Pro-Lifers on the Horns of a False Dilemma

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/08/2013

Is it contradictory to oppose abortion as murder and still oppose the killing of abortionists? If abortion is the destruction of a helpless child’s life, then why blame those who protect these children by killing their would-be executioners?

The recent killings at abortion clinics have left pro-lifers hanging from the horns of a dilemma. If abortion is murder and the 1.5 million children aborted every year constitute an American holocaust, as they claim, how can pro-life groups condemn the murder of abortionists, as they do? If abortion is the destruction of a helpless child, then how can pro-lifers find fault with those who kill abortionists. Aren’t people like Paul Hill protecting children from their would-be executioners by killing them?

That’s the dilemma, but it’s a false one.

First, an observation. If this objection is valid, then all one establishes is the pro-lifer’s inconsistency, which proves nothing about the rightness of abortion or the wrongness of shooting doctors who perform abortions.

However, the observation is really asserting much more. Objectors take the inconsistency as prima facie evidence that pro-lifers don’t really believe the unborn child is fully human, deserving the same protection all innocent human beings deserve. Deep down inside (the objection goes) pro-lifers know abortion isn’t murder, but killing abortionists is. If that’s what they really believe, then pro-lifers should abandon their dangerous rhetoric about holocausts, which only encourages more killing.

The key flaw in the dilemma is this: it simply does not follow that if one believes abortion is murder, he would advocate killing individual abortionists. What does follow is that pro-lifers would seek to end the wholesale killing as expediently as possible.

A Lesson from Commandos

Anyone familiar with military tactics knows how such a thing can be the case. The objective in war is to accomplish the goals expediently, minimizing the large-scale loss of life. If the military objective is to end the war by taking out the machinery of destruction, and killing any individual soldier puts the larger plan in jeopardy, then the individual killer is by-passed rather than run the risk of sabotaging the whole mission.

Imagine commandos, impersonating Nazi officers, who are dropped behind German lines to infiltrate concentration camps. Their mission: destroy the gas chambers. While mingling incognito with the rest of the camp cadre, they encounter opportunities to kill individual soldiers, maybe even a camp commandant, but they don’t. Why? Because they’re after bigger game—the gas chambers.

It would be a grievous wrong to take a shot at any individual Nazi, even though he was a murderer, because it would hamper the larger mission. More lives would be lost in the long run because the machinery of destruction would still be in place.

No Contradiction

This illustration shows there’s no contradiction when one holds the view that abortion is a holocaust, while at the same time condemning the killing of individual abortionists. In fact, it’s precisely because we hold to the innocent humanity of the unborn that we insist on an approach to this problem that is directed at the “machinery” of the killing—the laws, the economics, and the deep human need that makes the alternative appealing.

Let me repeat my main point. To be consistent, a pro-lifer would vigorously seek the most effective way of ending the wholesale slaughter. Randomly shooting abortionists or blowing up clinics doesn’t accomplish that, but seems to prolong the battle.

If acts of abortion clinic violence are counterproductive in the long run, then consistent pro-lifers would condemn them, as virtually all have done. Second, even if pro-lifers were inconsistent here, what does it prove? It only proves they are inconsistent, not that their views on the sacredness of pre-born life are mistaken.

An American Holocaust?

This brings us to the issue of the holocaust. Would Jews consider it a holocaust if six million Jewish babies were aborted rather than six million postpartum Jews murdered? Many Jews recoil at such a thought. The comparison insults the memory of those who suffered under the Third Reich.

I want to pass two thoughts on to you. The first is my own, and the second was volunteered by a caller to my radio program.

First, the illustration posed appeals to an intuition, that the Jewish Holocaust under the Nazis is obviously more heinous—especially to the Jews—than the same amount of abortions would be. But the appeal begs the question. The fact that abortion doesn’t seem as bad as concentration camps and gas chambers is misleading because it depends for its force on a tacit denial that the unborn are fully human persons. If they are, then who would say that taking the life of the same amount of youngsters (in this case very young) is not the moral equivalent of taking the lives of the same amount of adolescents and adults? In fact, generally we’re more shocked by the loss of young life than old, though we would hold that both are equally valuable in their humanity.

There does seem to be a sense, though, in which we can hold to the full tragedy of the death of the unborn Jewish humans, yet say that the Nazi Holocaust was a greater evil. This was the contribution of my caller.

Both are holocausts and unspeakably evil, purely on the merit of the number of human lives sacrificed. However, in the case of the Holocaust, the evil is compounded by the circumstances under which it was done.

Aborted human beings die relatively quickly and, by comparison, with little or no mental anguish. (This is certainly not always true, but that’s another issue.) Jews, on the other hand, were treated like animals—terrorized, persecuted, raped, beaten, and then eventually murdered. The second crime is truly worse than the first, not because the un-born were not human, but because of the barbaric conditions under which Nazis exterminated undesirables.

The Real Issue

The most important question in the entire debate is this question: What is the unborn child? You must answer that question before you can answer the questions: How should we treat the fetus? What protections ought we give it? How far should we go to protect it?

Until we answer that question, we can’t make any judgment about the morality of abortion or the moral consequences of any protest against it. If it’s possible that an unborn child is as fully human and as fully a person in his or her essential nature as you and I, then he or she deserves the same legal protections—and legal sanctions against its abuse—you and I have.

That’s the hard truth, and that’s why the deep thinking ought to be addressed to this question. Unfortunately, this vital issue is almost never discussed in the public square at large.

I fully realize that pro-lifers caught on the horns of this dilemma may not be able to quickly disgorge themselves. Even so, I think their views are defensible, even if they’re not sure why.

Sometimes we have a gut certainty about things even if we can’t talk them through. The fact that an argument can be made vindicates what many pro-lifers believe, but can’t always defend. It’s wrong to kill children, but it’s also wrong to kill abortionists.