In a rare moment of rhetorical agreement, organizations from Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation to Operation Rescue and National Right to Life have issued statements condemning the killing of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller. "Justice for all human beings includes the lives of those with whom we fundamentally disagree as well as the victims of abortion," said Shaun Kenney, executive director of American Life League. "Pro-lifers by our nature and commitment to human rights reject violence as a means of resistance."
But extreme acts inspire extreme reactions. Bloggers on the left have deplored "Christian fundamentalist terrorism" and accused "those wastes of humanity in the media like Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Michelle Malkin, Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly" for helping to "create and stoke a climate of hate and intolerance toward those who believe in a woman's right to choose." Malkin, for her part, warned readers to "prepare for collective demonization of pro-lifers and Christians and more gratuitous attempts to tar talk radio, Fox News and the Tea Party movement as responsible for the heinous crime." (Read "Vatican Newspaper: 'Obama Is Not a Pro-Abortion President.' ")
Dr. Tiller, like others before him, represented a challenge to both sides. Late-term abortions have always been the hardest to defend, but he and his supporters would point to cases when the procedure, however morally troubling, was medically necessary. Murder is even harder to defend, and yet there are some kinds of killing we distinguish from murder. A battlefield slaying is one; killing in self-defense is another. To its supporters, capital punishment is a third way, and now we approach the logical challenge. If someone truly believes that abortion is the same as murder, then is not bombing abortion clinics or killing the doctors comparable to bombing concentration camps or killing their commandants? I've heard pro-choice activists argue that even pro-lifers must view abortion as something less than murder, or else they would be taking more extreme action to stop it. At the very least, they'd be arguing that abortion should be not merely illegal but criminal and that the doctors and even the patients should face jail time.
The mainstream pro-life movement operates as protest groups usually do within the law, by peaceful means, working for legislative change on the one hand and cultural change on the other. But there is an uncomfortable consistency in the logic of the extremists: If abortion providers are mass child killers and the law refuses to act, the vigilante may see himself as the lone defender of justice as vigilantes usually do. Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, who in 1991 was arrested while protesting in front of Tiller's office, released a statement that began, "Dr. Tiller was a mass murderer ... he left this life with his hands drenched with the innocent blood of tens of thousands of babies that he murdered. Surely there will be a dreadful accounting for what he has done."
While his statement calls for "vigorous (yet peaceful) actions," his logic leads elsewhere. This is where President Obama's call for "common ground" collides with the reality of the issue. Some people are uncertain enough about the issue to be open to competing arguments and the weighing of moral claims. But some people are in no doubt about what they think. There will always be people on the left who dislike talk of abortion as a "tragedy" or support for restrictions on it, on the grounds that a woman facing an unintended pregnancy has enough challenges without navigating a moral, medical and legal obstacle course. And there will always be those on the right who dislike talk of reducing the need for abortion, since they view this as code for promoting forms of contraception that they view as equally immoral. To them, there is no "mystery" about when life begins. These positions are, as Obama says, "irreconcilable." (Read "Robert Gibbs: No Abortion Litmus Test.")
Mercifully, the abortion debate typically occurs within the boundaries a democracy sets, one of peaceful, if not always respectful, debate and advocacy on both sides. But what Tiller's murder reminds us is that in matters of life and death, the argument itself can become a matter of life and death.