At 10am CST this morning, abortion doctor George Tiller was shot to death at his church.
His abortion clinic in Witchita, Kansas specializes in late-term abortions performed “to the time in the pregnancy when the fetus is viable.”1 Unusually, the clinic offers funerary services for aborted babies (the website calls them babies, not fetuses), which optionally include footprinting and handprinting, baptism, and cremation.
Dr. Tiller has been the victim of pro-life violence before. He was shot twice in 1993.
In March of this year, Dr. Tiller went to trial for 19 misdemeanors related to his abortion procedures. The trial became a lightning rod of the abortion debate, with pro-lifers comparing him to Nazi war criminals and pro-choicers comparing him to Martin Luther King, Jr. (Tiller was found not guilty of all charges.)
Today, he was shot dead in the lobby of his church. The suspect fled the scene.
Atheists will be quick to say something like: “Pro Life” does not mean what you think it means. Presumably, the suspect who killed Dr. Tiller was a pro-life activist. Murder is an odd way to be “pro life.”
Or is it? The suspect probably thought Dr. Tiller was murdering thousands of human persons by performing late-term abortions. If this is the correct perspective, then killing Dr. Tiller may have been like assassinating Hitler. The argument is that killing one man may save thousands of lives. Also, the killing may deter others from killing pre-born human persons, and thereby save tens of thousands of lives, or more. (But, wouldn’t imprisoning a mass murderer be better than killing him, anyway? That’s another tough question.)
The morality of abortion
When I lost my Christian faith, abortion was one of many issues about which I was morally agnostic: I literally had no idea if it was morally right or wrong. So I turned my new skills of critical thinking on the problem.
I quickly found out that most of the arguments I could find – from either side of the debate – were hopelessly lame.
Much later, I came to think that desire utilitarianism was the only theory of moral realism likely to be true about the universe. So, what does desire utilitarianism say about abortion?
Desire utilitarianism claims that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. There is no moral value without desire. And desire is the product of a sufficiently advanced neurological system.
A first-week embryo does not have desires. You cannot harm a first-week embryo in a morally relevant way for the same reason you cannot harm a coconut in a morally relevant way: neither one has desires.
But some time before birth, probably between weeks 10 and 25, a pre-born human develops desires. At that point, we have to start considering their desires in our moral equations. I think it’s a fair bet that among the desires of a late-term fetus are very strong desires not to be poisoned, stabbed in the brain, or vacuumed into a tube. These are desires that must be weighed along with a mother’s desires to avoid the burdens of motherhood, etc. – along with all the other desires that exist.
How does our moral calculation turn out? That is an empirical question. We will have to do lots of scientific work to know the answer to this moral question. Right now, the best we can do is make an educated guess.