If you’ve ever said “Abortion is murder” …

… be sure to use lots of soap and hot water when you try to wash the blood off your hands.

… be sure to use lots of soap and hot water when you try to wash the blood off your hands. The murder of Dr. George Tiller was the predictable consequence of that little rhetorical flourish, used by a raft of Republican politicians, including at least one that GWB made an appellate judge.

Those anti-abortion leaders who aren’t celebrating along with Randall Terry are concerned, not about the fact that a human being was murdered &#8212 in church! &#8212 but about a possible political backlash. Let’s vindicate their fears.

I’m not sure what the content of the “Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2009” should be, but I’m sure there should be a bill with that name targeting the violent edge of the “right-to-life” movement. That will give Republicans in Congress the choice between de-mobilizing a big part of their base by casting a “pro-choice” vote or facing TV spots accusing them of opposing anti-terrorist legislation.

Update It’s possible that the actual murder was the act of a lone whacko. But just a month ago Dr. Tiller’s clinic was attacked by people who knew what they were doing:

On May 1, his clinic was vandalized. Vandals cut wires to outdoor lights and surveillance cameras. They also sliced a hole in the roof and plugged downspouts. Rain then poured into the clinic causing thousands of dollars of damage. Tiller reportedly asked the FBI to investigate the incident.

I don’t know how actively the FBI has been investigating that incident, but I suspect that activity just intensified. A CalTech physics grad student is doing 8 years in federal prison for a firebomb attack on SUVs parked in dealer’s lots, an action that didn’t threaten any personal injury.


A reader writes:

I appreciate your sentiment here, that routinely ultra right-wing politicos who routinely call family planning doctors “murders” may well be inciting others to violence. Still, I think you go to far in claiming that “If you’ve ever said ‘Abortion is murder'” that “you have blood on your hands.”

My views on abortion are a bit complex. I do believe that life begins at conception because I believe that G-d’s ruah is present in every living organism, even the microscopic ones. Accordingly, I think that abortion does constitute the intentional taking of another human life. I don’t, however, think that abortion constitutes “murder” because i think that murder generally ought to require a concurrent criminal intent (the intersection of the actus reas and the mens rea in criminal law) that women seeking abortion lack.* This is perhaps a fine distinction, but I think it is warranted on policy grounds as the decision to have an abortion is sufficiently psychologically traumatic to accomplish the typical goals of punishment (deterrence, incapacitation, retribution and rehabilitation). Neither could a woman be guilty of voluntary manslaughter because she is not acting with criminal negligence. This view is equally applicable to the actions of doctors.

Still, given my concession that life does indeed begin at conception, I can’t say that it is entirely unreasonable for someone with a similar view in that respect to disagree with me on the issue of criminal intent. The fact that that person is on the wrong side of the issue doesn’t make them per se unreasonable and I think it is unfair to classify the person with sincerely held religious or non-religious moral conviction on the matter with someone who uses the debate over abortion as a political wedge issue with reckless disregard (or even actual intent) to the consequences of inciting violence against others. I agree that whoever murdered Dr. Tiller is, in fact a domestic terrorist guilty of a despicable act and that he ought to face justice provided by the rule of law. I also agree that certain public figures who make a habit of railing against doctors and women as “murderers” for the commission of a lawful act bear some responsibility for inciting these people to violence (even if it is only moral responsibility). The opening statement that anyone who has uttered that phrase is partially culpable for Dr. Tiller’s death, however, includes a lot of honest people who abhor murder in any form they perceive it: whether of a baby or a doctor.

[Note: Ruach is the Hebrew word that means, depending on context, “wind,” “breath,” “life,” or “spirit.”-

The rebuke is justified. I should have written “if you’ve ever said abortion is murder in public.” There’s a difference between an opinion and an incitement; under the circumstances, saying “Abortion is murder” is an incitement: not legally, but morally. Tehre are times when words are actions, and actions have consequences. Bill O’Reilly repeatedly called Dr. Tiller a “baby killer” with millions of people watching. He can’t pretend now to be surprised that one of them decided to act.

So what are the people who think every fetus is a person, who ought to have all the rights of a person, to say about abortion? Is it reasonable for them to call it “murder”? And if so, does that commit them to the claim that those who provide abortions, and those who request abortions, ought to be punished as murderers-for-hire, and those who engage murderers-for-hire, are punished?

“Murder” is a legal category: unlawful killing of a person. Clearly abortion in the United States isn’t murder in this sense. But “murder” is also the subject of the Sixth Commandment, and it’s an open question what constitutes “murder” for the purposes of that Commandment.

Now one possibility is that abortion opponents believe, not that abortion is legally murder, but that it should be legally murder (perhaps because they think it’s covered by the Commandment against murder). [That’s the way I feel about mine safety violations leading to death.] So asking an abortion opponent “Would you be willing to make abortion illegal and punish it as murder?” is a very different question from “Do you think it was OK to kill George Tiller because you think that what he was doing was (morally) murder?”

But a consistent abortion opponent, even one who thinks that abortion is murder in the moral sense, need not be stuck with thinking that it ought to be punished by the secular law as murder is punished (let alone that preventing it justifies the use of unlawful deadly force).

For example, for centuries Christians believed suicide to be equivalent to murder; the wrongfulness of murder is taken to be arrogating to oneself the Divine prerogrative of deciding when to end a life, and that wrongfulness is no less when it’s one’s own life. That’s why suicides couldn’t be buried in church graveyards, and why the “self defense” and “not of sound mind” verdicts were invented. (See the Gravedigger scene in Hamlet.) Correspondingly, a suicide attempt was punishable legally as attemped murder, and a successful suicide worked the same legal disabilities (forfeiture of estate) as did the murder of another.

The theological position on suicide among Catholics and conservative Protestants hasn’t changed. But as far as I know they don’t argue for restoring the treatment of suicide as murder for purposes of secular law. That position can be consistently maintained if you think that the job of the state is to protect people from harm rather than to enforce the moral law. (The same is true of various sexual taboos.)

So I think an opponent of abortion could believe that (1) abortion is “murder” as defined in the Ten Commandments, and therefore forbidden by God; (2) the civil law ought to track that by making it illegal to perform an abortion; but (3) that doesn’t mean that it ought to be punished as murder, either for the mother or for the physician.

I also think that the opponent could draw the line in a different place, sticking to “abortion is murder” (in the same way that suicide is murder) as a theological stance but not wanting that rule to be written into the secular law code at all, just as the rule against suicide no longer is.

All this is fine to say in the seminar room (or on a blog without heavy wingnut readership). But saying “abortion is murder” on Fox News carries a risk of leading to actual murder. That’s a risk a decent person wouldn’t choose to run.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com