Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

George Tiller, RIP

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 02, 2009

George Tiller was one of the few doctors in the United States who was willing to perform late-term abortions. He was murdered on Sunday morning, as he entered a church in Wichita, Kansas, by one Scott Roeder, who is apparently unconnected with any pro-life group. The motive is not yet clear.

Tiller’s murder prompted the usual spate of declarations by pro-life groups, declarations which the most rabid of anti-lifers are unlikely to believe. In fact, even to a sympathetic observer, these statements always sound somewhat calculated. They try, perhaps too emotionally, to discourage the general public from concluding that pro-lifers are, in effect, terrorists.

In this context, I recall Shakespeare’s famous line in Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” There is danger in overdoing it. Two representative responses will help to illustrate what I mean. First, in Dr. Tiller's home state, here is the response of Kansans for Life:

Kansans for Life deplores the murder of Dr. George Tiller, and we wish to express our deep and sincere sympathy to his family and friends…. Our organization has a board of directors and a 35 year history of bringing citizens together to achieve thoughtful education and legislation on the life issues here in Kansas. We value life, completely deplore violence, and are shocked and very upset by what happened in Wichita today.

Nearly every pro-life organization made these same three points in its statement: (1)  It was shocked; (2)  It was saddened and sympathetic; and (3) As a matter of principle, it deplores all violence, including the killing of abortionists. But is it really likely that many serious pro-lifers are shocked and upset by this turn of events, or filled with sympathy for Dr. Tiller’s family, his friends, or the Lutheran congregation which blithely welcomed such a man with open arms in the capacity of usher? Does it really serve a good purpose to be so ostensibly shocked and sympathetic? Does such a statement stimulate trust or distrust in those who read or hear it?

Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life similarly sought to establish his group’s bona fides:

I am saddened to hear of the killing of George Tiller this morning. At this point, we do not know the motives of this act… But whatever the motives, we at Priests for Life continue to insist on a culture in which violence is never seen as the solution to any problem. Every life has to be protected, without regard to their age or views or actions.

Every life, without regard to actions? Really? So if a man opens fire in a public square, a policeman may not shoot him to stop the carnage?

People sometimes get angry with me when I say it, but I believe the pro-life movement has an obligation to clearly express the distinction between legitimate force and violence, and to explain coherently why it is opposed to the vigilante murder of abortionists despite its utter lack of sympathy for doctors who kill hundreds or thousands of unborn children during the course of their careers. For, indeed, the pro-life movement is genuinely and hard-headedly opposed to the murder of abortionists as a matter of both principle and politics.

As a matter of principle: Although codifying abortion as a capital crime punishable by the State would be moral, it is immoral for private citizens to take the law into their own hands. To inadvertently kill someone in the course of desperately preventing him from killing a specific person at a precise moment is morally justifiable; to go out and privately execute social pariahs is not. This means that to morally restrain abortionists, pro-lifers must either work through the government they have or become revolutionaries. And they can morally become revolutionaries only if they believe both that the present government is illegitimate and that they can successfully change it through force without causing more harm than good (more Catholic principles).

Which brings us to the matter of politics: No sane observer of the American scene believes that pro-lifers can take over the government and institute a more just regime. Every attempt to act outside the system, in our current circumstance, is not only doomed to failure but would simply harden the culture against the pro-life movement, setting it back even further than it has already been set back. This may change in the future, but there is no prospect of a substantially different climate of opinion now. Indeed, if there were, the nature of our present government is such that it would be swayed by voters long before it could be swayed by civil war or revolution.

In other words, there are sound reasons for the stand pro-lifers take on this question. But these reasons have nothing to do with shock and sympathy. Every pro-life Christian can hope that George Tiller repented before he died; that his family, friends and church are moved to reflect more deeply on life and death; and that Scott Roeder learns why he was wrong to do what he did. I intend to pray for all of them. But in the future, I believe the pro-life movement will be more credible if it stops overplaying its emotional hand.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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