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Scott P. Richert

Reader Question: Was the Murder of George Tiller Justified?

By June 4, 2009

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In the comments on my posts on the murder of late-term abortionist George Tiller, two readers have attempted to justify the murder on the grounds that Tiller, who reportedly performed over 60,000 abortions, will not kill again. Don't bother searching for these comments; I have deleted them and will do the same for any future ones that violate the About.com User Agreement prohibition on posting anything that "encourages conduct that would constitute a criminal offense."

I have also received much more thoughtful questions by e-mail from readers who are trying, not to justify murder, but to understand if lethal force is ever morally justified. If the Catholic Church really believes what She teaches—that human life begins at conception—then abortion is murder. Why, then, would it not be morally justified to kill someone in order to prevent murder?

Several readers have pointed me toward two articles: one by Ramesh Ponnuru over at The Corner on National Review Online; the other by Richard Spencer at Taki's Magazine. (Full disclosure: I used to write for Taki's Magazine but have not done so for over a year; you can still find my articles in the archives there, however.)

Ponnuru is responding to a supporter of abortion who argues that the pro-life position "should logically lead its adherents to favor the killing of abortionists"; and Richard Spencer, who describes himself as "effectively 'pro-choice,'" is essentially making that very argument. But both Spencer's argument and Ponnuru's response to a similar argument make fundamental errors—the same fundamental errors that those who (like the commenters whose remarks I deleted) wish to justify murder in the cause of life make.

From the Christian standpoint, there are two well-known and well-developed justifications for killing: self-defense, and just-war theory. The two are related but different: Just-war theory arises by analogy from the Christian understanding of personal self-defense, but it takes on a life of its own, and its conclusions cannot be imposed back onto the Christian understanding of self-defense.

Spencer falls into that trap, invoking just war in his discussion of Tiller's murder. It is quite right that "there are no injunctions in the Bible for universal, unconditional pacifism." It is also entirely irrelevant to this discussion.

Just-war theory is concerned with determining whether a civil authority is morally justified in making war against an external enemy (and, secondarily, with determining whether the way in which a just war is waged is itself just). George Tiller was not an external enemy; his murderer was not the civil authority charged with protection of those who were being killed.

But that brings up an interesting question: What happens when the civil authority neglects its duty or even turns hostile to it? In the light of two millennia of Christian teaching on abortion, we can certainly say that the government of the United States today falls into that category. Does the government's neglect of its duty justify Tiller's murderer taking the government's responsibilities into his own hands?

Of course not. On this point, we get into a third, much more rarified area in which killing has been justified by Christian theologians: that of regicide. Literally, regicide is the killing of a king, but we can use the term more broadly to speak of the deposing of the duly constituted civil authority. Late medieval and early modern Catholic theologians, including St. Thomas Aquinas, believed that, under very strict and rare circumstances, regicide could be justified.

Essentially, those civil authorities that not only refuse to carry out the duties of their office but act in opposition to those duties lose their legitimacy. Spencer mentions the case of Adolf Hitler and points out that some pro-life advocates praise the Catholic aristocrats who attempted to assassinate Hitler.

This would be an apt comparison—if Spencer were discussing regicide. He isn't; George Tiller and Adolf Hitler may have shared certain moral sensibilities, but Tiller was not the ruler of a country.

On the other hand, Ramesh Ponnuru's conclusion—that Tiller's murder was not justified—is correct, but he uses the wrong logic to arrive there, setting up four conditions that could justify such an act:

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.

Ponnuru calls these "impossible conditions," and he is correct. Yet Ponnuru's conditions start from the wrong premises.

The problem with defending the innocent from abortion by the use of lethal force is that one of the proper defenders of that particular innocent is on the table, and the other is often the one paying for the procedure. That's where the discussion has to start. That points us in the direction of the only legitimate hypothetical moral question: If a woman is getting an abortion over the objection of the father of the child, would it be licit for the father to use lethal force to stop the abortion? That is a question that could be addressed under the Christian understanding of self-defense, since the father's duty to his child has historically been viewed as the same as his duty to himself.

But that isn't the question posited most of the time, and it's not the question posed by the Tiller murder or addressed by either Spencer or Ponnuru. The question normally asked is whether one can use lethal force against an abortionist who is killing someone else's baby, and being paid to do so by that person or persons. And the answer is clearly no.

Contra Spencer, that is not proof that Christians do not really believe their own claim that abortion is murder. Rather, it is proof that Christians take seriously both Romans 3:8, in which Saint Paul says of those who claim that we can do evil that good may come of it that their "damnation is just"; and Romans 13, in which Saint Paul declares that the civil authority, not individuals, rightly wields the sword.

If you have a question that you would like to have featured in our "Reader Questions" series, send me an e-mail at catholicism.guide@about.com. Be sure to put "QUESTION" in the subject line, and please note whether you'd like me to address it privately or on the Catholicism blog.

June 5, 2009 at 5:27 pm
(1) Tom Qualey says:

First of all, may Dr. Tiller rest in peace.

The very idea that the Pro-Life movement would be burdened with defending itself about a murder is truly absurd and distressing. Either we believe that our biggest effect is through prayer and then working in a legal manner to have the law(s) changed – or – we have simply decided to become a law to ourselves.

While Dr. Tiller’s death may not be mourned by those who support life, neither will his death be used as a illogical justification on which to advocate the murder of other abortionists. “Thou Shalt Not Murder” applies to all.

God Bless

June 5, 2009 at 5:28 pm
(2) U NO HOO says:

Our priest has mentioned an early theologian who said, “Assume everyone has permission to do what she/he is doing.”

And we do. Free will, to do right or wrong.

If killing an abortionist were a correct thing to do then someone who holds that opinion is duty bound to do it. And, the killer should, after killing an abortionist, lay down his weapon, and wait for the police and accept his civil punishment.

I was thought in catechism to obey the civil law.

June 5, 2009 at 6:21 pm
(3) You reap What U Sew says:

You do reap what u sow,sew we need not rejoice in this persons death but lives have been saved how could his church support him as
Usher,he ushed thousands to tier death,lives are now saved without his evil,Thomas Jefferson Said,”God is a just God,and His Justice does not sleep 4ever”.

June 5, 2009 at 8:02 pm
(4) Sean says:

Scott your logic is very flawed and deep down you probably know it. We are talking about morals here and not laws. Legally the killing of Tiller was illegal, but it was a moral act. Tillers killer will be tried and the jurors have a responsibility to judge the facts and the law.

June 5, 2009 at 8:06 pm
(5) Kelley says:

I do agree that God had a reason for this, there were thousands of lives lost due to Mr. Tillers actions and now there are thousands of lives SAVED, praise God! I usually feel bad for situations like this but Im thanking GOD that there will be many lives saved, Thank you Jesus!

June 5, 2009 at 8:13 pm
(6) John Kindley says:

You leave it as an open and legitimate question whether the father of an unborn child can licitly use lethal force to stop an abortion, but without explanation you view the question of whether a stranger may do so as “clearly” different.

Very strangely, you find it significant that the parents of the child to be aborted don’t want the child and are paying to have him or her aborted. I had thought it was anathema to the pro-life position to view the right to life as dependent upon whether the unborn child is “wanted” or not.

In the civil law, self-defense is justified on behalf of one’s self or others. There is no requirement that the “other” person defended be related or known in any way to the person doing the defending. If the “Christian understanding of self-defense” is what you say it is (which I doubt), then its understanding is inferior to and more hardhearted than the government’s. And that would be sad, because the government is generally very stupid.

BTW, like Spencer, I am “effectively ‘pro-choice,’” though I’m not losing any sleep over Tiller’s death. Thousands of better persons, including unborn persons, died the same day Tiller did, and I find that far more tragic.

June 5, 2009 at 9:03 pm
(7) Patrick says:

From a none religious standpoint, I think that murder is wrong no matter what the age of the human being, or the stage of development. The Constitution affords every human being “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, from their Creator (no matter what they deem that Creator). Therefore, the rule of law applies to anyone that ends the life of another human being, regardless of age, race, religion, or creed. Our laws say that the lives of the youngest of our society can be ended by a doctor. They aren’t even considered human. Well, the Supreme Court, in the Dred Scott case, ruled that Blacks weren’t human either. It was the law of the land, and that law was morally wrong too. Was it wrong of Tiller to end a human life? Yes. Was it wrong of the doctor to end human life, (even in accordance to the hippocratic oath)? Yes. It is equally wrong. However, there are two differences; One, the age of the doctor, and, the age of the human beings that doctor has aborted. The second difference is that the younger human beings are weaker, smaller, and more vulnerable, and have no choice in the matter of their lives. The weakest and most vulnerable of our society should be protected. But, the question still begs for an answer: Was Tiller justified? The answer lies within the premeditation of murder. Both doctor and Tiller premeditated their actions. Both are guilty of ending the life of a human being. But, if you were walking down the street and you saw a man stabbing a 2 year old child with a knife, would you intervene? Would you perhaps use force? Even lethal force? If you did intervene, the court would rule that it wasn’t premeditated. Some of you might call the police for this brutal crime, and let the law deal with the situation. But wait! For our most vulnerable—-the weakest of our society-—our pre-borns——there is no law enforcement. No one will come to her rescue because she is deemed “not human”. Really, abortion just boils down to age discrimination. However, what we cannot do to 40 year old doctors, we cannot do to the youngest members of human beings in our society.

Who will come to their rescue??

The question should be; Is the murder of the weakest, and most vulnerable member of the human race justified? The answer is a resounding, NO!

Oh, and you quote Romans 13… I’m not religious, but I know this; WE the PEOPLE are the government. In America, we’re supposed to be a Republic, not a Democracy, which is nothing less than mob rule. The rule of law applies to all, REGARDLESS of what our elected representatives say, or our Supreme Court, when they uphold ridiculous laws not unlike the Dred Scott ruling.

Thank your Creator that that law was overturned.

June 5, 2009 at 9:35 pm
(8) Scott P. Richert says:

Sean, you say my “logic is flawed,” yet you don’t reveal the flaw in my logic. My post discusses what is moral, not what is legal. But from the standpoint of traditional Christian morality, Tiller’s murderer did not have the authority to end Tiller’s life.

June 5, 2009 at 9:42 pm
(9) Scott P. Richert says:

John, you write:

Very strangely, you find it significant that the parents of the child to be aborted don’t want the child and are paying to have him or her aborted.

Not strange at all, if you read it in context. The parents are the natural defenders of the child. It is the worst perversion of nature for parents to want their child dead.

I had thought it was anathema to the pro-life position to view the right to life as dependent upon whether the unborn child is “wanted” or not.

Where did I say that the right to life is “dependent upon whether the unborn child is ‘wanted’ or not”? The action of the parents is wrong, period. But the immorality of their action does not by itself make it moral for someone else to murder the abortionist.

In the civil law, self-defense is justified on behalf of one’s self or others.

You’re conflating self-defense and justifiable homicide. The law treats them as different for a reason, and different standards must be met.

March 30, 2011 at 10:03 am
(10) linda says:

how sick is wanting your own child dead why are evil adults to thick to see that no wondor scott rider is a decent person in my eyes every one else seems to be thick no there parnoia ideas over who argees with baby killing and who doesnt

June 6, 2009 at 2:49 am
(11) tz says:

But what of the case where one spouse hires a hitman to kill the other spouse, and you happen to be there when it is about to happen, and calling 911 will not save the victim from the murder, only some violent action.

If you craft “self-defense” too narrowly, it becomes just as absurd. Do the strong have a duty to defend the weak?

You correctly point out that the civil authority has the primary and first duty to keep the peace, order, and do justice. But then you leave only two alternatives – nothing and regicide, some violent overthrow. So the shooter would have been justified killing some number of supreme court justices (preferably during the last administration) but not someone who is committing murder under their protection? I would also note that regicide is far more disruptive. Using violence against the individual scalpel instead of the collective sword would be better on this basis.

Also remember this comes while Cheney is explaining why we need to torture, rendition, detain without recourse, kill a lot of civilians to occasionally get to someone the intelligence services say might be a problem, etc. And for 8 years all too many have been cheering “24″ and wanting more Jack Bauers who will go outside the law to do whatever is necessary to stop evil. If people are confused it may be because there has not been a clear voice – especially from the same quarters who are “pro-life” but believe in the rule of law – that a great deal of policy in the previous administration was gravely evil. To have been silent on (if not actively supporting) this evil destroys any credibility when speaking morality. (I have and had no public platform, but was against the war from 9/11 and said it was a police/FBI/non-military matter which might need military backup).

The deep philosophical arguments sound like a very unfunny joke. There have been several plays where a “contract with the devil” is in the story line, and it is always full of confusing fine-print and complexity when good and evil are actually plain. Aquinas also noted (as quoted by MLK when some broader but lesser civil disobedience occured) that an unjust law has no force or validity. Abortion is an immediate and ongoing holocaust and we are arguing the fine points. This itself has the sulfurous air of looking for loopholes in the contract, but from the other side.

But to state the objection: Is is right to use violence to defend (or help defend) a 3rd party against an attacker bent on murder? None of the above justifications you have listed seem to allow for it.

Either we are all called to prevent evil in all of its forms and all of its manifestations whenever we see it, or we are called to take no responsibility except for our own individual condition (in a far more isolated sense than most anarchist libertarians would maintain) and hope some “authority” has the responsibility.

Most conservatives (as opposed to libertarians) tend to believe that there is a community and collective guilt, at least in addition to individuals. “Self-defense” has a subtly different meaning if it expands to cover the community or collective “self” defense.

Tiller and his shooter were part of the same community. Tiller himself managed to (legally) bribe the system to get charges dropped, so he was “above the law” too.

At some point, in order to respect something, it must be worthy of respect. Even the law. The same theology which tells us to respect the civil authority often in the very next sentence says their authority comes from God, not man. If the civil leadership is acting against God (Cain, Noah, Moses all talked about shedding innocent blood), how much authority can they have? Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were “on the throne” – but is the claim they lacked true authority mainly because of their murders? Our abortion holocaust has numbers they would have been proud of.

Perhaps we could win using civil disobedience if we were willing to sacrifice with the virtues of fortitude and perseverance. If a fraction of those claiming to be pro-life would go to jail in non-violent protests it would threaten to bankrupt cities and states. And it would be hard.

So the first problem is simply convincing you and most of the others that Abortion is a critical problem – an evil like Nazism or Slavery that must be ended.

Then we can worry about methods, but 4000 will die today. Assume I take your position that violence is not the answer. Then, what is the answer? And if it demands sacrifice on your part, wouldn’t it be a sin to not do it? How evil does something have to be to create a duty for you to act to end it?

June 6, 2009 at 8:30 am
(12) Kirt Higdon says:

Kelley (#5) seems to be saying that the end justifies the means in the case of the murder of Dr. Tiller. “Lives saved”. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve heard that one to justify the mass murder of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But were lives even saved by the murder of Tiller? Sure he won’t be killing anymore and a few others might be scared off. But plenty of pro-life activists or potential activists will also be scared off by the prospect of violence or legal retaliation. Worse yet, many women who might otherwise be disposed to hear the pro-life message will now see anyone who approaches them with that message as a nut, a hypocrite, or even a potential assassin.

If this proves to be a stand-alone incident, the damage to the protection of unborn children will be limited. Thank God Tiller’s murderer was not Catholic. But if other incidents should follow in a few months, worse yet if some Catholic or other pro-life activist should attempt to kill Obama, damage will be extreme. Not only will the pro-life movement be out of business politically (that’s pretty much the case anyway), but any sort of outreach or service to pregnant women will be deemed “domestic terrorism” in the minds of the public and maybe legally. How many unborn lives will be saved then?

June 6, 2009 at 9:59 am
(13) DoubleD says:

I believe there is a quote somewhere that goes something like this: “Greater love has no man than he who lays down his life for a friend.” Although most unfortunate for Mr Tiller to have died in the manner he did and God’s judgement and mercy will be shown to him now, there will be thousands of lives that will NOW be saved. If the ‘hit man’ is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and Kansas has a death penalty on the books, then ‘laying down his life for countless unborn friends (babies)’ will be justified.

June 6, 2009 at 11:25 am
(14) Brother Andre Marie says:

Spot-on, Mr. Richert. Thank you for your clarifying the distinctions between just war and self-defense. It was good of you, also, to include mention of the father’s role in defense of the child.

June 6, 2009 at 2:56 pm
(15) Sean says:

Scott your logic is flawed because the idea of self defense also incorporates defense of others without regard to relations. Can the killing of a practicing abortionist be considered saving others lives? I would say yes. Therefore it is a moral act. You maintain it is immoral because it is illegal. You state you are discussing morals, but you really are focused on the law.

Now lets say that abortion is illegal and there is a law that states that anyone practicing abortion should be killed by citizens where ever found. Would the killing of Tiller still be considered immoral in this regard?

June 6, 2009 at 3:24 pm
(16) Kirt Higdon says:

Several of the commentators on this topic make me fear that there is indeed a homicidal element within the pro-life movement which has the potential to lead the movement to disaster. I can understand their sentiments, as I can understand the sentiments which motivated James Kopp, Eric Rudolph or Tim McVeigh, without in the least considering it just to undertake a campaign of murder against abortionists and their enablers, especially those in government. And a campaign is indeed what some of the commentators here are implicitly endorsing. No argument that seeks to justify the murder of Tiller could not also be used to justify the murder of any abortionist, or pro-abortion judge or politician. The sadistic delight of at least one commentator at the thought of Tiller burning in hell is especially chilling.

No one can help build a culture of life without uprooting murder from his own heart first. Many abortionists have converted, not to mention many mothers. We pro-lifers need to redouble our prayers and outreach. Those who think this should be settled by violence have already lost morally and will lose physically as well.

June 6, 2009 at 11:39 pm
(17) Bud Harroun says:

It is never right to take life, only God has that right. If you are pro-life then you must respect the life of all human beings, not just the ones you agree with. I am against abortion, but that does not give me the right to take the life a doctor who performs them. Jesus, taught that we must love our enemies as we love ourself. Since all life is precious that means even those who take life have a life that is precious to God. We are all God’s children and brothers and sisters in Christ. Murder is murder and never justified by one’s beliefs, if it were then the Nazis were justified in what they did. We need to pray for those who perform abortions and for those who are contemplating having one, that God will let them see the precious life that they are dealing with. Adoption is the best option.

June 7, 2009 at 2:54 am
(18) MP says:

Let me offer my basic support for what Kirt says. Many of the comments here and elsewhere are preposterous not only (1) in their unwillingness to confront seriously the fact that individuals are sometimes faced with tragic choices, about which morally serious people can deeply disagree about the proper resolution, but also (2) in their presumptuousness in claiming to know what God’s judgment might be upon the life of Dr. Tiller. The fact of deep disagreement between morally serious people is the basis for the principle of toleration–which doesn’t mean accepting the judgment of those who disagree (or simply compromising oneself). Rather, it means acting with restraint, even as one seeks other ways of living in accordance with one’s own deepest convictions and commitments–besides, for example, acting with violence against those with whom one disagrees.

Those who would object that Tiller was not a morally serious individual (but rather, say, a moral monster) aren’t paying attention to all the facts. A man who drives to work in a bulletproof car, wearing a kevlar vest, and so on, after all these years and threats, fails to appreciate that his actions indicate the depth of his own beliefs (whether we happen to accept them). (The person who suggested, here or somewhere else, that Tiller did what he did for the money is ignoring the stories coming out of women and girls in tragic situations who Tiller aided–sorry, I realize the word ‘aided’ will cause some to bristle–at no charge. There are plenty of other things a skilled surgeon could do to get paid.)

June 7, 2009 at 10:42 am
(19) Frugie says:

Tiller was a criminal not a religious man.
Tiller killed fully developed live babies at the birth canal.
There come a time to wage aggressive war against a criminal governed institution that violates the moral conscious of a society.
There is no justification in killing live babies by anyone.
There is no Heaven according to the Bible for the friends of the world.

June 7, 2009 at 11:28 am
(20) Edward says:

The idea that people have an equal duty to save the lives of all people everywhere and always is thoroughly un-Christian. That is pure liberalism. There is no Christian precedent to be a superhero, and, very often, people who try to be superheroes turn out to be the most monstrous men of all. The killing of Tiller was unjustified because, in simple terms, the guy was not minding his own business. We do not have a duty to save everyone’s children, and normally we accept this idea. Most people think that only parents have a special obligation to care and love their children, and we know that no man can help all people all of the time even if he wanted to.
Abortion is the illicit murder of a child, but that does not mean that I would want to live in some all powerful state that is able to prevent every abortion. The same goes for individual Americans who have no business deciding who should live or die. Like Scott said, the father should always be the first and foremost protector and guardian of his child. Being pro-life is not some abstract obligation to a principle. Rather, it is a duty that arises out of the love of particular persons.

June 8, 2009 at 9:15 am
(21) mary johnson says:

Dear Readers: It is just awful that some deranged individual takes the doctor’s life in the name of the aborted. We may not agree with what these people are doing, but no one has a right to take anyone’s life for no good reason. What is even more awful is that the press is having a field day with this. Let’s go back to prayer, folks. Prayer moves mountains; God knows what is going on and He will have the last word. Thankyou MJ

June 9, 2009 at 11:00 am
(22) Genevieve says:

It is awful that the doctor was performing late term abortions putting a woman’s life in danger and also murdering a human life, but I don’t believe in “an eye for an eye” I feel violence begets violence. The Doctor was performing an act of violence by killing unborn babies, and his murderer took it upon himself to do the same. The doctor was attracting bad karma because he was doing an act of violence by killing innocent human life. In this life you get from it what you put in it. We all have a time to depart and when the time is up, a time only known by our father in heaven, and when the appointed hour has arrived, we have to go.

June 12, 2009 at 11:46 pm
(23) Jack Sr. says:

We must dislike the sin but love the sinner. As musch as it pains me Dr. Tiller would not have had business if he did not have clients.
No justification can be given for walking up and shooting an unarmed person. We are a nation of laws correct or incorrect and a lot of good men gave their lives to protect that right.
One person actions have never been the total!

April 11, 2011 at 9:48 am
(24) linda says:


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