortion issue.

    Bonhoeffer on Abortion