In Which Pro-Life Camp Do Murderers of Providers Belong?

Posted by Sherry Colb

In my FindLaw column, which will appear here later today, I discuss the distinction between the pro-life movement in this country -- which in general would exempt women having abortions from the criminal responsibility that attaches to providers -- and the pro-life approach of such countries as El Salvador -- where women can go to prison for abortion along with their providers.  I suggest in the column that this distinction may expose an important division between different camps in the pro-life movement on the question of a woman's relationship to her own abortion and, accordingly, to her unwanted pregnancy.  This division may, in turn, reflect a subtle but important difference in how pregnancy and its impositions on women are understood.

In this post, I want to raise a different question:  In which pro-life camp -- that of people who would exempt the pregnant woman from criminal liability or that of people who would punish the pregnant woman along with her provider -- do violent members of the anti-abortion movement belong?  I speak here of those who would bomb abortion clinics and kill abortion providers as a means of "rescuing" fetuses from abortion.  I do not know the answer to this question, but I have two competing hypotheses that I would propose.

The first hypothesis is that one's embrace of anti-abortion violence does not, in theory, necessarily correspond to one or the other view of pregnant women.  That is, one could view women experiencing an unwanted pregnancy as subject to a kind of duress that excuses them from criminal responsibility for having an abortion and, at the same time, view the provider as a mass murderer who may be stopped by any means necessary.

The second and competing hypothesis is that those who murder abortion providers are not operating from an entirely logical and sane platform.  In a society that permits abortion, it is generally considered wrong to murder a provider who has violated no law.  Indeed, it is generally considered inappropriate to murder anyone.  From the perspective of people within the pro-life movement, of course, the fact that the law permits abortion is itself immoral.  Nonetheless, in a democracy, those who believe that the law is unjust attempt to change the law and/or to change hearts and minds through advocacy.  To kill a provider only increases the amount of violence, while simultaneously alienating the very public that might otherwise have felt sympathy for the underlying cause.  Stated differently, "pro-life" murder, though arguably not an oxymoron, as I argued here, is, at the very least, a counterproductive means of achieving nonviolence.

The reason that the deviant nature of those who murder abortion providers is significant, here, is that a person who feels enough hatred and rage to carry out a murder against an abortion provider (despite alternative avenues of peaceful protest and advocacy) is unlikely to feel much compassion for the pregnant woman whose bodily integrity is compromised by an unwanted pregnancy.  He (or she) is more likely to hate the pregnant woman too and, perhaps, to hate the fact that she is free under the law not only to terminate her unwanted pregnancy, but also to engage in the non-marital (or non-procreation-directed) sexual relations that gave rise to the unwanted pregnancy in the first place.

Once again, I am guessing here.  My guess is that a pro-life individual who cares enough for pregnant women to excuse their decision to abort -- notwithstanding a commitment to the fetus's value as a person -- would not be drawn to an act of ultimate violence toward someone who, after all, violated no law.  By the same token, a person willing to murder an abortion provider is unlikely to be sufficiently sympathetic to the woman who chooses to visit that provider to understand the unwanted pregnancy as a form of duress.