Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Tiller and Vigilante Justice

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 02, 2009

 Every death is a tragedy. A violent death compounds tragedy with brutal injustice. And a bloody killing inside a church is an abomination.

Sane Christians reacted to the murder of Dr. George Tiller with horror. We deplore the killing; we condemn it; we recoil from it. We pray for God's mercy on the victim, the perpetrator, and all those who have been scarred by this obscene assault.

But at a time that calls for mourning, it is unseemly to try to score political points. It is painful to watch the militant advocates of unrestricted abortion exploit Tiller's death, calling for new restrictions on all pro-life activism. As my colleague Jeff Mirus has pointed out in his provocative commentary, it is also uncomfortable to see so many prominent pro-lifers rush out with ill-considered emotional statements "to discourage the general public from concluding that pro-lifers are, in effect, terrorists." 

This is a time for mourning, for prayer, and-- after a bit of reflection-- for honesty. Honest observers will know, without being reminded, that the peaceful pro-life activists who pray and counsel and lobby are not terrorists. Honest analysts will recognize the obvious distinction between the activists-- on both sides-- who attempt to change laws and those who attempt to snuff out lives. 

Yes, we pro-lifers deplored what Tiller had done for many years. (And it's only fair to point out that he deplored what we were doing as well; his contempt for pro-life activists was a matter of public record.) Yes, we said that he was wrong to bring so many thousands of human lives to violent ends. Yet it should be self-evident that when we condemn killing, we are not encouraging killers. Quite the contrary. The thousands of dedicated pro-lifers who stand vigil outside abortion clinics, praying for and talking to the women who approach, endure insults and abuse every day without complaint. They are not aggressors; they are no threat to anyone. Honest observers recognize all this.

There are a handful of rabid ideologues who argue that it is justifiable to use violence against abortionists in order to save the lives of the unborn children-- just as it is justifiable for a police officer to shoot a felon who is threatening to commit murder. The general principle is correct, but its application to this case is wrong. An act of violence against an abortionist will not save a single unborn child, as long as the mother can schedule another appointment with another abortionist the next day. And by the way George Tiller was not planning to perform any abortions in the Reformation Lutheran Church on Sunday morning. The notion that this murder was done to defend an unborn child is absurd. To invoke the lives of unborn children in an effort to rationalize this killing is to seek political gain from the blood of innocent victims-- an utterly reprehensible approach.

In fact, let's be honest: the killing of George Tiller was motivated by exactly the same sentiments that prompt so many women to seek abortions. For some women, pregnancy is objectively inconvenient; the child growing in the womb is a threat to all their plans. For a few fanatics--whose opposition to abortion had become an obsession rather than a commitment to life -- Dr. Tiller's life was terribly inconvenient; his continued operation of America's most high-profile abortion clinic was a constant affront. Life without Tiller seemed evidently seemed attractive to Scott Roeder, just as life without a distended belly seems more attractive to many young women. So the inconvenient human being had to go.

That sort of moral calculation-- treating human beings as objects, as means to an end-- is wrong, no matter who does it. As Robert George remarked: "Every human life is precious.George Tiller's life was precious. We do not teach the wrongness of taking human life by wrongfully taking a human life."

Does the calculation change because Dr. Tiller had taken so many lives himself? No. Sadly, despite our efforts, society condones what he did. Single individuals cannot impose sentence for crimes that the government does not recognize. 

Very soon after the murder, Operation Rescue-- the group that had locked horns with Tiller in 1991 and continued to battle him all through the years-- issued a statement that was honest and balanced:  "We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place this morning." A vigilante acts on the belief that his victim is guilty--- that assumption guilt is indeed the reason for his action. But a vigilante acts without justice.

In fact, rather than saying that Tiller's involvement in abortion was a justification for violence against him, it would make more sense for a Christian to say that it was an argument against precipitous action. George Tiller was a man in need of correction, conversion, and repentance. A sudden, violent death robbed him of the chance to reform. 

"It has always been my philosophy that we convert abortionists," said Joe Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League. Scheidler-- a man whose commitment to Christian non-violence is as deep and clear as his commitment to direct action-- went on: "As activists committed to saving lives, we vigorously oppose violence." 

We are activists committed to saving lives-- and not just lives in this world. That's why the killing of George Tiller must be condemned.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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