Tuesday, June 2, 2009

On the Slaying of Dr. Tiller

On May 31st of 2009, Dr. Tiller was murdered in his church (see Washington Post article).

Tonight, I heard news commentators call the murder of Dr. Tiller an act of terrorism. For an example, see U.S. News and World Report's Bonnie Erbe's article here. Commentators explain that the murder was an act of violence whose intention was to strike fear in the populace and to effect a change with regard to a political matter through that fear and violence. The attack was part of a pattern of such activities, given that other abortion doctors have been murdered and many healthcare workers have been injured and harassed in the last few years going to and from work and even at their homes.

Others respond to the murder with the belief that Dr. Tiller "Reaped what he sowed," a point of view you can read more about here in a Washington Post article. If one thinks that abortions are murder sanctioned by law, one might say that the one murder prevents the murder of many others.

There is a substantial difference, however, even if one takes this harsh point of view. Surely laws have been unjust in the past, and as Dr. Martin Luther King has said, repeating the idea of other philosophers before him, an unjust law is no law. Consider at least this difference, whatever your beliefs are. While a baby is thought by some to be a person with a soul to be protected, there is a great deal of controversy about this belief. Also, it is not a simple matter of empirical fact. If we could just look with our eyes at a video tape, we can often end controversy over whether a ball is in or out on the tennis court. In the case of when it is we deem a human body to be a person independent and worthy of protection from harm, however, different people look at the same things and do not arrive at consensus. On the other hand, when people look at Dr. Tiller, there was no controversy at all. He was universally understood as a person endowed with the rights of a citizen, whether or not people think he has done wrong. As such, what I am trying to focus on here is a distinction that the philosopher Aristotle made over two thousand years ago. The distinction is between the actual and the possible.

If you buy a tree from me, and I bring you acorns, you can surely get a tree one day. At the same time, you will legitimately have a complaint to raise against me, given that I promised you a tree, and an acorn could in fact not survive the process of becoming a tree, would need to be planted, tended, and so on.

What makes late-term abortions like those that Dr. Tiller performed more controversial for people was the fact that in late term pregnancies, babies are at the point at which they could survive on their own. In such cases, the actual and the possible are far less distinguished. We would be dealing more with a sapling than an acorn. At the same time, when my students write their papers arguing against late term abortions, they invariably talk about the procedures, ignoring the motivations people have for getting abortions in the third term. The rule established in Roe v. Wade explains that third term abortions are not allowed unless the health of the mother is at risk. So, if one seeks a late term abortion, it can only be legal to perform the procedure if the health of the mother is seriously at risk. In such cases, then, we are dealing with two lives. The immediate idea that the baby should be prioritized over the mother is not self-evident. In fact, a child could be devastated to learn that against his or her mother's wishes, Mom was forced to deliver her child into a life without Mom.

Dr. Tiller performed his procedures legally within these bounds. He was a person and a citizen. His murder was motivated without direct harm to the murderer, entailed political consequences as well as consequences for the availability of healthcare options for women, and it struck fear in doctors and healthcare workers everywhere. The claim that the murder was terrorism appears justified. At the same time, some still think that this murder was the right thing to do (again, Washington Post article).

It is hard for me to imagine that Jesus would call people to murder others. Certainly there are non-Christian opponents to abortion. What worries me most at this point is how little repudiation I have seen of the murder, an act that no one can call anything but murder, and that can reasonably be labeled American terrorism. This scares me.

One last matter: on the relation between pro-life activism and the Republican party. There are many Republicans I know who are not pro-life. Also, there are many Republicans who oppose Roe v. Wade mainly because they would rather see individual states decide the matter locally. These positions are quite different from the Sarah Palin point of view - wanting a constitutional ban on abortion. I suspect that the number of people who hold that position is in fact far fewer than people suspect. The news media has said often that America is a center-right nation, whatever that means. At the same time, people like Colin Powell and John McCain do not agree with Palin's view, and are far more moderate. I suspect that the Republican party will either split or will suffer further from identity problems as this social issue continues to separate the moderate from the very conservative base of the party. At the same time, why do we feel so wedded to two parties, aside of course for the desire to have greater numbers and strength? After all, the Democrats are usually extremely divided internally as well.

Dr. Tiller's services angered many people. At the same time, if a couple had to choose between the mother and her child whose birth could kill her, I cannot imagine them making a decision in a manner that would be anything other than serious, painful, yet thoughtful. As Ben Franklin advocated in his list of thirteen virtues, we ought imitate the humility of Jesus and Socrates. On the other hand, the murder of Dr. Tiller points to the dangers of extremism the scope of which is not often this clear. Now more than ever we must talk about these extremes and demand of our leaders, secular, religious, liberals, and conservatives, to denounce this violence and its afront against our democracy.