Jacob Sullum

Why is killing abortionists wrong?

Scott Roeder, whose trial begins this week in Wichita, Kan., wanted to argue that killing the abortion doctor George Tiller was necessary to prevent a greater evil: the murder of unborn children. Since that is not how the law views what Tiller did for a living, it is not surprising that the judge would not let Roeder present a "necessity" defense.

But it is surprising that so many people who proclaim that fetuses have a right to life reject Roeder's argument out of hand. Killing abortionists may or may not be a good long-term strategy for saving unborn babies, but it is hard to see why the use of deadly force is not morally justified, at least in principle, once you accept the premise that abortion is tantamount to murder.

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After Roeder shot Tiller in the doctor's Wichita church last May, anti-abortion groups rushed to condemn the attack. "The National Right to Life Committee unequivocally condemns any such acts of violence regardless of motivation," the organization declared. "The pro-life movement works to protect the right to life and increase respect for human life. The unlawful use of violence is directly contrary to that goal."

The more confrontational Operation Rescue sang the same tune. "Operation Rescue has worked for years through peaceful, legal means, and through the proper channels, to bring (Tiller) to justice," it said. "We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place this morning." The group nevertheless welcomed the resulting closure of Tiller's clinic. Similarly, Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry implicitly condemned Tiller's killing even while continuing to call him a "mass murderer."

Obeying the law is generally a good idea, but there are exceptions. When the law blesses the murder of babies, it is hardly worthy of respect, any more than laws blessing the enslavement of Africans or the gassing of Jews were, and violent resistance against such enactments surely can be justified. A pro-life position does not require pacifism in the face of a murderous assault it allows and arguably demands the use of force in defense of oneself and others.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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