Meditation on Murder

On Sunday, anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder shot and killed Dr. George Tiller at church while the latter was distributing church bulletins to the congregation. Dr. Tiller worked at one of a small number of clinics in the United States that offer abortions beyond 21 weeks of pregnancy. Anti-abortion activists had targeted the clinic and Dr. Tiller for violence in the past, including a bombing and a shooting in which the perpetrator had attempted to kill Dr. Tiller.

Former patients of the doctor have described him as compassionate and warm at an unbearably painful time in their lives. Pro-life advocates, including Bill O'Reilly (who reportedly referred to Dr. Tiller on 28 episodes of his show) have described him as a "baby killer" and mass murderer.

Despite their condemnation of him, however, pro-life organizations have been quick to distance themselves from the murder, contending that violence is no answer to abortion and that the better path is conversion. Earlier this year, I discussed the issue of pro-life murder in "Abortion Clinic Violence: Is 'Pro-Life' Murder An Oxymoron?". At a time like this, when a doctor has been murdered because he performed abortions, it is useful to consider the matter of late-term abortions.

The overwhelming majority of pregnant women who terminate their pregnancies do so during the first trimester of pregnancy. In fact, a majority of abortions take place within the first eight weeks of gestation. Though people who are pro-life oppose all abortion and consider a one-celled zygote the moral equal of a newborn baby, I would surmise that most Americans view early abortions as significantly less troubling than those that occur after twenty-one weeks.

This is probably why the pro-life movement has emphasized late abortions in its advocacy and has most successfully promoted legislation to limit or prohibit late forms of abortion (such as the D & X procedure). When the fetus reaches a stage at which he or she appears to react to stimuli and to experience pain, his or her moral claims are far more persuasive -- to those whose religious affiliations do not demand otherwise -- than the moral claims of an embryo. For the many people who consider themselves pro-choice but who feel morally troubled by late-term abortions, the case of Dr. Tiller may accordingly appear potentially complicated.

While many women can imagine themselves terminating a nascent pregnancy (and while statistics suggest that by the age of 45, one third of American women will have had an induced abortion), the prospect of killing a 21-week (or older) fetus is likely to horrify a large proportion of the same group. Dr. Tiller thus specialized in performing the sorts of abortions that disturb even firmly committed pro-choice advocates.

My own perspective is that legal obstacles that delay access to abortion providers (including waiting periods) are wrong, in part because they increase the number of late-term abortions that could otherwise have been early terminations. Given this feeling, what do I think about the work that Dr. Tiller did?

Part of my answer lies in the knowledge that many of the women who obtain late-term abortions do so because they have learned that if they gave birth, their babies would suffer a range of physical and mental problems that would make their own lives and those of their loved ones painful and even hearbreaking. For some women, this prospect might provide the opportunity to express love and build a painful but beautiful future through altruism and sacrifice. But for others, the prospect is overwhelming and completely unwanted. Depending on the nature of the impairment, a child may have only a short time to live, during which he or she will suffer unremitting pain.

For some mothers, this may not matter because it is God's will or because life is a blessing, no matter what form it takes. But for others -- many others -- it feels wrong and worse than pointless to bring someone into the world only to have him or her suffer pain and then death.

Dr. Tiller supported and facilitated the choices of mothers in such circumstances. He made it possible for them to spare their babies and themselves that agony.

Not all of Dr. Tiller's patients were in this precise position. Some -- who had originally hoped to have a baby -- learned late in pregnancy that an abortion was necessary to save their own lives or to prevent serious health consequences. Others may have been women who knew that they wanted an abortion far earlier but encountered legal and geographical obstacles to obtaining one. Perhaps they were among the thirty-three percent of American women who live in U.S. counties with no abortion provider at all. If so, they would have had to wait until they could raise the money and take the time off from work necessary to travel to a clinic (or travel to a clinic and then return again after the waiting period). One in four women must travel over 50 miles to obtain an abortion, and eight percent of women must travel over 100.

For a person who believes that all abortions are murder, because a zygote is entitled to the same consideration as a newborn baby, such cases are no worse for the delay. But those who reject such equations and who find late-term abortions more difficult than others would do well to urge the removal of the many obstacles that pro-life advocates have placed in the way of early abortion. Such obstacles include the intimidation that helps account for the dearth of clinics that provide this service.

Dr. Tiller respected his patients and trusted them to make the right decisions for their own lives and for the wellbeing of their offspring. He nurtured them at a time that -- despite propaganda and incendiary rhetoric -- is desolate and difficult for the families involved and is not undertaken lightly.

Most of us face challenging moral choices at one time or another in our lives, and the best we can hope for at such times is a supportive friend to help us do what is right for us. For a large number of women, Dr. Tiller was that friend.

Posted by Sherry Colb