Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Another murder aimed at furthering the 'pro-life' agenda

It had to happen, the pro-life affirming loonies in the USA have taken yet another person's life. George Tiller, MD, a medical doctor specialising in reproductive health services, including medically indicated late-term abortions, was gunned down outside a church service in his home town. I'm probably as shocked about this killing as most reality based people. However, there's a deeper issue about this, at least to my mind.

The religious ideologies that triggered the murder of Tiller (and, in the past, others like him) want their adherents to subscribe to the view that from the moment of biological conception (marriage and all, you know the drill) the developing embryonic cell mass is of infinite value and should be treated as if it was a person. Well, persons - all other things being equal - are usually seen to have a right to life. At a minimum this is understood as a negative right, ie I must not interfere with such a person's right to life (by way of killing that person).

Let me be clear: I do think the view that something that has no central nervous system, that has no capacity to suffer, and that has no higher brain function has a right to life, makes no sense at all. What harm could possibly have been done to such a thing if it is destroyed? None at all, at least as far as I can see. It is for that reason that I reject the idea that we should treat the developing embryonic cell mass from the moment of conception as if it was a person. After all, it isn't a person, so why bother? It's a bit like saying that I should treat the leader of the opposition as if she was the leader of government. She might have the potential to be the next leader of government, but right now she is not. I surely cannot smuggle the right to be treated as if you were the leader of government into the potential to become the leader of government. A lot of potential things never eventuate (eg my potential to be an astronaut will not ever be realised).

However, and here is where I am troubled about this matter. IF someone really holds the barmy view that the embryonic cell mass after conception is infinitely valuable and should be treated as if it was a person from that moment onwards, it is only logical that you consider abortions murder. In turn it is perfectly reasonable for such a person to treat abortion providing health care professionals as if they were murderers. Surely it is not unreasonable (from such a person's perspective) to try to prevent further murders from happening. Ergo it should not come as a big surprise that Doctor Tiller was murdered by a 'good citizen' trying to prevent further murders at the hands of the good doctor.

So, the pro-life crowd's handwaving along the lines that the murderer is not one of theirs, makes not much sense. The ideology they propagate leads, to my mind inevitably so, to the killing of people like Tiller. Freedom of speech seemingly covers Catholic propaganda ministers freedom to spout lies about a supposedly ongoing 'genocide', whereby the deliberately and mistakenly refer to blobs of cells as 'children'. IF you really believe that propaganda, surely it's not unreasonable to conclude that in order to stop the genocide the perpetrators of the genocide must be stopped. Killing one person (eg Dr Tiller) is clearly seen by some of those on the pro-life side as the lesser of two evils. They are only able to reach this conclusion, however, because the church hierarchy continues to propagate outrageous nonsense about 'genocide' and 'holocaust' and whatnot when it comes to abortion. This is where the blame for Tiller's murder as well as that of others like him squarely belongs. You shouldn't be too surprised if some people at least do actually fall for your agitprop.


  1. AnonymousJune 02, 2009

    IF you really believe that propaganda, surely it's not unreasonable to conclude that in order to stop the genocide the perpetrators of the genocide must be stopped.
    Is it really possible to go that far?

    The reason I ask is that under Catholic morality (which I'll loosely summarise as moral objectivity + natural law + moral deontology), it's absolutely impermissible to kill an abortionist in order to prevent the (allegedly) greater evil of allowing said abortionist to continue his trade.

    Now, that's clear to anyone with a sprinkling of ethical philosophy in their toolbox. And, to their credit, the bishops et al. say exactly this: they would never directly advocate violence.

    Is the problem that there are plenty of loons out there who are ignorant/incapaple of applying their own church's teaching, and a tiny minority end up 'justifying' murder through a consequential argument as you outline above? Do the bishops have any moral accountability for the naiveties of their own flock?

    For the record, I'm very much in the reality-based camp...I'm just not sure it's possible to go as far with this argument as you state above.

  2. AnonymousJune 02, 2009

    propagate outrageous nonsense about 'genocide' and 'holocaust'On second reading, I think I'm over-egging the undergrad ethics. It's clear from the quote above that you do think that the overuse of emotive language by people in authority is troubling.

    I'm still not completely convinced that the blame for the murder lies 'squarely' there (rather than the hands of the trigger-puller)....but that might just be blogtalk.

    I don't think we're a million miles from each other, but interested in any response nonetheless.


  3. Re. that comment. The reasoning holds only as long as you assume the life of the abortionist to be innocent human life (that is a very important and always repeated qualification to the sanctity of life doctrine, especially by ethicists belonging to the Catholic camp). For instance, if you are attacked you may be justified to kill the attacker, and you may indeed kill someone that attacks someone else. But according to the doctrine, this assumption does not hold in case of the abortionist, since the abortionist is a serial murderer of inneocent human beings (for the reasons that Udo just explained). Ergo, unless one can point to a less morally troublesome way to stop his practice, killing him is quite alright. That's traditional natural law doctrine. Now, if we move to more modern brands of sanctity of life, such as Kant's analysis, it becomes even more easy to justify the killing the abortionist, since - due to his status as murderer - he has forfeited his right to life. In fact, justice demands that he be killed, as Kant famously claimed about the the execution of the last murderer before we dissolve society.

    Now, I'm just waiting for the realization among people believing in these sort of moral ideas, that where they really should be looking is not to abortion clinics, rather it's the IVF and stemcell labs they should target. If abortion practice in the US amounts to genocide, as they hold, reproductive and embryo research medicine units must qualify for some label like hypergenocide. And then I expect them to become serious on large scale preventive bombing á la Bush...

  4. I don't have much to add to what Christian Munthe has so nicely elaborated on, except to add this little link, http://www.abpnews.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=4119&Itemid=53 (a Southern Baptist Church former Vice President explaining why it's great news that Tiller was murdered), and this link, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frank-schaeffer/how-i-and-other-pro-life_b_209747.html where a former pro-lifer accepts some of the responsibility for the Tiller murder.

  5. Of course there is also this implicit 'take justice into your own hands if you happen to think God supports your views' aspect to this murder. Very exotic in appearance as seen from Europe, deeply troubling, and I did not see much condemnation of this from religious leaders for some obscure reason...

  6. AnonymousJune 03, 2009

    And what should become of the killer of a killer... but to be killed!

  7. ColinGavaghanJune 03, 2009

    I agree entirely; the point at which the pro-life train departs from the tracks of reason is soon after it leaves the station - in attributing full moral status to a pre-sentient organism. If we accept that premise, then the tactics are at least arguably justified, subject only to the consequentialist caveat that they might not work. (And the same logic can presumably be applied to animal rights 'extremists' who employ violent tactics against research labs - except in their case, they are on somewhat more solid ethical ground, in that rats and beagles are almost certainly capable of suffering).

    Interestingt point re innocent lives, Christian. I wonder, though, how RC ethics deal with the non-culpable assailant. In the notorious conjoined twins case, LJ Ward explained that the legal defence of self-defence does not rely on culpability; hence, if an orderly in a psychiatric hospital is attacked by a patient who he knows to be insane, he can still employ violence - even, as a last resort, lethal violence - to defend himself. Would that be allowable to an RC theologian too, do you think?

  8. Colin: a very astute question within this ethical tradition indeed. I guess the doctrine of the double effect could allow it (given the right sort of motives), as could Kantian ethics (these attackers are not autonomous...). Alan Donagan (in the book The Theory of Morality) argued it to make sense to talk about innocent aggressors within the confines of a right to self-defense.


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