When is a child not a child?

That sounds like the opening line of a not very funny joke, but it is the question that bothers me almost every time my fellow abortion opponents open their mouths. They claim it is “children” who die in abortions. Do they, however, really mean children-like the ones you see toddling in the street? Reactions to the deeds of Paul Hill and John Salvi suggest, to this observer anyway, that people in the anti-
abortion movement often say things they do not and should not mean.

Following the news that a Florida judge had condemned Hill to the electric chair, the National Right to Life Committee expressed the view of most abortion foes. While mourning the deaths of “unborn children,” the committee “unequivocally oppose[d]” Mr. Hill’s decision to kill an abortion doctor to stop the man from going about this daily rounds. On the same day that I read the Committee’s statement, I picked up the December 1994 issue of First Things containing a symposium among conservative religious thinkers on “Killing Abortionists.” Cardinal O’Connor of New York, Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, the Christian Coalition’s Ralph Reed, and others urged against accepting Paul Hill’s statement that “Whatever force is legitimate in defending a born child is legitimate in defending an unborn child.” Nearly all the symposium’s participants agreed that the strictures of such authorities as Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin rule out the deliberate use of deadly force to stop abortions.

It was not that the contributors disputed Mr. Hill’s view that the entity in the womb is unambiguously a “child.” They spoke of abortion as “a moral species of murder” perpetrated against “unborn children,” “innocent human beings.” Indeed, the one thing Paul Hill has in common with the mainstream anti-abortion movement is a tendency to speak about abortion in the language of genocide. One hears constantly about the slaughter of “children” in the abortion “holocaust.”

Thus after John Salvi let loose his own salvo against the abortion industry, it was no surprise to find Randall Terry of Operation Rescue writing in the New York Post about the “slaughter [of] our young,” “the murder of innocent children,” “thirty-five million innocent babies [torn] from their mothers’ wombs”-while simultaneously opposing armed action on the grounds of unspecified “principles of Calvin, Knox, and Cromwell concerning ‘lower magistrates.’”

Though abortion opponents favor the most colorful possible speech, one may oppose abortion without it. For instance, there is the Jewish approach (which is my own). Exodus 21:22 specifies what happens when a man violently brings a woman’s pregnancy to a premature end: he pays a fine, a penalty hardly comparable to that imposed by God for murder (the death penalty) or for manslaughter (internal exile). Citing this and other verses, the rabbis of the Talmud concluded that abortion, while not the murder of a child, is to be strongly rejected as an interference in the divinely guided process of human reproduction.

So, as a Jew, I always stop short at terms like “holocaust” as applied to abortion. A holocaust is the mass murder of entities that are human beings in every sense in which Cardinal O’Connor or Randall Terry is a human being. And if a holocaust were going on in the United States today, one would think the responsibility to take up arms against it would be as great as it was when an undisputed Holocaust was going on in Europe. Within that part of the anti-abortion movement whose members decry the “murder” of “innocent children,” a few, such as Paul Hill and John Salvi, have acted accordingly-bombing clinics and shooting staffers. That these men used force in a wild, uncontrolled way does not mean that sane abortion foes could not come up with a more careful strategy, using the minimum level of violence necessary to accomplish their end: say, by shooting abortion doctors in the legs instead of the head, or setting fire to clinics by night.

And yet when a Catholic priest in Alabama sought to justify the use of force to prevent abortions, his archbishop denounced and suspended him. Reacting to Paul Hill, Cardinal O’Connor said, “If anyone has an urge to kill an abortionist, let him kill me instead.” Some abortion opponents I know disdain even the civil disobedience of Operation Rescue. And the archbishop of Boston has gone so far as to rule out even peaceful protests on the sidewalks outside abortion clinics. These polite people insist on the adequacy of words and votes.

To be sure, they offer earnest intellectual justifications for their inaction. Some allow that they might in theory accept the use of force to stop the murder of “babies,” but “prudential considerations” regarding the practical effectiveness of violence rule it out. Yet I have never heard a sustained discussion comparing the strategic merits of peaceful persuasion (which so far has produced meager results) with the merits of force. Among this variety of abortion foes, as soon as the words “prudential considerations” (or some equivalent) are invoked, the discussion comes to a quick, relieved halt. Others present arguments opposing force altogether, on moral grounds.

A detailed example appeared in the November 1994 issue of Catholic World Report , in which Professor John M. Haas cited the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas: “It is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good.” Professor Haas, who speaks of “the unborn” instead of “the children,” reserves to the state the right to kill in defense of innocent life, and concludes that “two wrongs do not make a right.” Alternatively, an abortion opponent may say the abortionist “kills children” but does not “murder” them, since murder implies an intent to take the life of an entity you know to be a full human being. Cardinal O’Connor asserts that, despite the mass “murder” going on, “The United States today is not Nazi Germany.”

There is a gap in reasoning here. Assume that a fetus is a child. Then every five years, the United States allows the murder of more babies than the Nazis killed Jews. Yes, the authorities who guarantee the right of abortion and the doctors who carry out the surgery do not believe fetuses are human beings, but neither did the Nazis believe that Jews are human beings. In one case the government itself organized the act of genocide. In the other, the government guarantees the right of a subpopulation-abortionists-to commit genocide. So if a fetus is a child, what’s the big difference?

The truth is, the distinctions offered by the intellectuals and activists I refer to have about them a distinct air of excuse-making. Imagine that fifty years ago a theologian of moral seriousness equal to that of Cardinal O’Connor found himself outside the gate of Auschwitz and holding a machine gun, given the opportunity to liberate some prisoners by shooting a couple of guards. Had you at that moment admonished him-saying “two wrongs do not make a right”-one assumes he would not have been deterred.

I know from experience that most abortion foes are people moved not by some psychosexual desire to enslave women, as pro-abortion activists frequently allege, but by a commitment to moral sentiments. If these intelligent and passionately engaged men and women believed with a whole heart that abortion is murder, if they really believed that the lives of a million actual children are at stake every year, then I have no doubt they would be organizing clandestine paramilitary units to move against abortion providers at this moment. They would find justification in Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin.

Thank God they are not arming for guerrilla war. Yet neither that fact, nor any admiration for their moral commitments, should excuse such sloppy language. For language has consequences. Just as you must not shout “fire” in a theater crowded with people, you must not say “murder” and “child” in a movement that includes people, however few, like John Salvi.

David Klinghoffer is Literary Editor of National Review.