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Posted by on Jun 1, 2009 in Health, Religion, Society | 5 comments

On Abortion, Moral Values, Murder, and Responsibility

Ezra Klein has a superb piece at his Washington Post blog today about the very real dangers of not seeing the murder of Dr. George Tiller for what it is: a political act intended to shut down access to abortion. Klein believes it’s essential for Congress to respond to this atrocity with legislation that protects women who seek abortions and the doctors and other health care professionals who provide them:

There is an impulse to understand George Tiller’s murder as a horrific, but comfortingly aberrational, act of extremist violence. That is the wrong way to think about it. Tiller is not the first abortion provider to be shot to death. Hell, this wasn’t even the first time an anti-abortion extremist tried to shoot George Tiller to death. In 1993, Shannon Shelley traveled to Tiller’s clinic and shot Tiller in both arms with a semiautomatic pistol. Scott Roeder’s contribution was managing to actually kill him.
This was, in other words, a political act. Tiller was murdered so that those in his line of work would be intimidated. In conversations with folks yesterday, I heard well-meaning variants on the idea that it would be unseemly to push legislation in the emotional aftermath of Tiller’s execution. I disagree. Roeder was acting in direct competition with the United States Congress. And it’s quite likely that he changed the status quo. Legislative language and judicial rulings had made abortive procedures legal and thus accessible. Yesterday’s killing was meant to render abortive procedures unsafe for doctors to conduct and thus inaccessible.

If a woman cannot get an abortion because no nearby providers are willing to assume the risk of performing it, the actual outcome is precisely the same as if the procedure were illegal. Roeder has, in all likelihood, made abortion less accessible. It would be, in my view, a perfectly appropriate response for the Congress to decisively prove his action not only ineffectual, but, in a broad sense, counterproductive.

That’s not to suggest fast-tracking legislation that radically transforms the county’s uneasy consensus. But there are plenty of remedies that speak to the question of access alone: Bills that make abortion centers safer and help poor women afford treatment, for instance. We can’t stop Scott Roeder from killing George Tiller. But we can stop him from having his intended effect on a woman’s ability to choose.

The sentence I’ve bolded above is of particular importance. Dr. Tiller was one of only two doctors who provided late-term abortions in the United States. There’s a reason for that. Anti-abortion violence is a much more serious problem than many (if not most) people realize. And as this report at indicates, the violence itself is only half of the problem:

Violent protests, in the form of arson, firebombing, and vandalism started in the early 1970’s in the U.S. Then, as now, most of the violence appears to be the acts of religiously-motivated criminals acting alone. However, recent cases involving the assassination and attempted murder of abortion providers in both the U.S. and Canada have shown that perpetrators appear to be sheltered by a network of sympathizers.

That this network of sympathy is real is apparent just from the response online, in the last 24 to 36 hours, since Dr. Tiller was murdered in his church yesterday morning. Hundreds if not thousands of people have posted hateful comments on blog posts (including in cases where the blogger is pro-choice, or if pro-life, has strongly condemned the shooting). Over the past 24 to 36 hours, I’ve seen countless “Yes, it’s terrible, but…” responses — with what follows the “but” being anything from “… but there’s violence on the pro-choice side, too,” to “…but Tiller was a murderer just the same as the guy who shot him,” to “… but even though I wouldn’t do it, I can see why some people would,” to “… but let’s remember that Tiller is only one man and ‘abortionists’ have murdered millions of babies,” to “… but the left always wants to use these isolated acts by crazies to demonize the entire pro-life movement.” And dozens of other creative variations.

When this story first broke, roughly 36 hours ago, I wanted to give full credit to pro-lifers who condemned the murder without equivocating. And I still want to give that credit, and do give it. But… (my own “but”) … the more I think about this horror and process it, the more I feel that it’s not enough to condemn such acts of violence after they happen if at other times one is enabling those acts by using inflammatory language (like “death mills” and “child murderers”); by harassing women as they go into clinics; by holding up gruesome, medically and biologically inaccurate signs; by employing highly divisive (and factually inaccurate) historic parallels (the Holocaust, slavery); by supporting politicians and media pundits who demonize advocates of legal abortion and by failing to object to community and government leaders and public figures who turn abortion into an elemental issue of good and evil. Abortion is not an issue of good versus evil. Abortion and the choice to have one (or not to have one) is neither good nor evil. It is a moral and ethical values issue; it’s not a good-versus-evil issue. And to deepen the nuance even further, abortion and the choice to have one is also, undeniably and unavoidably, a health and wellness issue at the same time that it is a moral issue. So now you have, in any given instance, a medical decision, a health decision, that is wrapped in moral values and personal ethical beliefs. To use terms like “slavery,” “Nazi concentration camps,” and “baby child killers” to frame such an issue, is an obscenity. And when people do use that frame in their decisions as to how to speak and how to act about an issue for which that frame is entirely misplaced and inappropriate, then bad things happen.

I can express this idea no better than AJ Strata did, today, in a post that truly moved me. And that is truly strange, given how far apart Strata and I are on most issues, and how angry his views usually make me. If he and I can share this understanding on such a controversial issue, others can, too:

This is a very challenging post, mainly because the issue of abortion is both a very emotional and very complex subject. With the heinous assassination of an abortion doctor yesterday as he attended church (previous posts here and here) it is definitely time to have a discussion about this issue and bring it back down to reality and out of the realm of naive and overheated rhetoric.

While we have been focused on the abortions for convenience – which is in the opinion of many a crime against our moral fiber, it is important to remember that these abortions (which still tragically represent the majority of abortions) are not all abortions. Some abortions are medically and morally necessary and needed.

People who think all abortions are murder are clearly wrong. Moreover, people like Scott Roeder, who took the law into his own hands and killed a fellow human being, are more likely than not to lack the expertise and education to make a determination as to the guilt or innocence surrounding any abortion. They react from a depth of knowledge captured from a few chapters of High School biology, and then ordain themselves the all knowing, all righteous arbiters of morality.

Passion cannot trump knowledge and experience. I know more care to listen to someone ranting about abortion with a High School level understanding of biology than I would ask that same person to determine the best surgical procedure or the safe launch of a complex rocket. They do not have what it takes to understand the details and know what they are doing.

When we discuss abortion and debate how to approach it in the context of law and public policy, we should remember that. And we should be responsible, not only in what we as individuals choose to say and do in the matter of abortion, but also — and even more importantly — in how we choose to respond to the words and actions of others.

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