Many individuals seem to consider abortion to be murder, on the grounds of fetal personhood. Generally speaking, individuals holding this view, in my experience, hold that from the point an egg is fertilized by a sperm, the resulting entity (however one wants to characterize that entity) has the full set of rights that, say, an adult human being would have.
I find this view to be entirely wrong. That isn’t the point of this essay, of course. But it should be noted at the outset that this is a view that I do not hold myself.
In any event, at least some individuals who consider abortion to be murder take a further step, and believe abortion to be genocide. It should be obvious that I don’t hold to this view either, for the claim that abortion is genocide entails that individual abortions are acts of murder taking place in a systematic, institutionalized, targeted scheme—or so it seems to me.
However, I don’t want to challenge any of the following claims in this essay: that fetuses are persons; that fetuses have rights; that abortion is murder; or that abortion is genocide. Those claims, which I would, incidentally, flatly deny, are not what I want to explore. What I do wish to explore is (1) moral questions of what is entailed by the claim that abortion is genocide; and (2) proper moral responses to acts of genocide and, a fortiori, murder.
What I want to claim is, in short, that the response to the claim ‘abortion is genocide’ on the part of those making that claim is so morally disproportionate that it amounts to a massive moral failing on their part, and, further, leaves these claimants morally culpable, or otherwise, worthy of moral blame and condemnation.
What does it mean to refer to something as genocide? We commonly refer to the Holocaust as a genocide; there is also Rwandan genocide in the mid 1990s; and the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century (there seems to be significant controversy over this last, and I don’t mean to take any particular position regarding it, for I have not the knowledge of the events nor the time period for anything like a proper characterization or reasonable belief thereof).
Genocide, then, seems to usually be an organized, systematic, and/or institutionalized attempt to eliminate an entire, discrete group of individuals. A discrete group maybe a religious group, a racial group, an ethnic group, and perhaps other sorts of groupings I have not considered. On this account, abortion seems to fail to be genocide. Surely, abortion is organized and institutionalized, though I would question whether it is systematic. But abortion is, generally speaking, not aimed at any particular group.
Of course, there are many abortions performed once the mother has knowledge the fetus has some sort of defect or another. Individual abortions, then, can be said to be aimed at particular groups of humans, inasmuch as groups of humans can be picked out by their possessing a common birth defect, for example. But the practice of abortion generally, inasmuch as abortion is organized and institutionalized can hardly be said to have any such purpose or ‘aim’. I hardly think, then, that abortion can really be characterized as genocide in the above understanding of that word.
However, genocide may be understood in another sense, that of murder carried out on a large-scale, systematized, institutionalized, and/or organized. In this sense, then, abortion may qualify as genocide, if abortion is truly murder—which premise, of course, the entire argument that abortion is genocide hinges on. Genocide as mass murder without a specific ethnic, racial, religious, or other group as its target is not, perhaps, consistent with the etymological origins of the word genocide, but nevertheless, it is consistent with how the term is used at least some of the time.
However interesting a question that may be, let us move on and, for the moment, assume that abortion IS genocide, which entails that abortion IS murder; for the sake of argument, we will assume that ‘abortion is genocide’ and ‘abortion is murder’ are true statements.
Consider this thought experiment: you know that there is a location where murders are being carried out daily. Further, these murders are part of a large, organized, institutionalized scheme of murder being carried out at hundreds of locations across the country. In short, you know that there is a location where acts of genocide are taking place.
What is the morally appropriate response? Obviously, everything else equal, action to halt acts of genocide is morally preferred over inaction. In fact, inaction on my view would be seen as a morally culpable choice, inasmuch as one has the ability to act and consciously does not, refuses to, or otherwise fails to act in any way whatsoever in a manner that would contribute to stopping acts of genocide. That seems, to me, to be relatively uncontroversial—though we may disagree over the moral theory used to formulate the moral duties, requirements, principles, or virtues that require some action, I do not believe that the conclusion, by itself, is controversial.
Obviously, there are a number of possible responses. Among them would be direct intervention. One could chain oneself to the doors of an abortion clinic. One could attempt to sabotage the power lines supplying electricity to an abortion clinic. One could, via various means, make a credible threat against the clinic (one need not, of course, actually make good on the threat for it to have an immediate effect). One could make good on threats and attack an abortion clinic, plant a bomb, assault abortion doctors.
Consider Dr. Tiller, who was murdered by anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder. In the aftermath, the abortion clinic that was run by Dr. Tiller closed less than a month following his assassination. It was only recently that a new abortion clinic reopened in Kansas City, in the same building that Tiller’s former clinic had operated.
Additional action had been taken by pro-life activists in Kansas City long before Tiller was assassinated. From NPR:
A massive effort organized by the Pro-Life Action Network and Operation Rescue descended on the city in 1991. Back then, there were three clinics that provided abortion services in the area. The protest epicenter was at Tiller’s clinic. Thousands streamed in from across the country.
“They did everything, they laid down,” says former district attorney Nola Foulston. “They wouldn’t walk. The officers had to carry them. They cried that there was brutal treatment.”
Now, obviously this sort of mass protest would certainly have immediate consequences for the operation of the clinic. More obviously, the targeting of Tiller for successful assassination by Roeder had an even more immediate reaction: abortion services ceased entirely, and did not return for 5 years.
Now, if one could assassinate a single individual, and ensure that Auschwitz would have closed, immediately halting all acts of genocide and murder, is it even possible that anyone would say that is UNjustified? Keep in mind that the individual in question is complicit in the genocide as well. Even the leader of it, an individual without whom acts of genocide could not take place, as well as an individual who strongly believed that what they were doing was right. We find Nazis who believe thus to perverse, morally-bankrupt individuals, guilty of some of the most brutal, stunning crimes ever committed in recorded history. Few would mourn their loss. Even if the murders could be halted, or the rate slowed, with the knowledge that they may begin again later would not change the moral equation overmuch.
Yet, in the case of Tiller, even anti-abortion activists were, with few exceptions, condemnatory of Roeder. How can this be? Is not abortion, inasmuch as it is genocide, morally equivalent to the Holocaust? Is not Tiller morally equivalent to an SS officer, or doctor, carrying out the genocidal Final Solution? Isn’t Roeder simply fighting to halt an in-progress genocide by any means at his disposal—and shouldn’t that be celebrated rather than condemned?
One might plead that Roeder’s actions are equivalent to a vigilante, of an individual ‘taking the law into their own hands’. Surely, that’s true. But in both 1940s Germany and the present-day United States, the law and the government are not acting in any way to immediately halt genocide, or even individual acts of genocide. In both cases, the actions are legally sanctioned by government policy and law. Popular opinion is likewise implicated in both cases, inasmuch as many believed Jews were subhumans and that abortion is not morally wrong. What is left but to defy law, government, and authority? Legality and government approval are not the stuff of which morality is constituted—and I think that last point would command near-unanimous support and agreement.
Now suppose, for a moment, that the German people were generally aware of the Holocaust, that they knew the locations of the camps and what was going in behind their barbed wire fences. What would we think of people who condemned any and all action against the camps that was not simply handing out fliers, chalking up university sidewalks with messages, and holding up signs with messages to the SS officers running the camps, and trying to talk those running the camps out of what they were about to do? Wouldn’t that be an incredibly disproportionate response to what was happening? How could anyone’s moral character be taken seriously in either case? Especially if we assume that there are tens of hundreds of thousands of individuals opposed to acts of genocide, both in 1940s Germany and in the United States presently. Obviously, there’s more than enough support to make large, immediate changes: millions of Americans who hold that abortion is genocide could surely come together under an organized scheme to act in such a way that abortion clinics simply could not remain open for business.
If genocide involves unimaginable suffering and evil, how could any morally appropriate response to so incredibly disproportionate? What does this say about anti-abortion activists?
The bottom line is that there is a severe, irreconcilable disconnect between their rhetoric and polemics, and their actions. When this is pointed out, they hem and haw, and speak of not wishing to hurt the national political movement to eradicate abortion. The national political movement? What if a significant group of Germans in the 1940s, well-aware of what was being carried out at the concentration camps, said this same thing? ‘No, we must build a political consensus, we must change the government, we must write letters, march, hold signs… but what we must NOT do, under any circumstances, is to use violence, threats of violence, or sabotage, or anything approaching those means: we must talk and talk and talk without action.’
That is, I think, perverse. The actions are wholly inconsistent with the rhetoric and polemics, which is purely propaganda. To speak of abortion in this way, while refusing to act as if it actually is thus, is what gives the lie, and betrays one’s principles. To speak of abortion in this way is to do evil to the memory of the Holocaust: it is to do nothing less than make use of a horrible tragedy to serve one’s own political ends; it is to, in short, instrumentalize genocide in a perverse fashion that does not, and cannot, and must not be taken seriously by any thinking person.