James K. Fitzpatrick’s "Pro–Life Loss of Nerve?" (FT, December 2000) identifies and addresses a weakness in the pro–life position: the apparent gap between what pro–lifers say abortion is and how they respond to it. While opponents of abortion insist that it is the unjust taking of innocent life, they at the same time condemn the use of violence as a means of preventing abortion. This seems inconsistent, Fitzpatrick notes, because everyone, including pro–life activists, would presumably praise the use of lethal violence to save innocent lives in other circumstances, for example, in the case of a murderer loose in a maternity ward. Yet if the unborn fetus is innocent human life no less than the born child, why should it be praiseworthy to use violence to save the one and not the other?
Fitzpatrick rightly notes the insufficiency of the typical pro–life responses to this charge of inconsistency, namely, that Christians reject violence and that violence cannot solve anything. Of course Christian moral teaching does allow for the use of violence as a response to grave injustice in some circumstances, and of course such action often can solve problems. In light of the unpersuasiveness of the common pro–life responses to this charge of inconsistency, one might suspect some unworthy motive, such as cowardice—the prospect of a long prison sentence—or hypocrisy—a lack of conviction that abortion really is as grave an evil as we say.
Fitzpatrick, however, dismisses these possible explanations, defending the integrity of the pro–life position by contending that its rejection of violence arises from a correct intuition that "it is impermissible to employ lethal force against our fellow citizens unless and until they have become incorrigible criminals, contemptible individuals deserving of an application of force to halt their ongoing iniquities." We rightly judge, he suggests, that those implicated in abortion are not such evil people. The fetus is a human person, but it is not self–evidently a human person, Fitzpatrick contends, and therefore those who approve of and take part in its destruction cannot justly be blamed as willful murderers. Without surrendering the pro–life position that the human fetus deserves protection as innocent life, Fitzpatrick endorses the notion that abortion is a question over which good people can disagree.
Fitzpatrick is to be commended for addressing this difficult question, and for doing so in a way that seeks to be both principled as well as charitable to the opponents and defenders of abortion alike. Nevertheless, serious problems attend his position. In what follows I seek to identify these problems and to offer an alternative account of why pro–lifers do not and should not advocate the use of violence against abortionists.
One may note at the outset that Fitzpatrick’s explanation and justification of the pro–life rejection of violence is based upon very subjective considerations. On his account, it is defensible not in terms of the reality of abortion itself, but instead in terms of our perception of the perpetrators of abortion. Indeed, the subjectivity goes even further: rejection of violence follows rightly from our perception of the abortionists’ perception of abortion.
The perception of honest error upon which Fitzpatrick stakes his argument, however, is far from obviously accurate. Some who are directly implicated in abortion may act as they do even though they know full well that the fetus is a human life, either from callous indifference or from a kind of weakness, a fear of the difficult consequences that will attend bringing the child to term. In fact, in recent years some of the public advocates of abortion have advanced the argument that the fetus is a human being and that abortion should be permitted anyway. Others implicated in this evil might possess a real conviction that the fetus is not a human life with rights that must be respected, but their error on this point might itself stem from a kind of negligence, an unwillingness to give this serious and controversial question the careful consideration it manifestly deserves. Still others are probably in the position of honest error attributed generally to the supporters of abortion by Fitzpatrick. Most likely abortion in America arises from some combination of deliberate evil, culpable ignorance, and honest error, and thus Fitzpatrick is too charitable in attributing it only to the last cause.
Even if his charitable assumption is right, however, that cannot truly explain why we should not use violence against those who take part in abortion. Fitzpatrick suggests that we should refrain from violence because the perpetrators of abortion, being sincerely misled, are not "deserving" of an application of force to stop them. Yet while lack of knowledge is a legitimate reason to mitigate or eliminate punishment for evils committed, Fitzpatrick’s argument addresses the use of violence as a means of preventing, not punishing, abortion, and the standards for using violence to prevent evil appear to be quite different from those governing its use to punish.
Paradoxically, it can be permissible and even right to use lethal force against people who in no way can be said to deserve it. For example, we accept civilian casualties through "collateral damage" in war, so long as they are not deliberately intended but instead arise indirectly though necessarily from legitimate attempts to get at combatants. Similarly, it may be acceptable to use violence against those who, through their own subjective misunderstanding of the evil they are about to commit, cannot be said to "deserve" to be subjected to such violence. Consider Fitzpatrick’s own example of a person killing babies in a maternity ward. What if such a person were insane, so deluded that he was honestly convinced that the babies were actually ferocious animals about to attack him? Such a person would not deserve death but pity. Yet it would still be right to use force to stop him because of the objective gravity of the evil he was committing, regardless of his subjective lack of evil intent.
In addition to being unable persuasively to account for why one ought not use violence as a way to stop abortion, Fitzpatrick’s account has dangerous implications, for it points to a kind of preemptive surrender in the face even of ever increasing evils. Again, it cannot be right, he contends, to resort to "forceful confrontation" so long as those committing the evils are in honest error, that is, so long as the nature of the deed is not evident to them. The social compact is not sufficiently debased by the gravity of the evils themselves to justify violence, and could only be so debased if the people perpetrating these evils saw them as evil and chose them nonetheless. This implies, however, that the state of society may be able to sink much lower than it already has, that the murderousness of which abortion is one manifestation will be able to spread considerably, and the social compact will still not be considered sufficiently debased to justify violence.
For example, on Fitzpatrick’s argument we may be required patiently to endure infanticide and involuntary euthanasia as well. Here’s the argument people will use, one that will be plausible enough to trigger Fitzpatrick’s interpretational charity: it is the capacity for rational speech and moral choice that distinguishes human beings from the lower animals. But infants, children, the comatose, and the debilitated all lack these distinctly human capacities or possess them only in an impaired way. Thus they are not fully human, and therefore killing them might not always be wrong. For the patient Fitzpatrick, since it is not evident (to some) that such actions are evil, presumably for society to permit such practices would not require a violent response among those, like Fitzpatrick, for whom the evil is evident. Indeed, the people who advocate such things may well be honestly convinced of the goodness and compassion of what they are doing. In sum, while explicitly adopting the view that force is a legitimate response to sufficiently grave evils, Fitzpatrick’s argument implicitly all but destroys the possibility of ever justifying force in practice by requiring that the malefactors who will be on the receiving end of that force be driven by a full recognition of the evil nature of their actions, a recognition that probably seldom drives any real human being and that perhaps cannot charitably be attributed to anyone.
In light of these difficulties, it seems necessary to seek some other reasons why pro–lifers do not and should not turn to violence. The possibilities I explore point us back in the direction of the alternatives rejected by Fitzpatrick: cowardice and hypocrisy. I do not contend that these vices are the sources of the pro–life rejection of violence. Rather, I argue that adherence to peaceful means is required by some perhaps inglorious, but nonetheless necessary and respectable, virtues that may unjustly be mistaken for cowardice and hypocrisy.
Fitzpatrick raises the possibility that pro–lifers do not use violence because they are deterred by the "prospect of a long prison sentence." He dismisses this possibility, saying that pro–lifers "are not usually thought to lack courage." Obviously a long prison sentence is not a pleasant prospect, and under ordinary circumstances any sensible person would want to avoid it and would refrain from the actions that might lead to it. Thus to suggest, as Fitzpatrick does, that it would be cowardice to refrain from such actions in the case of preventing abortion implies that it is courageous (and not foolhardy) to take them on.
Fitzpatrick speaks of "the duty to save innocent lives at risk." I certainly do not deny that such a duty exists, but I wonder if it exists in such an unqualified way as Fitzpatrick’s argument implies. It is not obvious that the duty to save innocent lives at risk obligates us to act when the risk to ourselves is very great. If Fitzpatrick’s killer in the maternity ward had not a meat cleaver but a machine gun, and the bystander were unarmed, then intervention could reasonably be supposed to result in nothing but the latter’s death in addition to that of the other victims. Is there an obligation to intervene in such a case? In fact, this situation is more analogous to the one confronted by the pro–life activist. The person in Fitzpatrick’s example will, if he succeeds, be treated as a hero, and almost certainly not be prosecuted, while the pro–lifer who successfully uses violence to prevent an abortion will almost certainly face life in prison or perhaps even execution.
Fitzpatrick recognizes these differences, but he dismisses them as unworthy of entering into the pro–lifer’s calculations. Again, this implies that we are obligated to act to save the innocent even when the risks to ourselves are grave. I think that this is not the case, even according to the very lofty standards of Christian morality that many pro–lifers profess. As Augustine points out, the Great Commandment instructs us to love not only God and neighbor but also, implicitly, ourselves. No doubt a self–love that makes us indifferent to the plight of the unborn is disordered and excessive, but one can be very far from indifferent to their plight, can in fact go very far in acting on their behalf, without going so far as sacrificing life or freedom to save them. To be sure, Christ observes that "a greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." Yet surely this, like his comments on poverty and celibacy, is more a counsel of perfection than a statement of a duty.
The matter is further complicated by the fact that pro–lifers often have obligations of justice to others, the fulfillment of which would be rendered impossible, or at least placed in serious jeopardy, by such risky action in defense of the unborn. Many have explicitly promised to stay with and care for spouses and have implicitly undertaken the same obligations with regard to the children they have called into existence. Aquinas suggests that the order of charity requires that we care first for ourselves and our own, and in that light it might not even be permissible, let alone obligatory, for such persons to act outside the law to save the innocent, any more than it would be permissible for a married man to take a vow of celibacy or for a father a vow of poverty.
In sum, when many pro–lifers refrain from violence in defense of the unborn, they may well do so out of a fear of punishment, and do so rightly. This is not the vice of cowardice but an important virtue that superficially resembles it: prudent self–love. I hasten to add, however, that this is not the best reason for rejecting violence in this cause. Considered only up to this point, my argument could be understood to suggest that the use of violence is a kind of heroic risk–taking that, while it is not obligatory for anyone and not permissible for many, is nonetheless noble in those who may undertake it. This is not what I intend to argue, and it is therefore necessary to proceed to another reason for rejecting violence in this cause.
Consider the following famous exchange from Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, in which Thomas More’s son–in–law encourages him to use his authority to punish a man guilty of real evil that is nonetheless not forbidden by law.
Alice: While you talk, he’s gone!
More: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law.
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you—where would you hide Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
More’s concluding comment frames the issue in terms of self–interest and therefore seems to recall the argument based on prudent self–regard advanced above. Nevertheless, his point clearly has wider, and more public–spirited, implications: no one could stand in the winds that would blow once the laws were all down, no matter in how good a cause the cutting had been done. Hence our respect for the law, even when it shelters evil, is necessary not only for our own self–preservation, but also for the protection of all other members of the community who are guilty of no crime.
I would contend, then, that violence in opposition to abortion ought to be rejected because the use of such violence, even though intended to save innocent lives, threatens to create a situation in which innocent life is even less secure than it is currently. The law, tragically and inexcusably, does not protect fetal human life. But we must ask whether that neglect authorizes private persons to exercise lethal force to prevent the evil. To answer affirmatively and to act accordingly would be effectively to destroy the social compact, in practice to authorize every citizen to kill to prevent whatever each one takes to be an injustice insufficiently addressed by law. If pro–lifers publicly assert and act on a right to kill abortionists, what is to stop their example from spreading to other activists for other causes, perhaps not as worthy, but nonetheless felt as worthy by those who profess them? If pro–lifers set the precedent, is it not to be expected that environmentalists, and animal rights activists, and population controllers, and euthanasiasts will follow it? Simply put, the private use of violence even in defense of innocent life will likely result in practice in rapidly growing anarchy, and hence in the untold loss of innocent life. This is not to oppose civil disobedience, a tactic which all these groups, including pro–lifers, have used. But civil disobedience, to remain "civil," must be nonviolent.
In order to achieve the good of national peace, then, we should be willing to coexist for a time with the evil of abortion. This, however, is emphatically not a case of doing evil that good may come, but merely of tolerating an evil for fear of an even worse evil; and much of traditional Christian moral teaching indicates that our leeway in considering consequences is much greater when our actions are not causing the evil directly. Thus, for example, a nation could not morally commit genocide to solve even the most serious problems, but it could legitimately decline to intervene to stop another nation’s genocide out of a reasonable fear that such an effort would in fact cause the genocide to spread. Indeed, the pro–life rejection of violence rests on even stronger grounds than these, for it is not so much a tolerance of the evil—after all, pro–lifers are and should be committed to doing everything possible within the law to bring the practice to a halt—as an unwillingness to resort to the most radical means to stop it.
One might contend that this argument is marred by one of the defects that I earlier attributed to Fitzpatrick’s, specifically, that it represents a preemptive surrender to all manner of future evil. After all, if the killing of innocent babies will not provoke us to sever the social compact and risk plunging the nation into civil war, what will? Are we not, on my argument, committed to enduring every possible future evil out of a fear of the worse evils that might result from using force to resist them?
Here I would revert to the previously mentioned distinction between tolerating evils and doing them. If the state were to compel our direct cooperation in evil actions, then perhaps a violent reaction would be justified. Even then, however, a violent reaction might be permissible but not obligatory: surely it would be as principled simply to refuse cooperation and suffer the punishment accordingly. In any case, it would no longer be possible for the adherents of the culture of life to avoid actions that threaten to land them in jail or worse.
It seems, then, that we should refrain from using violence against those involved in abortion not because they do not deserve it (though of course we should in Christian charity assume that they do not), and not because of the fear of punishment (though such fear is not in itself dishonorable in this case), but instead because of the even worse public consequences that would follow from the use of such means. It is at this point, I think, that we turn back in the direction of something that resembles hypocrisy as intimately related to the pro–life position on this question. Again, I contend not that hypocrisy is in fact involved, but a virtue that can be mistaken for hypocrisy.
That virtue might be called discretion or guardedness about the true grounds of our position. Consider the difficulties that would attend revealing with perfect clarity the best argument for rejecting violence against abortionists. That argument, as presented above, holds not that it is wrong in itself to use violence in this cause, but instead that it is wrong because of its consequences, or, to put it another way, that refusal to use violence arises not from an absolute rejection of violence but from a calculation that violence is improper in these circumstances.
But this is as much as to reveal that one would use violence in some circumstances. Indeed, if the law protected fetal life as fully as any other human life, I dare say that most pro–lifers would be willing to use violence to save the unborn in the case of an intransigent abortionist planning an imminent abortion that could be stopped in no other way. In such a situation, as in Fitzpatrick’s hypothetical, the law and society would approve our action after the fact, and so we would confront no harmful consequences either for ourselves personally by incurring punishment or for society as a whole by breaking the social compact. To reveal this position clearly would no doubt be scandalous to most Americans and therefore harmful to the pro–life cause. Hence it is not surprising that most pro–life leaders have to resort to unsatisfactory but publicly reassuring arguments for their rejection of violence.
The question, just raised, of what the situation might be in a nation that did forbid and punish abortion points us to another problem with the pro–life position, one that also requires what might look like hypocrisy or dishonesty, but which, again, could be viewed as a kind of prudent guardedness and misdirection. This problem is raised by Fitzpatrick but never addressed by him: Is it not contradictory, as those opposed to the pro–life movement point out, to contend that abortion is murder and at the same time to deny that we would punish those involved in it as murderers or accessories to murder, just as we would someone implicated in the killing of a child?
One can render the apparent hypocrisy even more extreme. Most who profess to believe that abortion is the taking of innocent life would likely be willing to embrace a law that provided no other punishment for it than the loss of the physician’s medical license. The pro–lifer will no doubt intuit that such a law would be desirable as a step in the right direction. At the same time, however, he would have to admit that it still tends to devalue the life of the unborn. For we would then be jailing or executing those who kill humans outside the womb but only lightly chastising those who kill them in the womb.
It is, in this light, quite easy to charge pro–lifers with hypocrisy, and it is, again, not so easy to respond to the charge without resorting to something that looks like deception. When confronted with the charge of hypocrisy in this situation, the pro–lifer is faced with two equally problematic responses. On the one hand, he could simply lie, denying that the fetus deserves the same protection in law as anyone else, asserting that his position is in fact that the fetus deserves only this much more protection than it is currently getting, and that is all: this mild punishment is as far as we should go. This response suffers from the twofold problem of being immoral on its own terms, since it involves telling a falsehood, as well as foreclosing the possibility of future greater protection for the unborn.
On the other hand, one could frankly admit the truth of one’s position: we accept this law only as a step toward the complete criminalization of abortion. If one takes this position, it follows that once we get where we intend to take the country, abortion will be recognized as homicide and punished accordingly. This response has the virtue of being honest, if indeed that is one’s position, but it suffers from the bad practical consequence of so provoking public opinion as to make impossible even the modest increase in protection for the fetus that one hopes to achieve.
Hence the need when confronted with such a question for the pro–lifer who holds that position to respond with discretion. If pressed with the argument that pro–life principles imply a more radical policy than that currently being advocated, one might simply stand on something like this: I have not advocated and do not now advocate such a policy. This response has the advantage of not revealing the politically problematic full truth while not falling into falsehood either. It is the truth, but not the whole truth. It is no denial that one would someday, in better circumstances, advocate the more uncompromising policy.
No doubt this will appear to many as merely tired Clintonian equivocation rendered more palatable only by being placed in the service of a good cause. We should recognize, however, that such equivocation or guardedness, such misdirection, has had some very respectable practitioners who have used it in some very good causes.
Abraham Lincoln, in arguing against slavery, responded in such a manner to those who tried to attribute to him more radical purposes. To those who said that his critique of slavery on the basis of the principles of equality found in the Declaration of Independence implied not only that slavery was wrong, but also that blacks should vote, Lincoln responded that such a proposal was not practical and was not in fact what he advocated, thus avoiding the more difficult questions: whether his account of the Declaration in fact required such equality, and whether he thought giving blacks the right to vote really was desirable. Yet we know from his later career (in particular his effort to influence the drafting of the new Louisiana constitution) that he did think that blacks should be given the franchise.
Nor should such tactics be regarded as unworthy of a Christian statesman. Again, as Thomas More observes in Bolt’s play, "God made the angels to show Him splendor—as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind." Abortion is a terrible evil, and we must fight it earnestly. But that fight, to be successful, requires more than earnestness. To live in this world and to combat its evils we must indeed be both wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
Carson Holloway teaches political science at Concord College in Athens, West Virginia. He is the author of All Shook Up: Music, Passion, and Politics (Spence).