On the whole, I find William Saletan a sharp analyst and an engaging writer. This column, however, is really profoundly revolting. Your first clue that something might be awry comes with the kicker headline: “Is it wrong to murder an abortionist?” Sane people do not regard that as an open question—or, for that matter, a distant cousin of an open question. I am not relieved that Saletan concludes the answer is “yes”; I’m horrified Slate‘s editors thought it would be cute and provocative to pose it as though it were in need of an answer, as though it were just one more of those questions on which reasonable people might disagree. I guess it worked—I clicked through—but I’ve also just shifted Slate significantly down the mental gradient stretching from The New York Review of Books to The World Weekly News. Normally, this kind of tacky sensationalism would just provoke an eye-roll, but as we’ve just been reminded that there’s an unhinged minority who do think it’s a serious question, there’s something a bit grotesque about indulging them, even for the purpose of a reductio.
I want to lay this one at the feet of the headline writers, but Saletan’s whole article is an exercise in using a cheap shock-schlock conceit to hook his longstanding crusade for a “third way” on abortion to the murder of George Tiller this weekend. It proceeds by drawing an explicit—and nauseating—moral equivalence between Tiller and his murderer. Both, as Saletan presents it, were men who “didn’t flinch” from following the logic of their positions to their extremes. But the comparison fails on multiple levels.
First, Saletan implies that Tiller was so rare in his willingnness to perform late-term abortions because—perhaps like a war veteran—he had the strong stomach required to do grizzly, morally ambiguous work. So widespread is moral revulsion at these procedures, we’re meant to think, that only a handful of doctors shared Tiller’s extreme commitment to the “cause.” Of course, more plausible reasons that Tiller is an outlier include the onerous restrictions most states place on later abortions and, perhaps more to the point, the very real danger that some psychotic will shoot you at your church if you provide those services. Given that fewer than 2 percent of abortions are performed after the 20th week of gestation, it’s not surprising that the majority of doctors, whether or not they have any particular moral qualms about it, don’t find it to be worth the trouble.
Next, Saletan argues that Tiller’s murderer “didn’t flinch” from the logical consequence of believing that abortion is, literally, morally indistinguishable from the butchering of full-grown people. In the abstract, Saletan’s reductio makes a certain amount of sense: If you genuinely believed someone was murdering thousands of innocent people, and the government (for whatever reason) refused to put a stop to this slaughter, you would very likely conclude that it was morally permissible to use lethal force to do what the police would not. Ergo (runs the argument) professed pro-lifers who shrink from this conclusion must, at some level, not really take the rhetorical identification of abortion with murder literally.
I’d love to believe him, but the round of condemnations of the murder from prominent pro-life organizations have, at best, run something like this: “Killing abortionists gives us a bad name, even though strictly speaking we think they richly deserve it, and can’t quite restrain ourselves from saying so, but formally we’re required to disapprove as a tactical matter.” See, for instance, the loathesome statement put out by Randall Terry of Operation Rescue. I think probably Saletan understands this, and is hoping to use the public position pro-life groups are politically constrained to take, however disingenuously, as a lever to press the less fevered among them to adopt a principled view more consonant with this professed position. More power to him it if works, but I’m not holding my breath.
I really do get what Saletan is trying to do here—under other circumstances, I might even consider it a clever strategy. I’m sure he thinks he’s written a compelling pro-choice article that reaches out to abortion opponents by showing them how they don’t really embrace the extreme consequences of the principle they nominally espouse. With that cleared up, he’ll invite them to join the friendly, reasonable centrists who want to reduce abortion by more pragmatic means, in the friendly, reasonable middle ground equidistant from the chilling consistency of either George Tiller or his assassin.
If I genuinely thought this would be effective, I could almost hold my nose through the piece, telling myself that the insult to the memory of one physician was a small price to pay for getting a few zealots to channel their energies away from either prohibition or assassination, and toward the goal of reducing abortion by reducing unwanted pregnancy. Given how thinly those pro-life groups concealed their lust for vengance in their pro forma condemations, I’m not that optimistic—and so my revulsion at the implied parallel between a brave provider of needed medical services and an unrepentant murderer wins out. The problem with this sort of triangulation is that it puts you at the mercy of the extremists—if one side gets crazier, the “middle road” shifts to accomodate. His focus here is about talking the most fervent abortion opponents down from the ledge, but it’s also—in the wake of an act of anti-abortion terrorism—a perverse offer to meet them halfway.
This is misguided as a matter of principle, and it’s bad strategy to boot. Once you grant the premise that abortion is, if not exactly equivalent to the murder of a person, then some kind of moral evil in approximately the same ballpark, picking the optimal means of reducing it becomes a strictly instrumental question. Once you’ve gone as far as you can providing education and contraception, what baffles and burdens and restrictions can you impose to make it practically very difficult even if you’re not throwing women in prison? More to the point, why should we think current polling numbers on abortion—which suggest that majorities are both convinced there’s something wrong with it and want to keep it legal—reflect some kind of stable popular view independent of the ongoing political debate about it? In the face of deep division over whether abortion is a moral evil, lots of people are prepared to say it’s too complex a question to legislate and, with some resignation, leave it up to individual women, families, and doctors. Saletan’s proposed compromise just shifts the “pro-choice” pole, making it that much easier for the next proponent of a “middle way” to suggest more vigorous means of limiting what, after all, everyone now concedes is a hideous moral wrong that we should all unite to reduce by one means or another. Treating Operation Rescue—which is consistent enough to caress the murderer they inspired with one arm, even the half-heartedly push him away with the other—as some kind of rational interlocutor invites a compromise far closer to their lunatic position than the modal American already is. Extending the olive branch now of all times amounts, as the hawks used to love to say, to an attempt to figure out how we can address the terrorists’ grievances.
Absent Saletan’s hope of forging this kind of stable compromise, I feel at liberty to just stick with my honest reaction: George Tiller was a brave physician who provided services few others would, and there was nothing remotely wrong with it. To make him the foil and flip-side of his own deranged killer for the purposes of a cutesy rhetorical flourish is obscene. I have no doubt I’m much closer to Will Saletan on this issue than to the zealots at Operation Rescue, but I’d rather he were less eager to hurl roses at their feet, and I’d damn sure prefer he didn’t feel compelled to implicitly slander a good man in the process.