David Mills on Respect for Abortionists
Last month, the newspapers reported that the man charged with killing an abortionist in Buffalo in 1998 has admitted doing so, though he said he only meant to wound him. While he was on the run from the law, some pro-life leaders claimed that he had been framed, and his case became a minor cause for the culturally alienated wing of the pro-life movement. (I do not mean “culturally alienated” as an insult, because a degree of alienation is inherent to being pro-life in a pro-choice culture.)
The confession confirmed for the pro-choice movement the image they wanted of their pro-life opponents: fanatical, sometimes violent, resentful, marginal, and gullible. The murder did what murder does, which is harm the good.
In the story in the Catholic news service Zenit, the leader of a local pro-life group said that “we were deeply saddened by the death of Dr. Slepian, whom we had come to know and respect as a man, even while disagreeing strongly with his views about abortion.”
I think there is something very wrong with this description. Many pro-lifers speak this way about abortion’s advocates and practitioners, hoping to keep the talk civil and win friends among the uncommitted, as they ought to do. But to talk of respecting an abortionist is to say something a man should not say, because it is untrue and will lead others astray.
The man is an abortionist. This means that he kills defenseless unborn children for money. He makes a living from murder. He exploits the desperation of some women and the moral callousness of others. And the leader of the local pro-life group announces to the world that he respects the abortionist as a man.
A respectable man is one who tries to live by a certain basic or minimum adherence to the moral law. He is to be respected for this: listened to and trusted, treated as an elder among the people, accepted as one to whom you will say, “you may be right,” when you disagree with him.
Respectability is a very low standard. The respectable man does not have to be a saint, but he cannot be a notorious and evil liver, as the old Book of Common Prayer put it. A respectable man can go to hell, and in fact can go to hell in part because he has relied on his respectability. A respectable man can fail. You will test him before letting him face great temptation. But he will never openly, willfully, repeatedly, and for mammon do a wicked thing.
That is what the abortionist does. He is a man for whom our Lord died, and for whose conversion we should pray, but he is also a man who has molded his life around the regular repetition of a mortal sin, which he commits because people pay him to.
No, he is not respectable, and a man who takes seriously the moral law should not respect him. To respect him is to tell others that he may be respected, which is to tell them that his work ought to be accepted (if not approved) and his views may be taken seriously and treated as moral possibilities. It is to lead them into an error of judgment that may well have quite practical results. This is arguably immoral.
But I suspect the end of the sentence gives the game away. The pro-life spokesman says that he respected the late Dr. Slepian “even while disagreeing strongly with his views about abortion,” as if the doctor were merely a debater or advocate of abortion and not a practitioner. This evasion of the plain fact suggests a certain unwillingness to face facts.
But whatever the reason for this evasion of the abortionist’s status, I do not think that his status ought to matter much, if at all. Even if he were only someone who advocated abortion from a chair in his study, one whose hands had never separated a tiny head from a body or a small arm from a chest, why should any man respect someone who argues for the killing of defenseless unborn children? Just how is this respectable?
Does anyone respect—or admit to respecting, anyway—the advocate of pederasty? Would even the confused pro-lifer speak so about the head of the local Man-Boy Love Association? Is the advocacy of abortion really any different from the advocacy of child-molesting? Beyond the fact, which I suspect affects the thinking of the pro-lifers more than they realize, that one is still illegal?
And more to the point, does the pro-life leader respect the assassin? He, after all, has only killed one defenseless man. Of course not. No one would ever speak of the assassin as one “whom we had come to know and respect as a man, even while disagreeing strongly with his views about murdering abortionists.”
We would never speak of the pederast or assassin, or the one who praises child abuse and murder, as respectable, because we still know them to be wicked. I think one can only speak of respecting the abortionist—I use the word in the sense both of the man who does the abortions and of the man who advocates them—if one has forgotten what abortion actually is.
Which is to say, if the understanding of abortion in American culture, that uneasy acceptance that fears drawing lines on either side, has unconsciously become one’s own understanding as well.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“Nice Killers” first appeared in the January/February 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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