The Corner

Saletan on Killing Abortionists

Will Saletan’s analogy is not apt: While it took bravery for George Tiller to persist in killing seven-month-old fetuses in the face of death threats, that bravery is not remotely comparable to that of soldiers who enter into combat against enemy soldiers who are fighting back. His larger argument takes this form: The belief that unborn children have a right not to be killed should logically lead its adherents to favor the killing of abortionists and the jailing of women who procure abortions; since those adherents do not reach these conclusions, they do not really believe what they claim to believe; and they should therefore become pro-choicers who seek to reduce the abortion rate without employing any legal sanctions. Not a single step of Saletan’s logic is valid. I’ll concentrate on step one. Hypothetical scenarios can always be spun out to attempt to justify the unjustifiable. But to even begin to construct a bridge from the humanity of unborn life to the justifiability of shooting Tiller he would have to be in the act of committing an abortion, the shooter would have to know to a moral certainty that no one else would perform the abortion, the goal would have to be to disable rather than kill him, and it would have to be possible for a pro-life regime to survive without the rule of law. These are impossible conditions. As for the criminal law, what the right to life of unborn children justifies is whatever set of legal norms is necessary to vindicate that right, which might fall well short of jail terms for anyone, abortionist or client. Scholars in the field of philosophy of law frequently make the point that the reasons justifying or requiring that a particular act be forbidden by law often do not by themselves determine the type or quantum of punishment that should be imposed on those who break it. A range of additional considerations may bear on the question of who among those involved in the unlawful act should be punished and what the nature of that punishment should be. This is certainly true in the case of abortion, and pro-life citizens are virtually unanimous in acknowledging it. And it’s not as though the position Saletan recommends can meet even a weak test of logical consistency. I’ve been reading him for years, and I have never seen any plausible argument from him that the deliberate killing of unborn children is somehow a tragedy but not an injustice.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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