The Murder of Dr. Tiller

A few weeks ago Dr. George Tiller was shot and murdered while handing out bulletins in the church he attended in Wichita, KS. Scott Roeder has been charged with the murder and awaits trial. I don’t want to use the space here to argue for the positions for or against abortion although I’m against abortion. I want to write about the issue of whether Scott Roeder or those like him are or could be ethical in killing abortion providers. The point I want to make is that this action and others like it are not ethical and should not occur. Scott Roeder, if guilty, should face the full extent of the law.

Let me start by handling some comments or ideas that may bump heads with my view. First, some not associated with the crime but are anti-abortionists are saying, “He got what he deserved.” The thought I’m assuming here is that even though they would not kill an abortion provider themselves, they still think that Tiller in this case deserved to be murdered or death for providing abortions. What I really think is being said here is akin to the “eye for an eye” principle stripped away from any legal setting. Dr. Tiller provided abortions, which is taken as the killing of another person, therefore, apart from what is the legal process involved to change abortion law and the minds of people, he is deserving of death for those actions. Here is a good example of what is seen as a disconnect between what many anti-abortionists see as law or morality upheld by God and the current laws in our pluralistic society. There definitely is a difference between the two. Efforts to overturn current abortion law may be attempts to bring the two together. But, none of that justifies the efforts of one or a few to murder another individual. We’ve heard it said “two wrongs don’t make a right” or “the ends don’t justify the means”. In this case it is not ethical for an individual or a few people to murder someone for murdering others, especially in a nation or state that provides other means to change the current law regarding abortion.

This issue allows me to elaborate on how I think we should distinguish between vigilantism and due process of law. Since our country does provide the means to change or repeal laws in a civil and just manner, Scott Roeder is a vigilante. He is someone who took “the law” into his own hands, and in one act became judge, jury and executioner. Our system of jurisprudence attempts to separate these components out to arrive at timely justice. So not only does our system allow for concerned citizens to participate in elections of representatives to change law along with other legislative means, in the justice system we divide powers up as a means of checking the power that can accumulate with a judge or a jury (think of posies formed to hunt criminals or lynching to catch an execute African-Americans) or the executioner. It also implements a system to allow cases to be presented on each side and representatives of those cases to argue about the issue at hand instead of the people themselves fighting it out in the streets. All this allows for individuals who have a claim against injustice to remove themselves somewhat from the actions against them and see the person behind injustices with the hope of possibly forgiving them and hoping the best for them. On one hand, this in no way diminishes the justice that is sought but helps people be able to turn the other cheek. On the other hand it allows a place for the proper role of government to rule and protect civil society from sliding into chaos.

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About Mike

I am a husband, father and someone completing my graduate studies in philosophy and have the privilege of teaching philosophy and ethics at a small college. I love the intellectual life, particularly as it intersects with what Jesus, Plato and Aristotle referred to as the "Abundant Life", "The Good" and "The Good Life".
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2 Responses to The Murder of Dr. Tiller

  1. jonolan says:

    To some extent you’re conflating ethics and law. It can be ethical to do something but still have that action be illegal. Or, in the case of abortion, it could be grossly unethical to do something and yet have it be completely legal.

    It is quite possible for someone to truthfully say that Scott Roeder acted ethically, but if guilty of the crime, should face the full extent of the law.

    There is also, from an ethical perspective, the matter of motive.

    If Roeder killed the abortionist, Tiller as punishment or in retribution for Tiller’s wholesale slaughter of unborn-as-yet babies, the Roeder was certainly overstepping the bounds of ethical behavior since he is not charged with the responsibility for rendering such judgments and sentences.

    If, on the other hand, Roeder killed Tiller to prevent Tiller from killing anymore unborn-as-yet babies, that is an act of defending the innocent and weak from harm. Ethically that would have to be applauded – or at least understood.

    Yet, you’re partially right. The needs of the law and the need of maintaining a civil society require that such actions be discouraged for the sake of the people as a whole.

    • Mike says:

      I think there are about 3 issues or more in this post and your response that would need to be hashed out. I’ll try to quickly give you my thoughts on them. BUT, let me be very straight forward. Much of what I am going to write is in a sense “window dressing” because the heart of the issue is the issue of personhood. Trying to develop the goundword for and convince someone about what a person is and that the unborn rise to that standard can be a challenging, detailed and more rigorous discussion that may take time. This may require not only good thinking but also a personal touch and relationship. This is the real work at hand that, I think, will contribute to a more robust and lasting change on the issue of abortion.

      First is the matter of the difference between ethics and law. I understand the distinction between ethics and law. My intention was not to conflate ethics and law, and I’m not sure that I did conflate them. Where exactly did I use one in place of the other? I understand that at this juncture of time it is legal to perform abortions. I also understand that it is illegal to murder. At this point in time an unborn fetus does not enjoy the full status of a person, while a mature adult does enjoy those protections as being a person. I’d prefer not to even write in terms of “full status” in either case, since I don’t adhere to a graded view of personhood. I’m merely trying to be consistent with treating persons the same way. I think abortion is unethical and should be illegal, but I also think murdering a human person is unethical, and it is already illegal. I’d prefer to see the unborn enjoy the status of a fully human person, just like Dr. Tiller. If both are on equal footing, both are accorded full protection under the law and are on safe ethical ground.

      The second is addressing if there is any overriding reason for Roeder to justifiably slay Dr. Tiller. I’m assuming your argument for Roeder acting ethically is that he acting in defense of another person, the unborn in this case. That is what makes his actions ethical. I was actually trying to avoid this argument for brevity’s sake, but I think there is the possibility that this argument has some merit. I emphasize, SOME! I have often characterized the abortion issue in terms of civil rights, but my basis for the civil right of life for the unborn is grounded in the metaphysics of personhood, i.e. what I think a person is. A civil war was fought in our country over slavery and state’s rights. Slaves were taken to be less than fully human persons, and, thus, treated as property. I think there are close parallels to this in the abortion issue with the caveat of the unborn being in early human development and slaves already being to the stage of development that they were not in utero. All this to say, there are a variety of instances that we don’t allow or consider it ethical for individuals to take the life of another person. The conditions that mitigate against Roeder here are:

      1. Like I said in the post, he is committing the same offense as Dr. Tiller. He took another person’s life.
      2. Usually, there has to be an immanent threat to the person being defended. In this case the immanency is at least pushed back to the next scheduled abortion. It was not immanent at Dr. Tiller’s church. This difference is buffered by the fact that Dr. Tiller is an abortion provider, so his job was to administer abortions, which might be argued as being immanent.
      3. There does not seem to be any other relational ties that would obligate Roeder to protecting the unborn. This might include him being a father or husband that has an interest in the outcome of abortions.
      4. There are legal measures and potentially more ethical ways to try to prevent abortions.
      These are in no way exhaustive.

      The third you’ve brought up is issue of motive. I’d include this in the previous point, but I’ll bracket it out for a response. I agree. This is vital to determining much of the ethics of this issue involving Roeder. I don’t think we’ll really know, or I don’t know, at this point what his motive was. I’d pose the question this way. Does the motive of defending the innocent and weak morally obligate me to take another person’s life when the 4 conditions before are present? In a pluralistic society I think it does not. I think peaceful civil disobedience without the destruction of property is the threshold I’ve landed on in my current thinking. I conclude that I think the real place of engagement is helping others to understand the moral status of the unborn as persons.

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