Abortion and Killing in Defense of Others

Many people believe abortion is baby murder. (Here, I use the term “murder” to signify the morally wrongful killing of an being that possess significant rights.) I don’t agree that abortion (or, at least early abortion) is baby murder. But, suppose for the sake of argument the anti-abortion crowd were correct. Suppose that having an abortion is murder, on par with killing an innocent adult. If so, then abortion doctors are mass serial killers. If so, then wouldn’t abortion doctors obviously be permissible targets for defensive killing?

Consider the doctrine of defensive killing, a doctrine enshrined into common law. By default, killing is presumed wrong. However, a person can become liable to be killed by performing certain wrongful or unjust actions. A person is liable to be killed when he is doing something deeply wrong, unjust, or harmful to others, and when killing him would serve a defensive purpose, such as self-defense, the defense of others, or to prevent him from causing greater injustice. Killing is also restricted by a doctrine of necessity: at minimum, when a non-lethal alternative is equally effective at stopping someone from committing injustice, it is not permissible to kill him. Most people accept this broad outline, though they dispute the details of the theory.

The common law doctrine of defense of others is almost identical to the doctrine of self-defense. According to one popular law textbook:

…one is justified in using reasonable force in defense of another person, even a stranger, when he reasonably believes that the other is in immediate danger of unlawful bodily harm from his adversary and that the use of such force is necessary to avoid this danger.[i]

“Immediate” here does not literally mean immediate. For instance, if someone has locked you up wrongfully, and plans to murder you six days from now, I can kill him now, if necessary to set you free. I needn’t wait until literally the second before he slits your throat.

Obviously, law ≠ morality. But the common law tends to be a reliable guide to people’s moral intuitions. The doctrines of self-defense and defense of others are doctrines that developed through the common law process that embody centuries of experience regarding how best to discourage violence and resolve violent disputes.” As John Hasnas says, they “…represent what fifty generations of juries and judges believed to be a fair and proper response to [wrongful] attack.”

Now, suppose Wellesley College had a “Women’s Rights Center”. At the Women’s Rights Center, women may drop off their children, which Wellesley promptly euthanizes, no questions asked, so that that women could then be free to enjoy the life that is most authentically theirs, or be free from trauma, or plan their families better, or whatnot. Most of us would look at the Women’s Rights Center with horror, and would demand that the government shut it down. Now suppose the government flat out refused to do so. Thanks to some weird, ideologically motivated mumbo jumbo in an old Supreme Court case, the government believes that the fourteenth amendment forbids it from closing the Women’s Right Center. And, so, the Women’s Right Center continues its cruel work, murdering hundreds of innocent children each year.

Now, suppose Batman bombs the Women’s Right Center, and thus prevents them from murdering a few children. That action seems heroic, not wrongful. But suppose the head child-killer in the Women’s Right Center gets away, creates a new child-killing lair, and starts murdering more children. In that case, Batman might decide to kill the child-killer, in order to stop him from killing more children. Suppose Batman announces, “I will, if necessary (if there are no equally effective non-lethal means), kill any would-be child murders to stop them from killing children.” Again, this seems heroic, not wrongful.

There are a number of objections to this line of reasoning, including:

  1. It’s wrong to engage in vigilante justice.
  2. Batman must allow people to murder children because he has a duty to obey the law, and the law permits child murder.
  3. Batman must not kill the child-killers, but must instead only use peaceful means.
  4. Batman must not kill the child-killers, because it probably won’t work and won’t save any lives.
  5. Batman must not kill the child-killers, because they mean well and don’t think they’re doing anything wrong.
  6. Batman must not kill the child-killers, because the claim that “killing six-year-olds is wrongful murder” is controversial among reasonable people.
  7. Batman must not kill the child-killers, because the government or others might retaliate and do even worse things.

I think these objections are either implausible (e.g., 2 is absurd), or are at best mere elaborations of the necessity proviso of defense killing. (E.g., #4.)

When people target abortion doctors, or bomb abortion clinics, pro-choice people exclaim, “See how extreme the pro-life crowd is! They’re insane!” But, no, if abortion = baby murder on par with murdering adults (or five-year-olds), and if there are no effective non-lethal means to stop these murders, then there seem to be very strong presumptive grounds for killing abortion doctors and bombing abortion clinics, according to the commonsense moral doctrine of killing in defense of others. The main normative dispute should really be about the moral status of the fetuses. Otherwise, the dispute would just be over whether killing is necessary (are there equally effective non-lethal means?), or whether the proper targets are being killed (e.g., abortion clinic bombers must avoid killing innocent people when they rightly kill abortion doctors).




[i] LaFave Criminal Law, 550. Here “unlawful” means unjust, not illegal.

Published on:
Author: Jason Brennan
  • CalderonX

    Jason — could you explain a bit more on why you think 2 is absurd? I think 2 actually gets close to the line of reasoning many people might believe as to why killing abortionists is wrong even if some reasonable people believe abortion is murder. Specifically, the reasoning would be “We have a process in place (including both democratic decisions and rights protected by the courts) to resolve important issues about which people fundamentally disagree, that process is in general just, and therefore people should be required to obey the outcomes of that process even if reasonable people believe that particular outcomes of that process are unjust.”

    On a separate note, I do wonder if there are people who believe that killers of abortion doctors are morally wrong but believe that abolitionist John Brown was right, at least in a way that might be convincing to those who are pro-life. Of course, I assume some might say that slavery was morally evil so John Brown was right to take actions to fight it, while the right to an abortion is morally good and so those who kill abortion doctors are wrong to do so, but that’s not going to be very convincing to those who are pro-life.

    • Jason Brennan

      There doesn’t seem to be any good reason to believe in government authority in general, as all the theories philosophers have offered over the past 2500 years have fatal flaws. But even if you believe there is a duty to obey some laws, it takes even more work to show you have a duty to obey laws that cause terrible injustice.

      But really the “it’s absurd” thing was just a throwaway line. I just find it weird that people would think that just because the law says we can kill each other, that we can. I would think instead that they would only find that plausible if they thought the law was likely to track the truth.

      • CalderonX

        Jason — presumably even in the complete absence of government (and I’ll say now that I’m a minimal state libertarian), we’d want some process to prevent violence over competing moral claims. For example, even if there were no government whatsoever, presumably we’d want some process to determine whether individuals killing abortion doctors is permissible or not. Without such a process, there’d be a real risk of the Hatfield and McCoys, where Person A would kill an abortion doctor which Person A considers to be a moral act; the doctor’s supporters or family would then kill Person A because they would believe he committed unjustified murder; the family or supporters of Person A would then seek to kill the family and supporters of the abortion doctor because they would believe the abortionist’s family or supporters had committed unjustified murder, and so and so forth. Exactly what processes for resolving such disagreements would look like under anarchy is an open question (at least to me; I’m sure others have given the issue more thought), but presumably they still would exist in some form. And if they do, then we still have the argument that one should respect the outcome of that process if it’s basically just, even if one disagrees with it.

        On your second point, presumably the law is supposed to track whatever the particular group of people at a given time who live under that law believe to moral. But even within that group, there likely will be deep divisions on some limited number of issues. Possibly the groups could just divide if geography allows to form separate groups with fewer divisions and more agreement (meaning that more conservative and more liberal states might secede from each other). But if that is not feasible for whatever reason, then the group may decide to let a generally just process determine what the law is and what acts are punishable or not, even if they disagree with particular outcomes.

        • You’re missing the key point that nobody can set up a “competing moral claim” against my right to life. There is no “process” for “resolving disputes” over the right to life, other than a battle to the death. The very idea that someone thinks they have a right to submit my right to life to the “processes” of the community is an affront to basic respect for the existence of other human beings.

          It’s nice to be able to resolve conflicts, but when it comes to whether or not a person may be entitled to live, the only reliable “process” for resolving that sort of “dispute” is bloodshed. No law can overcome that fact.

          • Farstrider

            We make such decisions all day and every day. Obviously all laws governing the use of deadly force – including self defense, defense of others, apprehending a fleeing suspect, just war, capital punishment – are laws that “submit [your] right to life to the ‘processes’ of the community.”

            Likewise, the many laws governing other aspects of life that have tangible and predictable effects on life – everything ranging from public health to traffic laws to gun laws to ordinary negligence principles – are also laws that “submit [your] right to life to the ‘processes’ of the community.”

          • I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. I don’t care if I go to jail defending my right to life – better that than death. When life or death is on the line, the only thing that matters is the right to life. Everything else is secondary to that purpose, unless for some reason you prefer death. The law is actually impotent here. If I feel my life is threatened, I am more than happy to violate every law and rule society has at its disposal to survive, because I don’t want to die. It doesn’t matter how convinced society’s institutions (and members, apparently) are of the justice of those rules. When it comes to kill-or-be-killed, I don’t want to be killed, so…

          • Farstrider

            Well, you are idiosyncratic in that regard. Lots of people will risk their lives for a number of reasons. Not everyone thinks that their own life is all that matters.

          • You’re not even staying on topic. If I choose to give up my life for something, that’s MY CHOICE. I don’t think being willing to stand up for my right to life in the face of an unjust law makes me “idiosyncratic,” I think it makes me sane.

            Whether abortion laws are “unjust” is the matter under dispute. Reasonable people can disagree about that, but the mere fact that something is against the law is insufficient to establish a moral claim on someone’s life, at least according to any justifiable set of ethics.

          • Farstrider

            Well, I am having a hard time following your position. It can’t possibly be that that law cannot balance the life of a person against some other interests, because the law (and morality for that matter) do that all day.

          • You’re having a hard time following because you’re taking us further afield. We were talking about abortion. I was saying that it’s a cheap trick to hand-wave a human life away by submitting it to a vote. Just because we vote on who we kill doesn’t mean we didn’t kill. So if you’re prepared to say that abortion is an act of murder against human beings, but that this is an acceptable balance against “some other interests,” then okay, but I don’t know any other pro-life advocates who think that way. Most suggest that fetuses aren’t human beings. You seem to be suggesting that all this killing is no big deal because there are “some other interests” to be considered. Okay then, what are those interests that are worth killing babies over?

          • Kurt H

            Opposition to slavery (bodily autonomy). We don’t force people to donate kidneys, nor should we force them to donate use of their wombs.

            The fact that fetuses are only arguably persons after 24 weeks just makes the pro-life position *extra* ridiculous. It is already totally hostile to the principles of liberty, even if personhood begins at conception.

          • There are, unfortunately, cases in which pregnancy is the result of compulsion. In all other cases, though, pregnancy is the result of a voluntary choice. Comparing that to slavery is, to put it lightly, thick rhetoric.

          • Strangefrond

            I don’t think that individuals *can* voluntarily give up their bodily autonomy either implicitly or explicitly (at least not in an irreversible way). Imagine J. J. Thomson’s case of being attached to a full grown adult who has a right to life, etc. Detaching yourself would kill him. Your idea, Ryan, seems to be that it matters how he got attached to you, so let’s say you had signed up to get attached to such a person with a contract and everything, I think if you change your mind and say, “Hey I know I said I would let you use my body to maintain your life but I’m changing my mind” my gut says justice requires that they have to let you detach even if it would make you a bad person that you did so. This is absolutely clear in the case of sexual consent: when you tell people to get out of your body, they have to do it and if they don’t leave on their own, you can remove them by force. What are your thoughts about these cases?

          • What I meant by “compulsion” was pregnancy as the result of rape.

            If the fetus had some choice in the matter, then you might have a good point about “removal by force.” But I don’t think it’s fair to engage in a series of voluntary choices that results in the creation of a human being, and then say, “Well, too bad for the created human being, I’m not his/her slave! Out!!”

            The real problem with the “when does human life begin?” debate is that it obfuscates the real issue, which (for me) is When does moral responsibility for the child begin?

            Because my answer to that question is, “Immediately,” I am much more inclined toward the pro-life side of things. Maybe a stem cell is a human life and maybe it isn’t – but that stem cell wasn’t created in a vacuum, it is the result of voluntary human interaction.

            Someone who makes all of the choices that would produce a child and then aborts the fetus is like a person playing a video game – if they didn’t do things right, they just die and continue from their “saved game,” or start over. That indifference toward life – that aspect of treating the outcome of personal choices and responsibility as a movie or a video game that can be changed and re-scripted based on desire and medical possibility – is consistent with narcissism.

            A functional moral person will not just simply duck a serious responsibility just because life doesn’t seem fair anymore. I mean, I know people who do live their lives that way, but that’s not consistent with what anyone would call a pleasant society.

            I hope that answers your question a little. 🙂

          • Strangefrond

            I guess I want to know if you agree with my thoughts about detaching yourself from a full grown adult after consenting to be attached to him. My thought is: yeah, you might be a bad person if you go back on your word even though it will cost someone her life, but you aren’t guilty of anything that should be a crime because you haven’t violated any person’s rights by what you do. I don’t think I should try and stop you, and I don’t think the state should, and I don’t think Batman should.
            So even if you and I agree that parents have moral responsibilities to their unborn children that abortion violates, it doesn’t follow that 1) abortion should be illegal or 2) abortion is akin to baby murder.
            I guess I take it to be obvious that sometimes people ought to be legally allowed to violate their moral responsibilities to each other. It’s not illegal to be a bad person, or a mean person, or an unfair person, and it shouldn’t be. If your arguments only show that aborting a fetus makes you a bad person, then there isn’t much that follows in terms of how we should feel about vigilante abortion doctor murder. Do you disagree?

          • First let me say that these are interesting questions, and while we might disagree, I really appreciate where you’re coming from and your ability to articulate that perspective.

            One problem with the situation as you’ve outlined it is that it seems to suggest that even murder should not be against the law. Murdering someone makes you a bad person, but being a bad person shouldn’t be against the law, so why is murder?

            The obvious and crucial difference is the fact that X’s decisions cost Y his/her life. No, X should not be legally permitted to make decisions that directly terminate Y’s life. In some cases (although perhaps not all) X should not be legally permitted to make decisions that indirectly terminate Y’s life.

            We can think up special scenarios in which what I have just written might not hold, but in general it is obvious that if X wants to do something that kills Y, any kind of society worth living in would require – morally and legally – that X provide convincing justification for terminating Y’s life.

            Unfortunately, I don’t personally feel that those “attachment” and “slavery” thought experiments provide sufficient justification.

          • zebbart

            Many pro-choice activists explicitly say it doesn’t matter if the fetus is a person. What is the alternative – to say that the pro-choice is provisional but if we discover that fetuses are indeed persons, then we accept mandatory child-bearing and motherhood for all women who get pregnant? What pro-choice activist would accept that?

          • Such an odd question. How do these tiny invaders find their way inside a uterus in the first place? Immaculately? Should parents be allowed to kill whatever children they don’t want to raise?

          • zebbart

            I am not pro-choice so I can only repeat my understanding of their views. But their common rebuttals to the “face the consequences of your free decision” argument are that it is a completely gendered consequence and thus unjust; that the woman chose to have sex, not to get pregnant; that no one is told to “face the consequences” of other risky activities without medical treatment when treatment to ameliorate the consequences is available; and laws against abortion violate bodily autonomy. That is not comparable to parents killing born children because both father and mother alike can simply abandon their children rather than killing them and because protecting the child’s life does not directly violate the bodily autonomy of the woman.

          • Libertymike


          • Jason Brennan

            Well said. That’s exactly it.

      • Aren’t there fatal flaws in more or less every comprehensive moral theory? Demanding that your opponents have a grand unified theory of morality (“prove from first principles that government authority is justified”) is weak sauce unless you’ve got one in your back pocket.

        That leaves us scrounging in the dirt trying to reconcile competing, base moral impulses, and “obeying the law is good” is clearly a millennia old moral intuition, and one with plausible rules-based or two-step utilitarian underpinnings to boot.

        • Jason Brennan

          Morality doesn’t depend on moral theory. My point here is that every argument for authority is pretty obviously unsound, so that’s pretty good reason to doubt the existence of authority.

          • Is there a sound argument *against* authority? If not, why isn’t the conclusion “there are no decisive arguments for or against this”?

            “People arguing for authority have to prove their case or they lose” is a burden shifting step you have to justify. The general rule is that you have to prove something untrue to prove it untrue, not prove that no one has proved it true.

          • Jason Brennan

            A government has authority (over some issue…) just in case it can create in you a duty to do something just because it commands it.

            Authority is weird. Normal people don’t have such authority. I can’t create duties in you by fiat.

            Pretty much everyone in the debate agrees to that, so pretty much everyone agrees that the burden of proof is on the pro-authority side.

            Note that legitimacy and authority are separate concepts.

          • I think that’s persuasive sounding but I still disagree with it, for four reasons (four reasons i’m sure must have been brought up and refuted 80 years ago by someone smarter than me, but maybe I’ll hit on something insightful or novel by luck):

            1. It ignores the fact that there are widely agreed upon exceptions to the “normal people don’t have authority” rule. Normal people obviously have duties they can create by fiat when they serve in certain roles, ie parents.

            Further, no one has figured out a widely accepted and generally persuasive reason for those exceptions. People will debate tooth and nail why (and sometimes if) parents have moral authority to command their children, and all of these arguments seem flawed to many. So, we should not assume that government lacks authority just because there is no widely accepted and generally persuasive reason why “government actor” should be an exception to the “people don’t have authority” rule. After all, we’re clearly willing to tolerate and embrace other exceptions to the rule that don’t have widely agreed upon justifications.

            2. Pretty much everyone, everywhere, always has believed that some governments have some degree of authority, especially if you take a definition of “government” that encompasses tribes and tribal customary law. Why does the majority opinion of those “in the debate” (ie, modern political scientists) trump that majority opinion?

            3. More broadly, you are arguing from moral intuition (“most people intuit that normal people don’t have authority to boss each other around, therefor if you want to say you have the authority to boss people around you must prove you are an exception”), but not explaining why you get to reject the near-universal moral intuition that governments have authority. I would phrase it: “most people intuit you don’t get to boss people around. Most people also intuit that government actors do, to at least some degree, get to boss people around. Moral intuition appears to have made an exception for government actors. It is not clear if there is a logical reason for this.”

            4. Maybe I’m reading too much into your words, but you still seem to be assuming that in every debate, the burden of proof rests on one side or the other, ie if one side doesn’t prove something is true, the other side wins by default and proves it is false. It seems less like you are arguing that a special burden of proof rests on those arguing for authority and more like you are arguing that since the burden of proof must rest on one side, it should be those arguing for authority.

            That’s not how persuasion, science, or most academic disciplines work. The burden of proof is generally on the person making a claim. If you say “Government’s don’t have authority,” you have to prove that, not just prove that no one has proved the opposite. I don’t see your principled reason for abandoning that standard here, other than a vague appeal to expert authority. “Political scientists have decided we don’t have to actually prove our claims here, so we won’t.”

  • Kevin Klein

    Rankin abortion on par with murdering adults *is* insane.

    • Jason Brennan

      That may well be the case. But I would then expect people not say, “I can’t believe they shot up abortion clinics” but rather “I’m surprised there aren’t more abortion clinic shootings”.

      • Kevin Klein

        I don’t see why the former isn’t still a logical response.

        “I can’t believe those pro-life people are so insane that they equate abortion with murder and therefore felt justified in shooting up abortion clinics.”

        The fact that there aren’t more abortion clinic shootings is prima facie evidence that even pro-life people generally don’t believe the bullshit they are selling.

        • No it’s not, it’s just evidence that we subscribe to one of the 7 objections Brennan has outlined.

          • Kurt H

            Right, but since those objections are such obvious weak sauce, we can still conclude (quite reasonably) that you don’t really see abortions the same way you do murder. You might not even be aware of this yourself. In fact, I think most pro-lifers aren’t aware of their unstated assumptions.

        • …and thus, by extension, the fact that you haven’t actively sought out murderers and killed them is prima facie evidence that you yourself don’t believe murder to be wrong.


          • Kevin Klein

            I have proxies (law enforcement) who work on my behalf to seek out murderers and bring them to justice. Are pro-lifers going to start hiring kidnappers and hit men now?

          • I don’t know. Would you be happier about that? For now, pro-lifers are content to slug it out through the political process. For that reason, you seem to think they don’t have convictions. But so far, government has suggested that there is some political leeway. Let’s see what happens when that door closes off completely.

      • martinbrock

        I’m not surprised there aren’t more abortion clinic shootings, because so few people ever shot a concentration camp guard. The moral significance of a fetus is irrelevant. Most people will not shoot a concentration camp guard apparently acting lawfully subject to their own state. Most people are sheeple regardless of anyone’s moral status.

    • scott boor

      How so? Do you have a sliding scale for the value of human life? Are older or younger people of different ‘value’? What about skin color, gender, sexual orientation,. religious views – do these also factor into your matrix of life valuation? Please provide the scale or metrics for each aspect of a human being which you believe positively or negatively affects the value of an individual human life.

      • Kevin Klein

        Before we can have a value discussion, we first have to define what “human life” means.

        • Well yeah. And if a plausible definition includes fetuses then abortion ranks on par with adult murder. So you’d have to have a really, really good reason to reject all such definitions as completely implausible. Do you have one?

          • urstoff

            He clearly has a reason because if he didn’t he’d be insane (by his own admission), and he’s (probably) not insane.

          • Kevin Klein

            Put it this way: I haven’t heard a plausible definition that isn’t either entirely arbitrary, or results in absurd consequences, or both.

          • And this differs from the pro-choice position in what way exactly? Is it any less arbitrary? You seem to be so convinced of the rightness of your position that you can’t even imagine plausible objections to it. That strikes me as odd. I’ve mulled this issue over in my head for decades, and the more I think about it, the less sure I get. The fact that you’re so convinced you’re right suggests to me that you haven’t given it enough thought.

          • tickticktick

            Well, yes. Living humans are, by definition, creatures with brain waves. Dead humans don’t have them (that is, in fact, one of the definitions of being dead) and neither do fetuses until 24 weeks. Therefore, fetuses prior to that benchmark are not human (nor are they likely to be feeling creatures), but merely potentially human, in the same way dead people are depleted humans.

            So, though I am pro-choice, I think there should be a limit for elective abortion at 24 weeks (which is basically the end of the second trimester), except in the case of danger to the mother (who shouldn’t have to choose another’s life over her own) or some major abnormality which would cause a child to be born only to live a short, painful life.

          • That’s the best definition I’ve seen so far. Thanks for that.

          • Lacunaria

            Yes, but don’t we define death that way because brain death is pretty much unidirectional at that end? I mean, if you just had to wait a few weeks for the brain waves to resume naturally, brain death wouldn’t be considered dead.

            When premature babies survive outside the womb at less than 24 weeks, does that mean they already had brain waves?

          • tickticktick

            I’m saying we treat human bodies without brain waves as something other than human (it’s a crime, for example, to stick people with brain waves in boxes underground or burn them in ovens). And, sure, I understand that there’s something different about something that’s potential and something that’s expended, but not human is not human and, up to that point, I’m willing to allow the person in whose body the fetus sits to make the call on whether that potential should be realized. You can angrily declaim my position, if you wish, but you can’t call it arbitrary.

            In the case of babies who’ve survived premature births before 24 weeks (a very rare occasion), I don’t know if there are any studies that show they had brain waves, actually. Most who don’t survive before that age fail to survive mostly due to lack of development in the lungs, not brain waves. If the body survives, though, the brain could, of course, continue to develop outside the womb.

          • Ed Ucation

            Tickticktick, I agree with your definition. However, it is clearer if we distinguish between human life (a biology concept) and personhood (a legal concept). Before brain waves are present, a fetus is human life, but it is not a person. Personhood has to be homesteaded by developing a brain.

          • tickticktick

            I see what you’re saying.

          • Mike Dross

            Brain waves can be detected as early as 6 weeks or 40 days after conception. The 24 week number is based upon viability, which is now earlier.

          • tickticktick

            I’m sorry, but that’s not true. That number is being bandied about on anti-abortion sites, but traces back to a 1968 textbook that cites no actual source for its information. While some electrical activity is present in the brain (and elsewhere) prior to 24 weeks, the very mechanisms that would create brain waves–a human mind, in other words–are not present until then and there are no detectable brain waves.

          • Mike Dross

            No current medical text books still claim 24 weeks. Only Snopes, which takes most of their arguments from prochoiceaction and selective research from the mid 1980s, and a few activist sites. Even most pro-choice sites that discount the brain stem claim 21 weeks. Brain stem development with neurons firing begins at 6 weeks, with reaction to stimuli detectable shortly thereafter. What is generally debated is whether this indicates personhood and how that should be defined. Is it based upon viability, self-awareness, desirability, autonomy, reaction to stimuli or complex brain waves? Each of these have non-fetal exceptions with legal personhood.

          • tickticktick

            I can point to numerous medical textbooks that still say 24 weeks. Electrical activity is not the same as brain waves.

        • scott boor

          Very good. Surely you concede a fertilized egg contains all genetic material to create human life. It needs only the nourishment from the uterus and a place to develop. Is a fertilized egg human life?

          Next, the fertilized cell begins to divide and implants into the wall of the uterus. Is an implanted egg human life?

          From the first division until birth, fetal development is a process of specialization and development. No new genetic material is added. Is a developing fetus human life?

          At what point do you see human life in development as passing across the 0 value line into the positive?

          • Kevin Klein

            A sperm contains half the genetic material to create human life. It needs only a companion egg and the nourishment and shelter of the uterus to develop. Is a sperm human life?
            A randomly shed epithelial cell from the inside of your mouth has all the genetic material necessary for life plus an active metabolism. Is a randomly shed epithelial cell human life?
            A brain dead patient lying in the OR waiting for her organs to be harvested has all of the normal functions of a human body save one. Is the patient a human life?
            I think we could play this game for a long time, which is valuable in illustrating how complex the question is and how generally useless a simplistic definition of human life is going to be. I personally would start with a high level filter: if I need a microscope to see it, it’s value is zero.

          • Above, you were complaining that pro-life definitions are arbitrary. What makes your definition any less arbitrary?

            You were also complaining about absurd consequences. As a type 1 diabetic, I’m missing pancreatic beta cells, which can’t be seen without a microscope; would you say the value of pancreatic beta cells is zero?

          • Kevin Klein

            I haven’t picked an arbitrary point and said “starting here, it’s a human life”. I’ve just picked a boundary and said “outside this boundary, we can be pretty certain we don’t have to treat this as a human being”. The boundary I picked isn’t entirely arbitrary, it is a conservative choice based on likely workable definitions of what constitutes a human life.

            As for your “value” question, I think you’re changing our use of the word “value” from a measure of the “human-beingness” of a thing to a measure of the utility of a thing. Sure, beta cells may have “value” to you in a property sense, but are we going to call you a murderer if you flush them down the toilet? No.

          • Ben Kennedy

            The question of “when does human life begin” is not even a legitimate question. There is no metaphysical property of the universe called “personhood” (let alone “moral impermissibility”). At the end of the day we are just people with opinions and emotional reactions to things that happen. If you are not personally moved by the plight of million-plus abortion each year, then *of course* you will gravitate to a defintion of “personhood” that excludes them. If someone is moved by empathy to care about them, then *of course* they will gravitate toward a definition that includes them. This is why the definitions themselves are pointless to squabble over – they are mere labels for our emotional reactions, among other things

          • scott boor

            So genocide and slavery is fine as long as the society in which they occur has definitions of personhood which exclude those who are the victims of these actions?
            Human beings are not merely physical, we also exist in a moral and ethical matrix. You may not simply wave that away with relativism.

          • Ben Kennedy

            I’m not trying to say this or that is fine – my point is that “fine” is just as much a social convention as everything else. I look at moral facts as a somewhat useful illusion, but unreal nevertheless. Of course, not believing in objective truth-apt moral facts doesn’t mean I’m “fine” with genocide, or abortion. But if you disagree with me, I’m not going to claim that I have superior epistemological access to moral knowledge that somehow you don’t have access to. If I say something is “fine” or “bad”, I am not describing the universe – I am in some way describing myself, and probably sending some social signals as well

          • martinbrock

            In a society defining personhood to exclude victims of genocide and slavery, these actions are called “fine”. Yes.

          • You’re shifting the goalposts. Now it’s not a point, it’s a boundary, and of course your boundary is totally reasonable, while people who have points – or, probably different boundaries – are arbitrary fools who don’t even believe what they profess to believe.

            Regarding “value,” I didn’t change the definition, I simply misunderstood what you meant. There is such a thing as an honest misunderstanding.

          • Lacunaria

            All of those examples seem to lack the substantive momentum of human life and the moral agency in its creation.

            It also seems that your high level filter would permit fetuses past about the one month mark to be considered human life. Maybe Batman is targeting later term abortionists than that.

          • tickticktick

            If Batman is going after people who abort fetuses before one month, he’s going to have to fight God. Fifty percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage (a.k.a. spontaneous abortion), most in the first month.

          • scott boor

            Those do not have Human agency. Batman can shake his fist at the sky if he’s upset with God about it, but he can intervene at the earthly level to prevent those ‘murders’ which occur outside the will of the almighty.

          • tickticktick

            My argument about this is above, Scott, and I think there are pretty clear lines to be drawn about when a fetus becomes human. To be honest, I was just being snarky here. It’s worth noting, though, that if your objections to abortion are religious in nature, it’s worth mentioning the Bible treats the unborn as property.

            You see the law of retaliation (lex talionis) shows up twice in the Bible–it’s basically the old “eye for an eye” bit–in Exodus and Leviticus. In Leviticus it says, “And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death. And he that killeth a beast shall make it good; beast for beast. And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him; Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again. And he that killeth a beast, he shall restore it: and he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death.”

            However, though the mention in Exodus 21 has an even harsher tone, it adds this bit: “If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” In other words, the death of an unborn child is seen as the loss of property which must be paid for with something less than death, which is the required penalty for killing a person. There are no other direct references to abortion (spontaneous or otherwise) in the Bible.

          • scott boor

            No My argument is not religious. You brought God into this, not me.
            My point is that, as a human being, Batman can only intervene to prevent the murders where human beings are capable of doing so. He’s not a doctor or biological scientist, so he cannot intervene in the medical realm preventing miscarriages.

            It is worth mentioning that I do not agree with the general argument it is ‘ok to kill abortion doctors because they are committing murder.’ – though I do believe we ought to be more respectful of life and less cavalier and arrogant with our treatment of it. Others have said they ‘do not know’ when a human becomes a human or ‘has value’, but they use their plea of ignorance as license to go about doing what they wish rather than as a barrier to action which may later be revealed as monstrous.

          • tickticktick

            Regarding religion: fair enough. Mea culpa.

            I agree with you wholeheartedly vis-à-vis our respect for life, but, as I said, I do think there is a point in the development when what was not human becomes human in much the same way that what was human will eventually become not.

          • Theresa Klein

            It’s actually more like 15%. Depends on age though. 50% of pregnancies when the mother is over 40 end in miscarriages. Although, most miscarriages are of non-viable fetuses anyway due to cromosomal abnormalities. Those are organisms that would not have developed into child.

          • tickticktick

            According to the March of Dimes 15 percent of recognized pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion, but 50 percent overall end that way, because most aren’t recognized.

          • Mirror2U2Me

            As an aside, I’m curious: How have they determined that 50% of pregnancies end via spontaneous abortion if they aren’t ever recognized? How would a study of that be structured?

          • scott boor

            Human cells are not human life. They are living human cells – part of an organism. A fertilized egg IS an organism – separate and distinct from either parent. Contained within the womb of the mother for gestation, but with a unique and uniquely human genetic pattern.
            To put human cells cast off as a normal byproduct of growth and development (a sperm or skill cell) is not a correct analogy to a developing egg/fetus. They are in two vastly different categories.

            If it’s life, then size does not factor into it. That is a seriously very strange and arbitrary standard for valuation.

            I would suggest in the absence of a voice from the heavens or a scientific quantitative definition of the human soul/spirit/spark of life – it is more advisable and proper to err on the side of protecting and preserving life, rather than a callous and arrogant disregard for human life in it’s most vulnerable state.

          • Kevin Klein

            “To put human cells cast off as a normal byproduct of growth and development (a sperm or skill cell) is not a correct analogy to a developing egg/fetus. They are in two vastly different categories.”

            This is demonstrably and empirically untrue. Both types of cell contain the same kind of DNA, the same mitochondria, the same enzymes, the same metabolic pathways, etc. The only difference is that one has certain development genes and pathways “switched on” and the other does not. I’m supposed to believe that one bag of chemicals is holy and sacred and the other is not?

            BTW, I presume you are also opposed to fertility clinics, as they are in the business of murdering embryos by the thousands.

          • scott boor

            A cast off sperm or skin cell left to its own devices does not develop into a human being. stick a solo sperm cell or skin cell in a womb and it will not, without human action, become a developing child.
            This is a difference of kind. The genetic material contained within that skin cell is of the same kind as the body from which it was jettisoned. It may be structurally similar to a fertilized egg, but they are different – as you yourself stated.They serve different functions.

            A sperm cell also contains only part of the genetic material needed to generate a unique individual human being. Leave it alone in a womb and it dies without a pairing female egg cell.
            Again, the difference is very clear. Without human intervention, neither the skin cell nor the sperm cell are capable or designed to replicate a unique human being.

            Even meddling with my skin cells will only get you a clone of me which, while admittedly awesome, would not be the same as what occurs when the sperm and egg merge to form a different human being.

            Presume what you will, it makes no difference to me.

          • Theresa Klein

            Can you admit there’s a moral difference between a cell that will become a devoping child, and an actual developing child? Or a developing child and an actual child?

            Why is “it will eventually be a person” thought to be a good argument? It’s not a person NOW. And if it’s not a person NOW, then it’s not murder.

          • scott boor

            Let’s get a definition of your terms.
            Do you consider ‘person’ different from ‘human being’ or are they synonyms in your question?
            What makes a fetus a non-person? What attributes of personhood does the developing fetus lack? At fertilization, the development process begins. Implantation and the resulting interchange with the mother allows that process to continue.
            What state change occurs that makes it a human being with rights as opposed to not a human being?

      • LLC

        This is, defacto, done by insurance companies and litigators. If we were to do a meta study of all damages cases in which such calculations were accepted in settling these cases, we would have a fair snapshot of how our society values life at any given time.

  • Krinein_ev

    An elaboration of no 6 offers the strongest reason. I hold some convictions that are outside the mainstream, but lack the certainty to go Rambo on my contemporairies. Even if one is a moral realist, a prudent respect for the common opinions of mankind is an epistomological virtue.

  • A couple of points.

    First, the quote from LaFave exhibits a confusion between facts and opinions that is pretty much standard in contemporary philosophy and elsewhere and which results in a great deal of muddy theorising. He uses the word ‘justified,’ which has strong epistemic connotations, and he also talks of reasonable beliefs when he is trying to say what is permissible, which is an objective, factual matter. There seem to be two propositions that he has unwittingly jumbled together.

    (1) it is permissible to use reasonable force in defence of another person,
    even a stranger, when that person is in
    immediate danger of unlawful bodily harm from an adversary and the
    use of such force is necessary to avoid that danger;

    (2) one may be excused (wholly or partly) in impermissibly using force against a person if one reasonably believes that one was using reasonable and necessary force to defend a person
    (even a stranger) from an immediate danger of unlawful bodily harm from an adversary.

    The confusion between facts and opinions is characteristic of Michael Huemer’s writing. I criticise it and show how it leads him into self-contradiction in a forthcoming review essay on his book ‘The Problem of Political Authority.’

    Second, you urge a liberal interpretation of ‘immediate’ to allow that, if someone has locked a person up wrongfully, and
    plans to murder him six days from now, a person can kill the culprit now, if necessary
    to set the prisoner free (one needn’t wait until literally the second before the culprit slits the prisoner’s throat). But I doubt that that is right. The fact that someone intends now to do something in six days’ time is a pretty weak predictor of his action six days hence. I suspect that that is (one reason) why LaFave spoke of ‘immediate danger.’

  • CbyN

    #6 is not necessarily an elaboration to #4. On a question that drills to the core of each person’s moral intuition, the width of the distribution of those intuitions, particularly among individuals who hold similar intuitions on other moral questions, serves as a strong incentive toward humility or evidence that moral truths are fiction.

  • RobertB

    I’m with you technically, but I don’t see how this is a rebuttal of the position “See how extreme the pro-life crowd is! They’re insane!”. It seems like a standard application of the philosophical technique of drawing out insane conclusions from given premises to cast the validity of the premises into doubt. If the abortion debate is tacitly a debate about whether or not abortion doctors can be killed by anyone who feels like it, that’s something that ought to be emphasized in terms of how extreme the pro-life position is.

  • Why do you think “unlawful” means unjust, not just illegal, when defining the doctrine of self defense? That’s not something I ever heard in law school and not a distinction in current American law as far as I know, so am I missing something in the history of the doctrine?
    Either way, the distinction is clearly about illegality rather than injustice now, so given that the common law was constantly developing and changing at what point did it stop reflecting moral intuition? Why go with the definition then rather than now?

    Another problem here is that you aren’t distinguishing defense of self and others. For example, Blackstone waxes eloquent in very broad language about the right of a person to defend life and limb, but it’s his *own* life and limb, or perhaps that of a servant or family member. The law has historically placed tighter restrictions on defending unrelated third parties (for example, in Texas it used to be the case that someone using self defense had to reasonably think he was facing unlawful force, whereas to defend another they had to actually be facing unlawful force).

    Lastly, an important inquiry in determining whether the danger was “immediate” is whether you can get police intervention in time. How does that mesh with a view of self defense that says it can be used to stop clearly legal force?

    Tldr version: I think you are too quickly dismissing the possibility that the law and moral intuition sharply limit force as a defense against legal force.

    • Jason Brennan

      I think that because I asked some lawyer colleagues and they told me that’s what it means there. Nothing more than social epistemology.

      • They seems… really wrong? If they are down for it, I would love for your lawyer friend(s) to make a guest post explaining what they mean. I’m obviously missing something, and I think it would make for interesting reading.

        To defend my position that they are wrong, the annotated model penal code, which serves as the basis of the penal code in two thirds of states, defines “unlawful force” as:

        “‘Unlawful force’ means force, including confinement, which is employed without the consent of the person against whom it is directed and the employment of which constitutes an offense or actionable tort or would constitute such offense or tort except for a defense (such as the absence of intent, negligence, or mental capacity; duress; youth; or diplomatic status) not amounting to a privilege to use the force. Assent constitutes consent, within the meaning of this Section, whether or not it otherwise is legally effective, except assent to the infliction of death or serious bodily harm.”

        Which is a confusing way of saying “Absent consent, if the force breaks criminal and civil law or would break the law if not for a defense that excuses it (vs a defense that justifies it. The penal code clearly lays out which defense is which kind), it’s unlawful.” There’s no higher inquiries into justice.

        For another example, in my state, Texas, the pattern jury charge just asks the jury to consider whether the defendant was engaged in self defense against “unlawful force,” with no recondite or airy definitions of “unlawful” provided. Nor, as far as I know, has case law here turned “unlawful” into a term of art.

        I know in some states “unlawful use of force” is a term of art in their battery statute for a use of force that results in injury or an offensive touching, but that’s about the broadest definition of “unlawful use of force” I’ve heard. “Unjust” is way too much. You can’t wade into a high school football game tasing everyone trying to tackle the ball carrier, then argue in court that it was “unjust” that the halfback was pressured by society into such barbaric displays of force and you were merely defending him. Force in athletic contests is (generally) lawful. Using force to defend against it, outside what is expected under the rules and traditions of the game, is unlawful.

        I don’t pretend to much knowledge of legal history, so maybe they are talking about an 18th century definition of “unlawful force”?

  • stevenjohnson2

    This thought experiment suffers from the nearly universal failing of philosophical thought experiments: It assumes away the relevant aspects. Namely, the normative moral status of the fetus is assumed away by substituting separate children. You can point to a six year old and plausibly claim they have a moral status as a person. If you try to point to a fetus, you point at the mother. And this is true even if you can feel movement in the womb.The status is inherently ambiguous, which is why those who insist on the validity of their private revelation to the contrary are moral cretins.

    In practice, suffering the legal penalties for murdering people on behalf of fetuses is unacceptable for the large majority of people. There is a widespread awareness that private revelation is not an acceptable justification in a secular polity, that it has no political legitimacy outside a minority. Religion also appears to be almost entirely about personal comfort, not calls to sacrifice. This may be especially true if on some level the person who says the fetus is a person doesn’t really feel certain about it. Also, it’s very likely opposition to abortion isn’t pro-life but pro-compulsory birth.

    The believers are powerful and can and have and do muster tacit support for murder of abortionists. For instance, they can ensure that incidents such as the recent attack on Planned Parenthood are not treated as a reason for the government to target anti-abortion groups the way they target radical Muslim preachers. Further, they can ensure that claims of collective indirect responsibility routinely levied against Muslims are treated as partisan when applied to anti-abortion terrorists. They can even ensure that the victims receive the minimal amount of sympathy. The civilian victims in Colorado Springs couldn’t even get a public acknowledgement of their names.

    • Jason Brennan

      Right, but notice that this again challenges the basic normative claim that killing fetuses is murder, not the stuff about whether it would make sense to kill abortion doctors if killing fetuses were murder.

      • stevenjohnson2

        I’m pretty sure that suggesting for instance most religious people use their religion for comfort, and don’t regard it as making serious demands on them, does actually address the question of why they don’t kill abortion doctors.

        But, in my opinion, that’s not an interesting question. You could just as well ask why people who believe that drones killing people in foreign countries isn’t war but murder don’t murder drone pilots? (Except that there are no murders of this kind to desensitize people to.)

        Or if you wanted to get away from newspapers, you could ask why people who believe in witchcraft don’t kill witches?

        Or if you wanted to get into a social institutions, why don’t people who believe in demonic possession or supernatural evil refuse to accept mental illness as an explanation?

        It seems to me that the kind of issue you want to focus on relate to real life issues of political legitimacy. These are questions of public justice. I’m not sure that libertarian assumptions about the illegitimacy of political authority and commitment to private contract in lieu of public justice allow sensible discussion.

        Further, the OP seems to be more a displacement of the dispute. People don’t like to argue the private revelation because (aside from the difficulty of rational argument with people who reject reason for revelation) because religion is privileged (news to Kevin Vallier I know, but still true!) So they talk around subsidiary pseudo issues. Not surprisingly I think this is very enlightening.

      • Theresa Klein

        stevejohnson2 for once makes a good argument.

        If we’re going to assume that fetuses are children and killing them is wrong, then you’ve assumed away all of the GOOD arguments against killing abortion doctors already.
        So we’re left with the bad arguments you listed.

        • Jason Brennan

          I don’t understand your post at all.

          • Kurt H

            It’s easy . . . if pro-lifers really believed abortion is murder they should (by your own argument) support killing abortion doctors. The vast majority of them don’t, ergo, most pro-lifers are in denial or lying about the true reasons for their opposition to abortion.

          • Theresa Klein

            Or they say they don’t support killing abortion doctors because it’s not socially acceptable or politically astute to say so.,

          • urstoff

            That makes no sense. Do anti-death penalty advocates not really believe it because they don’t support killing judges or prison workers?

    • LLC

      “…it’s very likely opposition to abortion isn’t pro-life but pro compulsory-birth.”
      You’ve touched on something here that, IMHO, is actually quite significant. I’d be much more open to their arguments if they formed large lines outside of adoption agencies, enthusiastically waiting for them to open each day, or were happy to see their tax dollars support these unwanted babies or the adults they are often doomed to become. But neither is anything close to being the case. This leaves me believing that they’re much more about punishing the “sinner” (which, even in their parlance, is God’s province, not theirs) than they are about being ‘pro-life’.

      • Farstrider

        tl;dr: It’s slut-shaming.

      • Jason Brennan

        Perhaps. But that’s irrelevant. I’m not here studying the psychology of the pro-life crowd. I’m asking what would follow if we grant them their basic premise (that killing a fetus = killing a person).

        • LLC

          “Balls!”, said the Queen. “If I had them, I’d be king.” Of course if we’re to grant the premise it’d be a game changer. But doesn’t that apply to virtually any argument, on virtually any question? And isn’t it especially difficult when the premise is a judgement drawn with a gray line, in a fog, at night, on a large gray field?

          • If you’re suggesting that by granting pro-lifers’ assumption that fetus = human you’re giving them the moral high ground, then you’re actually agreeing with Brennan, whose point seems to be that – since pro-lifers are correct if their assumptions hold – the only interesting and viable discussion is what the correct moral status of fetuses should be.

          • LLC

            It’s by no means the only one, but it sure carries more weight than any one of the others. In fact, if that premise were granted in the past, I doubt we’d have ever seen the decision we did in Roe v Wade.

          • martinbrock

            “Moral status should be” is redundant.

      • Theresa Klein

        To be fair, there ARE large lines outside of adoption agencies, figuratively speaking. Just not for disabled children or those over the age of 5.
        Also, many conservative Christians volunteer to be foster parents.
        I say this as a pro-choice atheist. There are lots of good criticisms of pro-lifers, but claiming that nobody wants to adopt healthy newborns isn’t a good one.

        • LLC

          I don’t recall saying that ‘nobody’ wants them. But, to be equally fair, do you really think the lines would grow in proportion to the increased number of babies that would be available if our hypothetical premise were granted and Roe v Wade were overturned?

          • Theresa Klein

            I’m not sure. Hard to find a statistic on the number of couples waiting to adopt, or those who would adopt if they could afford to. Cost of adoption is typically $25,000- $40,000, which would likely drop if the supply of babies increased.

          • LLC

            I would also find the Pro-life position more compelling if wealthy donors funded adoptions for those who want to, but cannot afford to, or stepped up to bear the costs of care for the ‘unwanted’ orphans rather than funding such things as the highly edited video that started this latest brouhaha around Planned Parenthood.

          • Theresa Klein

            The cost of adoption is driven by the supply of babies, so funding right now, given the limited supply of healthy infants, won’t do anything to increase adoptions. This is evidenced by the fact that it is much cheaper to adopt a disabled baby or older child. When happens is that because there are few healthy newborn babies available the adoption agencies become much more selective, which makes it harder for parents to qualify. And wait times increase which also adds to costs.


            It is not costly to adopt a child with special needs. Often the agency has a sliding fee scale, and frequently there is little or no cost. Following the adoption, the children may receive subsidies to cover the medical and other necessary expenses, although the family is still likely to incur other costs, over the years, as they raise their child.

            Costs of adopting a healthy infant of any race through a private agency or attorney in the United States range from several hundred dollars to $30,000 or more. Inter-country adoptions are costly, as well. Families pay between $10,000 and $20,000 in fees, which may not include travel and living expenses while in the foreign country.

            Now, if you want to criticize fpro-lifers for not adopting disabled babies, that’s entirely fair, if they also oppose aborting fetuses due to birth defects or downs syndrome. Adopting disabled babies is cheap and there are plenty of them available.

    • Lacunaria

      “Out of sight, out of moral consideration” is a tendency but not a moral argument.

      Your description of “tacit support for murder of abortionists” reads like the pro-lifers separating from and opposing the murder of abortionists.

      Poll pro-lifers on what they think of violence against abortion providers. Poll Muslims on what they think of violence against those who insult Islam or Muhammad.

  • R. Kevin Hill

    The problem is not with the argument but how we get past the “if abortion is murder” gate in the first place. On the basis of purely secular information, abortion is a perplexing and painful moral topic concerning a thing that acquires more moral pull over time, weighed against the moral pull of an adult’s autonomy, and therefore about which reasonable people can differ as to what the best policy is. If you cut the Gordian knot by adverting to religious sources of information whose epistemic reliability is vastly more contestable, then this is no different than saying “well, ordinarily we shouldn’t fly airplanes into skyscrapers, but Allah said…” This is like killing someone you suspect is a serial killer on an idiosyncratic *hunch*. And it is to avoid this kind of thing that we give the task of killing serial killers to the rule of law. Thus, #2.

  • Ben Kennedy

    “If so, then wouldn’t abortion doctors obviously be permissible targets for defensive killing?”

    I’ll go with the standard reason why Batman doesn’t just kill the Joker despite knowing the Joker will escape and kill again, which is that to kill the Joker is to become the Joker. I know it’s trite, but this moral intuition pops up all the time in comic books with no-kill superheroes (Superman, Daredevel, Captain America, etc). If you ask a pro-life supporter why they don’t support the killing of abortion doctors despite considering them serial killers, the response will generally be “because I’m pro-life, killing an abortion doctor is still a moral transgression and an uncrossable line”. Or like Batman and the Joker, to kill them is to become them. As a pro-life moral anti-realist, I think these psychological factors explain why pro-life people tend to denounce and distance themselves from direct violence

  • CJColucci

    There doesn’t seem to be any good reason to believe in government
    authority in general, as all the theories philosophers have offered over
    the past 2500 years have fatal flaws.

    There doesn’t seem to be any good reason to believe anything in general, as all the theories philosophers have offered over the past 2500 years have fatal flaws. Leaving the failings of philosophers aside, it may be that mankind is systematically deluded in the general way it has organized itself for the last several millennia, but the odds that a small handful of us know better are rather slim.

  • Fritz

    “The main normative dispute should really be about the moral status of the fetuses.”
    I believe that it *is* the main normative dispute. But many persons who condemn abortion as murder (at any stage of fetal development) wouldn’t view killing abortion providers or bombing abortion clinics as morally justifiable. Rather, they would (and do) call for an end to the legalization of abortion, the closure of abortion clinics, and the vigorous prosecution of persons who provide abortions.

    • LLC

      And then there we go again, driving an unsupressable activity underground, creating (again) a whole new class of criminals, seeking and delivering abortion services under circumstances known to be significantly more injurious and less safe than when that activity is legal. Of course this doesn’t directly address the sheer morality of abortions, but it is, unavoidably, a very real part of the equation and does play very directly to the calculations of harm.

  • Chris Callaway

    (Trying to post again). One reason against killing the doctor, even granting the pro-life premises, is that it will not likely prevent the harm to the innocent. I’m thinking of Anscombe’s version of Just War Theory: there has to be a reasonable chance of a better outcome. If the woman just goes to another abortion clinic, then the killing of the doctor does not make things better.

  • Kevin Vallier

    I would guess that the correlation between being a theist and being pro-life is very high. If so, in determining the permissibility of means of stopping abortion from the pro-lifer’s moral perspective, we should consider how God’s law, behavior, and authorization of government affects the moral calculus here. I think most theists think that God forbids vigilantism, and that the government alone has the right to use force. Of course, some deny even that (a position I’m almost sympathetic to).

    • LLC

      If we go back BCE and look at the Hebrew calculation on this, personhood was accrued at ‘quickening’, and prior to that the fetus was considered to be part of the mother’s body. Not bad reasoning even if it is three thousand years old.

    • I think you’ve got that correlation backward. If you’re pro-life (where “pro-life” is defined as “opposes abortion”), there’s a very good chance you’re a theist. But just being a theist doesn’t mean there’s a high likelihood that you’re pro-life.

      A number of significant/sizable Christian denominations are pro-choice (where “pro-choice” is defined as supporting legality of abortion). And many adherents even of doctrinally pro-life denominations, e.g. Catholicism, are individually pro-choice.

      The major schools of Islam consider abortion prior to four months, or in the case of a threat to the life of the mother, or in the case of fetal deformity, to be permissible. Hinduism and Buddhism seem, on the whole, to be pro-life in orientation. But I’m sure that there are both group and individual dissenters from the norm within all three of those major world religions.

    • Guest

      Surely God’s law doesn’t forbid third party self-defense, right? Given Brennan’s premises, killing an abortion doctor *to prevent an imminent abortion* (i.e., to prevent a murder) wouldn’t be “vigilantism” any more than my killing an armed robber before he kills the gas station clerk would be “vigilantism.” If the latter is justified, then why isn’t the former?

      • Kevin Vallier

        For many centuries, Christians have held that you should obey even unjust laws, so long as they do not require you to sin, and instead peacefully petition rulers for change and criticize them for acting immorally. You also trust that in the world to come, bad rulers will be judged.

        • martinbrock

          So Christians are like most people subject to laws but not so much like the master they pretend to serve. Turning over the tables of those money changers was unlawful. Jesus speaks seditiously in parables, but he is clearly enough guilty of sedition when Pilate crucifies him.

          • Libertymike

            The tribulation episode is, at bottom, a righteous middle finger to Tiberius Augustus.

        • Guest

          Fair enough, but who cares? The question is whether it would be morally permissible to intervene with violence if such violent intervention would stop the murder of an unborn child in the same way it is (presumably clearly) morally permissible to intervene with violence if such violent intervention would prevent the murder of an adult. What’s your answer to that question?

      • Lacunaria

        I think it would be justified given the premises that a fetus has a right to life and that killing the abortion doctor is necessary to prevent murder of the fetus.

        The problem is that the second premise is never true in reality, making the hypothetical practically irrelevant and thereby difficult for people to reason about morally.


    My $.02. One can successfully universalize the maxim “When no practical alternative exists, it is permissible for an innocent person to employ deadly force to neutralize a person attempting to kill them or an innocent third party.” It is doubtful that one can successfully universalize the maxim, “Citizens of a polity in which unjust laws can be modified through a reasonably fair and inclusive electoral process may permissibly kill other members f that polity performing legal acts that the agent sincerely regards as akin to murder.”

    Of course, many libertarians think that I am wrong about two, based on Michael Huemer’s work. If so, I suggest they consult Danny Frederick’s essay (I have read an early draft). In any event, the difference in the universalizability of the two maxims suggests a plausible, even if controversial, reason to reject Jason’s analogy. .

  • Alex Scrivener

    I would go with some combination of 4 and 7. Randomly killing a tiny fraction abortion providers doesn’t save many, if any, lives in the short term, and sets back the wider political battle significantly, generating sympathy for the opposing position and probably costing more lives in the mid to long term.

    If you could, say, make 50% of all abortionists mysteriously disappear overnight and leave the credible threat to do so again without warning, dealing with the political backlash might be worth it.

  • Reed James

    The real objection to this is that it clearly isn’t the real moral argument behind these shootings. The same people that object to abortions in this way also support abstinence only education and even the religious exemptions for providing birth Control to adult women though healthcare. These things theoretically contribute to the number of unwanted pregnancies and the number of abortions that occur. The real moral question in these events is, “Is it moral to use deadly force to enforce a religious morality that differs from popular morality.” Even for most folks that think abortion is murder the answer to that question is no, which is why there are more bumper stickers than attacks on clinics. Also if a large enough group felt this was clearly murder than protests of thousands of people outside of all clinics could stop it peacefully, but most all the protests I have seen number in the tens or single digits. So the 6 year old analogy has a big difference in that it would fit a popular definition of murder and therefore would be much easier to end through peaceful means.

    • Reed James

      Additionally the problem is that legal abortion has a majority moral belief in this country so murdering an individual doctor doesn’t prevent even the majority of the abortions that doctor would have provided, it would just move them to another office. The only ways to change the legality and use of abortion is by changing the public opinion or subverting democracy. Killing an individual doctor or even a large number probably doesn’t serve either goal.

  • urstoff

    I thought all of this was fairly obvious to anyone with a working brain. If abortion is murder, then killing abortion doctors may be justifiable because it (might) save many lives. Even if you don’t agree with any of it (as I doubt any readers here do), what is surprising is how no one will even countenance the argument as a potential motivation.

    To me the interesting question is why there aren’t more killings of abortion doctors. I think that speaks very well to just how lawful and ordered a society the US is. Perhaps a majority of the country literally thinks that there are murder doctors all across the country, but they are in very minimal danger from any of these people.

  • Andrew Pearson

    You give a good argument in favour of (at least agnosticism about) anti-abortion terrorism. My initial response would be to observe that in practice a principle about defensive killing will have to be not of the form “X may kill Y if Y is threatening Z’s life”, but rather more like “X may kill Y if X reasonably believes Y is threatening Z’s life.”

    The question, then, is how stringent we can be about “reasonableness”. The idea that abortion is murder is by itself plausible, but it entails the rather more ambitious claim that most citizens of the developed world are totally okay with mass murder. Would any shooter realistically be in a position to have the right level of confidence in this?

    Then again, most societies have been totally okay with mass murder provided it is sufficiently far away or otherwise beneath notice. So perhaps the second claim isn’t so far-fetched after all.

  • I think that on a subconscious level people understand that justifiable homicide is a Pandora’s box that, once opened, leads us to the total breakdown of society. I think even those who believe that abortion is murder are – again, subconsciously – afraid of a world in which the only way to prevent the institutionalized slaughter of children is to go on a murderous rampage of your own.

    This is why we have a natural right to life – not because of grand “first principles” or due to anything you’ll find in a book. The right to life simply boils down to the logical recognition that a society in which anyone may be justifiably killed is a wholly uncooperative society. We all – all of us – want to agree that, if nothing else, life is a natural right. Nothing is more obvious.

    • I want to add something else here. Stanley Milgram’s experiments showed that people were completely willing to subject strangers to lethal electrocutions just because someone in a lab coat told them to do so.

      So… it might be relevant to point out that doctors wear lab coats.

      If you have trained medical professionals – experts in their field – telling you that what you’re doing is a perfectly valid medical procedure, along with a lot of high-profile media correspondents arguing in print and on TV that what you’re doing is a perfectly valid medical procedure, what are the odds that the average person will resist the Situational influences?

      The fact is, the major pockets of “resistance” to the idea that abortion is not murder are mostly religious communities – i.e. communities that have their own internal social psychologies and Situational dynamics.

      Now, just because I’m an atheist doesn’t mean that the religious folks are wrong on this issue. They might be right for the wrong reasons, but that doesn’t make them wrong on the matter of abortion itself.

      So what we need here are facts for determining what constitutes a human life. Because institutions and lab coats and famous people are sufficient to provide Situational influence for normalizing abortion, but that doesn’t answer the question of whether or not it is a murder.

      • urstoff

        I don’t think this is something empirical facts can answer. For any empirical criterion that we can think of that isn’t already biased in favor of a particular answer, it’s going to be possible that infants may not qualify as persons and thus that infanticide isn’t murder. I don’t think that’s going to be acceptable to anyone but Internet contrarians (and Peter Singer).

        Plus, you have many (not all) on the pro-life side who take bible verses as part of their justification, and you just can’t really argue with those people. I think most people in polite society agree that 1st trimester abortions are fine, late-term abortions are morally wrong except in certain cases, and there’s a big grey area in the middle where prohibition probably does more harm than good. It’s probably not a logical position and is rooted in how much the fetus looks like a baby (and whether it can survive in an NICU if removed early), but I doubt any empirical facts will change that position.

        • Well, you’re right that additional facts won’t change someone’s position, but changing someone’s position is secondary to my goal of determining whether and when I am murdering someone.

          Put another way (and this is why I brought up Milgram), it doesn’t really matter what the social consensus is if it turns out that abortion is murder. Consensus fails often – and not only does it fail often, it fails predictably, and all it takes to create that failure is a person wearing a lab coat and carrying a clip board.

          Our only hope of resisting the wrong kind of situational influence is by going into each situation with a clear understanding of what constitutes “crossing the line,” not by consensus, but by objective principles.

          I don’t think every conceivable idea or moral precept can be settled on objective principles, but I think murder is one that ought to be.

          I lean pro-life, but I am an atheist, and I am open to hearing a good reason why a fetus isn’t a human life worth protecting. That I haven’t already encountered such a reason is at minimum a failure of pro-choice rhetoric, and at maximum a moral travesty.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            The most powerful pro-life argument against late term abortion is that it is impossible to distinguish in a non-arbitrary way the moral status of a healthy seven month fetus and a newborn baby. I have yet to hear a convincing reply to this challenge. I write about that here http://naturalrightslibertarian.com/2013/06/libertarians-abortion-and-kermit-gosnell-part-i/, and offer a more extended and sophisticated treatment in Chapter 10 of my Libertarian Philosophy in the Real World.

          • Thanks, Mark. That was a great article.

          • Reed James

            The mind doesn’t suddenly develop any new attributes at the moment of birth. At what point is the difference developed in one month not arbitrary to the moral implications? Consciousness and the prerequisite functions develop many months and years.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            No. At some specific point in time the fetus can feel pain and pleasure. People may reasonably consider that to be morally relevant.

          • Reed James

            I suppose that is a non arbitrary moment in terms of empathy, but almost every member of the animal kingdom with a brain experiences some version of those two. In my knowledge of the history of moral views on the value of child life, there have been two primary factors. They are survival rates and parental empathy. So back when child mortality was high, the church developed christenings and other rituals to mark the arrival of person-hood at an age when survival rates were high. They also serves as an excuse for mothers to be less attached to infants, whom were often called “baby” until they were old enough to get a name. As medicine got better the rituals were moved earlier in life and eventually were seen less and less as the beginning of person-hood. Child labor laws and other child safety laws showed higher and higher value for the life of the young. Eventually we moved back until we hit birth because after that the baby had a high level of survival and both the mother and pretty much anybody can empathize directly with the baby.

          • That’s kind of a just-so story, isn’t it? It’s certainly possible that mortality rates determine society’s view of personhood, but it’s also possible that your observation is a coincidence.

          • Reed James

            I suppose a coincidence could be possible, but without an alternative hypothesis I am reluctant to believe it. I mean is there some other logical reason why people in the past went along with the idea that toddlers unable to pledge their heart to Jesus deserved and eternity in purgatory? Or that in many early cultures evidence of drowning or otherwise suffocating sick babies or babies born in famine or drought is not uncommon. Just look at your morality in the present day; if you were on a jury in an assisted suicide case, would you judge the person more harshly if it the suicide was of 25 year old depressed person of a 95 year old person with cancer?

          • I wouldn’t be on that jury, because I am already an avowed supporter of the right to suicide. Age doesn’t matter to me there.

            Much has happened over the course of the millennia. It seems strange to me to identify two things that went up and then assume a causal relationship between them. Real life is a tad more complex than that, at least in my opinion.

          • urstoff

            Understandable, but since I ultimately think that moral anti-realism (specifically, the error theory) is correct, I don’t think too much progress can be made. Individual moral codes are in the end hodgepodges of intuitions (with their own etiologies), attempts at internal coherence, and social influences. At bottom, you get to some intuitions that others may or may not have, and I think the “when does a fetus become a person” question ultimately ends up like that. Some people have the intuition that the potential to develop into a person is important, some don’t. Some people have the intuition that the autonomy of the woman is more morally valuable than the chance that the fetus may be a person (because, when pushed, most people admit it’s fuzzy). Those are intuitions that can probably be nudged around a little, but I don’t think you’ll ever have a clear right or wrong answer or anything resembling an objective principle.

          • There is some truth in what you’re saying and a great deal with which I disagree.

            It’s true that the moral codes of most people are hodge-podges, but that in no way applies that moral codes are hodge-podges for everyone.

            It’s true that two people with non-hodge-podge moral codes can come to radically different conclusions on the same moral question, but that in no way suggests that no best answer exists.

            It’s true that we will never solve the abortion issue through extensive debate, but that in no way suggests that debating the issue won’t help improve the clarity of a person’s moral code.

            I wouldn’t go as far as you. I wouldn’t suggest that since so many people have incoherent moral codes then morality itself is incoherent. I see this the core problem of human ethics in practical terms: To devise a clear moral code for oneself and to attempt to live by it. It doesn’t even matter if it’s an impossible task, it matters only that I try. The more people try, the better life gets.

            We can make the world a better place by being better people. Better how? You get to define that for yourself.

  • People need to keep their nose out of what women do with their reproductive systems. I always find it funny people like conservatives say “Fuck the government,” yet they go ahead and are doing everything they can to make forced births legal. Truly disgusting to me.

    I am sorry, but abortion isn’t murder and comparing killing zygotes to doctors is a dangerous false equivalence.

    • urstoff

      A disastrous failure of the ideological turing test

      • Elaborate.

        • urstoff

          “I always find it funny people like conservatives say “Fuck the government,” yet they go ahead and are doing everything they can to make forced births legal. Truly disgusting to me.”

          This fundamentally misunderstands what they believe. It’s not at all internally contradictory. Small government conservatives aren’t against laws prohibiting murder; in fact, like pretty much everyone, they are in favor of laws prohibiting murder. And if they see abortion as murder, then they would be naturally in favor of laws prohibiting abortion. So you could only “find it funny” (implying hypocrisy, I presume) if you don’t really understand what they actually think.

          Any framing in terms of “reproductive rights” is going to carry no argumentative weight with pro-lifers because they view it as murder, and the right to not be murdered (almost everyone agrees) trumps pretty much all other rights.

          • Theresa Klein

            To be fair, some conservatives take it to extremes. A zygote is not a human life by any rational definition. It doesn’t even have a brain.
            I would think the minimum requirement for being a human would include at least being an organism with a nervous system and a brain stem.

            Also, referring ot it as “forced childbirth” seems apt. Giving birth is always a painful and risky prospect. It’s not some small inconvenience. Around 1/3 of births today end in C-sections due to risks to the baby. Imagine having to undergo forced surgery.

          • urstoff

            You’re just begging the question against them, as they’ll ask why something has to have a fully functioning nervous system to count as a person instead of something that will develop a fully functioning nervous system (or they’ll quote Bible verses at you; either way, you’re begging the question, even if they are making bad arguments).

            And it may very well be “forced childbirth”, but the point is that it is not morally wrong (from their perspective) to force someone go to through childbirth (or surgery) if that prevents them from murdering someone. Basically, murder being one of the worst crimes, a lot can be justified in the name of its prevention. The prohibition against murder trumps most things.

            As an aside, I wonder if there is a tension between exhortations of environmentalists who say that we have some responsibility to future generations and the pro-choice proponents who say that we have no duties until they or born (or a functioning nervous system exists). I’m sure there are lots of ways to wiggle out of that, but has it ever caused anyone any sort of cognitive dissonance?

          • Theresa Klein

            That’s actually a pretty good analogy. Forced surgery vs. killing an organism that will eventually have a fully functioning nervous system.
            Can we acknowledge that there is a moral distinction between an organism that currently has a fully functioning nervous system and one that will eventually have one if it lives that long?

          • urstoff

            Well that’s the problem; what’s the argument for the moral distinction? Is there a moral distinction between a person who is asleep but will be conscious in 8 hours and a currently conscious person? What about a person who is in a coma who will with a very high probability be conscious in 8 weeks? A sleeping person and a person in a coma recovering from injury are different from a fetus that will develop into a person, but do those difference make a moral difference?

            I don’t really know, but it’s not at all obvious to me that there is.

  • Joshua Holmes

    #7 seems like a good argument to me. If shooting WRCers was morally justified but was likely to cause the government to shunt anti-WRCers to concentration camps, that seems like a good reason not to shoot WRCers. Anarchists tried Propaganda of the Deed around the turn of the 20th century, with disastrous results (moral questions aside).

    Some other suggestions:

    8. Batman must not kill the child-killers, because he could more effectively reduce child-killings through some other avenue, and he is morally obligated to follow that avenue instead. (The Effective Altruism argument.)

    9. Batman must not kill the child-killers, because the risk of collateral damage is too high.

    One unnerving thing about your Batman & WRC example is that infanticide was widely practiced in early human societies. A horrific number of sickly or poor Roman infants drowned in the Tiber.

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  • stevenjohnson2

    Really, does it make any sense at all to chatter about the moral status of an entity you can’t even point to?

    It seems highly doubtful to me that the league for unwanted children has devoted much thought to their position. Since the taste for philosophical thought experiments seems to be incurable, let me propose one, of a sort?

    A famed socialite gets pregnant sometime after April. But the highlight of the jet society calendar is an unbelievably decadent New Year’s Eve party, which is, irritatingly, less than forty weeks from the conception. The socialite finds public contempt for religious superstition obnoxious, so she will certainly not be so gauche as to terminate the pregnancy with an abortion. But she will get a C-section, so that she can attend the party without a swelled belly. You are an ob-gyn, properly servile to your social superiors, so you will of course perform a C-section on demand. But when does your colleague the pediatrician charge you with unethical behavior in performing the C-section at a time that harms the child? Anything less than 40 weeks? 30 weeks? 12 weeks?

    This is not a proper philosophical thought experiment, because experience might provide an answer. Nonetheless, I cannot see how a reasonable expectation of being able to thrive given basic necessities of life are inseparable from any meaningful definition of moral agency.

    • Have you ever wondered why people grieve – often with full funerals – when they have miscarriages?

      Do you think these grieving people are just stupid idiots who never put much thought into the fact that they’re grieving for a meaningless lump of flesh? Or, do you think they’re just emotionally tied up in the idea of what the child could have been, and they’re just grieving for the loss of an imaginary friend that they became too emotionally invested in?

      Or, do you think their grief reflects a true loss?

      • LLC

        I think we grieve in accord with our perceived loss, which need not have any inherent relationship to a physical loss. So is a ‘true’ loss a physical one or the grief one feels over it?

        • You’re right that it need not have a relationship to a physical loss, but it quite often does. My question was whether @stevenjohnson2:disqus (or you, please feel free to answer of your own accord) believes miscarriages specifically are purely a perceived loss, or whether there is a real physical loss as well.

          The point is, this very natural, very human reaction to miscarriage has been with us for thousands of years. Does such a natural human reaction provide insight into our beliefs about fetuses, or is it just ha ha ha funny bald ape can’t figure out the difference between tumor and other bald ape?

          • LLC

            In fact, the perceived and the physical usually are in coincidence. In pointing out that there is no inherent relationship, I did not mean to demean the perceived at all. Our perceptions very much are our reality. As to the physicality of the loss in the case of a miscarriage, of course there’s a physical loss along with the perceptual. Fully one fifth of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. My wife’s and my first pregnancy ended that way, and we felt the loss very keenly.

      • stevenjohnson2

        They grieve for lost hope, not a real child. Hope is real, and it’s loss is worth grieving.

        That said, you’re trying to be inflammatory instead of enlightening. Also, trying to impose a false dichotomy where there’s no sorrow intermediate between self-indulgence and the grief you’d feel over the loss of a child you had reared. Also, you’re smuggling in some sort of authentication by intensity of emotion. People also grieve the loss of their pets. You don’t really have a point to make here. Also, this is diverting from the justification for making women bear unwanted children, which is the issue at hand, not the justification of compulsory abortion.

        • This, after I had written that comment down below about how civil this discussion had been.

          Nothing further for me to say here.

  • Theresa Klein

    The main normative dispute should really be about the moral status of the fetuses.
    What if the hypothetical was more like:
    A bunch of impoverished squatters have moved onto the land owned by the Women’s Sustainable Organic Commune, and are eating the crops and befouling the local water supply. The impoverished squatters don’t really have anywhere else to go and will starve to death if they can’t live there, but nevertheless, it is private property. The women decide to forcibly remove the squatters, specifically by shooting them. Should Batman intervene on behalf of the squatters by shooting the women?

    • Lacunaria

      Your hypothetical seems to break salient moral aspects of the analogy to pregnancy, such as (1) the moral responsibility for how the squatters came to be there, and (2) that they could be removed after 9 months, and (3) you’ve merged the doctor and the mother, if I’m understanding you correctly.

      • Just curious – with regard to morality, how would you suggest that the doctor and the mother differ?

        • Lacunaria

          I think they differ in a variety of ways, such as the mother is (usually) responsible for the pregnancy and presumably cannot physically kill the fetus by herself. If it is murder, then a dedicated mass murderer is worse than a single murder, such as one of passion.

          Perhaps such differences would not affect the final moral judgment, but it might and merging them muddies the analogy. I even started to wonder if maybe the land itself was the mother, but that is not a moral agent.

      • Theresa Klein

        Ok, the squatters got in because the women left the gate to the electric fence open one night.

        The squatters promise to leave after 9 months, but only after they’ve trashed the place and maybe damaged a few of the outbuildings.

        And the women hire some cowboys to shoot the squatters on their behalf.

        Does this change anything?

        • Lacunaria

          Much better. 🙂 But I think you also have to somehow relieve the squatters of any moral culpability for the situation. The only moral actors are the women and their helpers. Perhaps they’ve brought the squatters to the gates and only chance dictates whether they end up inside or out.

          So the question is, can Batman defend the lives of the squatters by killing the cowboys who have come to kill them?

          Tangentially, perhaps the squatters can make reparations later in life?

          • Theresa Klein

            I agree it’s not morally clear-cut. I don’t think either the women or the fetuses are morally culpable for their situation.
            There does not seem to be a good analogy for that situation – where one person’s life is utterly dependent on someone else’s physical body through no morally culpable action on either one’s part.
            What if we said that the squatters were Syrian refugees?

          • Lacunaria

            So then the US is the woman and ISIS is the man and war is sex? 🙂

            You don’t think that bringing-them-to-the-gates-plus-chance improves the analogy? Some sort of coin flip analogy would apply, wouldn’t it? What do you think is wrong with it?

            Or are you making a subsequent argument that if the risk is small enough, then people are not responsible for the consequences of their actions?

          • Theresa Klein

            I’m saying that having sex is not morally equivalent to putting a person’s life in jeopardy. The fetus didn’t exist before the sex, so it’s not like the situation was inflicted upon the fetus.

          • Lacunaria

            I agree; I don’t view life as punishment. And even in your scenario, nobody’s life is in danger until they start trying to kill each other.

          • Theresa Klein

            But the fetus is, in a sense, infringing on the woman’s rights to control her own body, whether or not it did so intentionally.

          • Lacunaria

            The fetus is basically just a mechanism. The man and woman are the moral actors who caused the infringement.

            Hm. Is it infringement if you caused it yourself? Can you infringe upon your own future rights through your decisions now? I’m not sure that’s the right word, but in a sense, I suppose we do: We limit our future rights through contract and other moral and physical entailments of our decisions.

            It is odd that we can give life but not take it away even just a moment later. Morally, it’s a one-way proposition.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            But the mother elects to postpone the abortion until the fetus quite plausibly attains moral status. If the mother acted before 20 weeks, few would have an objection to her obtaining an abortion. But when she waits, she assumes responsibility for the consequences.

  • JohnThackr

    I assume that the argument applies equally to vegetarians, as well as many environmentalists? (It’s also fairly easy to make such an argument involving climate change and the necessity of averting it.)

  • Many people (myself included) believe that war and the death penalty also involve the morally wrongful killing of beings that possess significant rights. Why does nobody ever claim that we must not really think that, or we’d be out there shooting executioners and generals?

  • As an aside, this blog and its readers need to be commended for producing what is without a doubt the most civil abortion debate I’ve ever seen in my life.

  • Just in case someone hasn’t said it, Batman (in general) tries his best not to kill. Ok, carry on.

  • Kurt H

    This article demonstrates that the vast majority of pro-lifers don’t actually think abortion is murder in the same way they view murders involving those who have been born. If they did, they would not balk at violence against abortion providers to anywhere near the degree that most of them do.

    This is because the pro-life position has little to do with “saving babies” and everything to do with controlling female sexuality.

    • Lacunaria

      Do you think such violence helps the pro-life cause?

      • Kurt H

        It probably hurts it, but are you claiming that all pro-life activists that forswear violence are doing so purely for tactical reasons? I’m pretty cynical about the motives of the forced birth movement, but that would turn them into cartoon villains.

        • Lacunaria

          Tactics factor into morality. Kill an abortion doctor and women will just go to another one. It is ineffective to their goal and therefore immoral to kill the doctor.

          There are also many pro-lifers who are pacifists and most support contraception, either outright or as a lesser evil.

          The idea that balking at killing abortion providers implies that pro-lifers’ primary motivation is “controlling female sexuality” assumes too much.

          • Kurt H

            Pacifist pro-lifers are a small minority. We can agree that a large majority of pro-lifers are 1) not pacifists, 2) claim abortion is murder, 3) condemn violence against abortion providers, and 4) do not say that their opposition to violence is merely a tactical convenience.

            To not call into question part 2) is to implicitly claim that most pro-lifers are lying about 3) or 4) or both. My theory is at least compatible with self-deception or confusion. Your theory requires calculated deception. It it thus more fair to their position to accuse them of having inconsistent views on murder than to accuse them of all being secret terrorist sympathizers.

          • Lacunaria

            Did my description of how pointless killing is immoral sound like tactical convenience to you? Or calculated deception? I don’t see it.

            You are basically asserting that if abortion is murder, then any violence against abortion providers must be moral and should not be condemned. Pro-lifers do not accept that implication, nor do I.

            Note that Brennan’s hypothetical obviated this issue by assuming necessity which includes effectiveness.

            But my point had to do with your “controlling female sexuality” conclusion, which is contradicted even by just the pro-lifers’ views on contraception.

          • Kurt H

            I think we have different conceptions of how strong an unequivocal the condemnation of violence would be if they truly believed abortion was murder.

            As for controlling sexuality, a pro-contraception stance doesn’t fix the basic problem — that the same people who would balk at forcing organ donation, or even forced *blood* donation are totally willing to force people to donate the use of their uterus. This is so clearly incoherent that there has to be some additional principle present to justify it. That principle is the notion that women have a duty to be mothers, if at all possible. That is grade A sexism, but it is necessary to believe this in order to have an internally consistent pro-life stance.

          • Lacunaria

            Killing the doctor isn’t even efficacious. I don’t understand your moral calculus.

            Those positions are coherent given that the parents bear sole moral responsibility for causing the creation of a life dependent upon the mother.

            Once the child has the right to life, the mother is morally constrained by her prior decision which caused that chain of events.

          • Kurt H

            Multiple problems arise with the responsibility argument.

            First, such an argument commits one to a rape exception (since responsibility would be waived), and many pro-lifers do not accept that and most use other arguments that would imply a lack of a rape exception.

            Two, the critical part of the responsibility argument is the state of dependency, but this is a natural fact, not something caused by the parent. There is no such thing as a fetus that lacks dependency. This state was not inflicted on the fetus, and thus the pregnant woman bears no responsibility for it. Thus the analogy to medical donations stands.

          • Lacunaria

            Rape is a fair challenge that weakens their moral stance and many pro-lifers accept exceptions. Those that don’t might be the same people who would be fine with mandating blood from someone if it would save a particular life.

            Their more general argument is that the rape exceptions are rare, with abortion often refused or regretted, and should not be the basis for general policy since it would be abused.

            I also know many pro-lifers who are simply interested in overturning Roe and letting each state decide.

            As for your second challenge, since when do we stop tracing moral responsibility at natural facts and processes?

            A fetus’s dependency is a natural fact caused by the parents. There are no other moral actors. They took a risk and caused a fetus to be created, dependent upon the mother.

          • Kurt H

            Natural facts are not caused by anyone, they are caused by nature. There is a clear moral distinction between putting someone in a state of dependency and a case where dependency is the only possibility.

          • Lacunaria

            Something like the weather could be said to be “caused by nature” because it cannot be causally traced to a moral actor, but pregnancy is not like that because causality can be traced directly to the parents.

            What you are proposing is like blaming a bullet for being in you rather than the person who shot the bullet. Please name another case where causality can be clearly and directly traced to a moral actor but instead we stop at nature.

            There is indeed a difference between forcing a person into a state of dependency and creating a person with rights into a state of dependency, but in both cases the causal moral actor is responsible, not nature.

          • Kurt H

            No, it isn’t like that because not all people have bullets in them. However, all fetuses are dependent on a womb for survival. There is no such entity as a non-dependent fetus, therefore one cannot assign blame for it. It’s like if take you outside and you see a blue sky, is the fact that sky appears blue to you due to the fact that I took you outside? No, it’s because that’s what color the sky is.

          • Lacunaria

            There is no such entity as a non-dependent fetus, therefore one cannot assign blame for it.

            The fact that nature does not give them the option of creating a non-dependent fetus in no way diminishes their responsibility when choosing between the options that nature does give them.

            Their moral choice was between having sex and risking creating a fetus dependent upon the mother (perhaps reducing the risk with contraception), or not having sex. They chose to risk it. They are responsible for the consequences.

            It’s like if take you outside and you see a blue sky, is the fact that sky appears blue to you due to the fact that I took you outside?

            How is this analogous? The parents did not discover something that already existed, they caused the creation of something.

            You seem to be ignoring causal responsibility and inventing a rule that if you are not given the options you want, then you are not responsible for the consequences of your actions, nature is.

          • Kurt H

            Your argument hinges not on the existence of the fetus being caused by the parents, but on the state of dependency being caused by the parents. To say that are morally at fault for the state of dependency implies that they took an otherwise independent fetus and put it in harm’s way. But they did no such thing. The baseline state of a fetus is dependency. That does not give it claim to another persons body.

          • Lacunaria

            To say that are morally at fault for the state of dependency implies that they took an otherwise independent fetus and put it in harm’s way.

            No. There is no moral “fault” at this point. The parents have not harmed the fetus, nor put it in harm’s way. They have simply created a fetus dependent upon the mother.

            Your requirement of an independent fetus is entirely superfluous.

          • Kurt H

            If there is no moral fault, then the forced organ donation analogy holds, and abortion cannot be prohibited. You need the state of dependence to be the fault of the parents in order for the pregnant woman to “owe” the fetus continuing use of the womb.

          • Lacunaria

            Where are you getting the idea that moral obligations are only created as a result of a fault (violation)? Every decision we make can constrain our future moral options and obligations.

            If we shake hands, neither of us are at fault, but I become morally obligated to let you go. I “owe” it to you.

            If you bring someone into your home knowing that the only way to evict him within the next 9 months is to kill him, then you have morally obligated yourself to not evict him for 9 months. You “owe” it to him because you caused him to be there.

          • Kurt H

            I’m not sure if I can further clarify, as you have made two more analogies that both fail to get at the distinction I am making.

            In the first, the mobility of my hand goes from its typical unconstrained state to a constrained state via a willing act. This only has purchase because it is actually possible for me to have unconstrained mobility. If this were not possible, who cares if you “constrain” it? You cannot owe me something that I never possessed in the first place.

            In the second, your eviction analogy again starts with an action that causes a change in circumstances. This is not the case with embryos. There is no embryo equivalent of being “outside the home” — since a non-dependent embryo is not a thing which exists.

            Your error seems to be in treating embryos that haven’t even formed yet as if they were an already existing full person, and then the creation of the embryo “harms” the embryo, creating a moral obligation. You are not just giving moral weight to embryos, you’re actually giving moral weight to *possible* embryos that might exist, and treating fertilization as a tort. That is seriously weird.

          • Lacunaria

            In the second, your eviction analogy again starts with an action that causes a change in circumstances. This is not the case with embryos. There is no embryo equivalent of being “outside the home” — since a non-dependent embryo is not a thing which exists.

            The embryo equivalent of “outside the home” is the semen outside the womb. The change in circumstances is being put in the womb, conception, and gaining the right to life. This change in circumstances was caused by the parents.

            Your invented rule requiring a fictitious non-dependent embryo is a red herring. It is unnecessary to any moral evaluation and is an unjustified violation of the fundamental moral principle of causal responsibility.

            Your error seems to be in treating embryos that haven’t even formed yet as if they were an already existing full person,

            No. We are assuming that this process creates a right to life. The prior rights of the parts of the embryo are irrelevant to the moral calculus.

            and then the creation of the embryo “harms” the embryo creating a moral obligation.

            No, I have specifically asserted the exact opposite, repeatedly. There was no harm done in creating the embryo. Moral obligation is not contingent upon a violation, as my examples demonstrated.

            The parents did precisely what was necessary to create an embryo and have it attach to the mother’s womb and give it the right to life.

            Once the right to life is given, it cannot be taken away without cause, and the only cause in this case was the actions of the parents.

            If they did not want an embryo formed and attached to the mother’s womb with the right to life then they should not have created it and put it there.

          • Kurt H

            1) Semen is not an embryo. It is a potential *part* of an embryo. Also, sperm are not people, and do not have rights.

            2) Moral obligations do not just require causality. That is necessary, yes, but not SUFFICIENT. To create a moral obligation, you would also need either a harm to be redressed (not present here, as we both agree) or a duty. The latter concept is precisely what pro-lifers are claiming (usually implicitly) — that pregnant women have a duty to bring a baby into the world. This duty needs to be established from other ethical principles, otherwise it can be rejected as being ad hoc.

            3) You mention that embryo formation creates a right to life, but you need to understand (again refer to the organ donation analogy) that granting a right to life to embryos is not sufficient to establish an abortion ban. Organ donation recipients ALSO have a right to life — they still don’t get to force other people to help them live.

            4) To clarify, to argue for an abortion ban, you need to establish that embryos have a right to life from the moment of conception (already very silly, but nevermind), and then you need to EITHER establish a harm that needs redress (which we both agree is not occurring) OR establish a duty that must be discharged (which I contend can only be done via acceptance of an extraordinarily sexist idea that also commits the naturalistic fallacy).

          • Lacunaria

            (1) The semen just shows causality. Why does semen need to be an embryo? What moral rule is that?

            I’ve never claimed that sperm have rights or are people. I’ve claimed that it is irrelevant and you have failed to show relevance.

            (2) Their duty is to not kill someone with a right to life, which we are assuming the fetus has.

            It is then often claimed that the fetus is infringing the mother’s rights, but the fetus itself is a natural mechanism at this point, not a moral actor, so it cannot be morally responsible for its dependency upon the mother.

            Instead, we continue along the causal chain to trace moral responsibility back to the parents. So, if anything, the mother “infringed” upon her own future rights by voluntarily performing the necessary steps to create a fetus in her womb, dependent upon her.

          • Kurt H

            As I have pointed out several times, a right to life is necessary for the anti-abortion argument, but it is NOT sufficient. You need to demonstrate how the fetus gets to make claims on the pregnant woman’s body. In the EXACT SAME WAY that I do not get to demand that you donate an organ to me, a fetus does not get demand use of a womb. You need something MORE than just the right to life to establish that claim.

            As we both agree, the fetus has not been “harmed” by the mother, and thus we cannot establish the claim on that basis.

            The only alternative is some kind of a moral duty arising from the *woman* rather than the fetus. Thus we must make the claim that a woman has a moral obligation to try to carry to term any fetus that ends up inside her. This argument rules out rape exceptions, and is the heart of the maximal anti-abortion position. There are two versions of this duty that I have seen offered. One commits the naturalistic fallacy and makes it a biological imperative. The other claims that women are here to make babies, which robs women of the freedom to determine their own goals in life.

            It is this last version of the argument, usually unstated, and often not even consciously realized, that animates the entire “pro-life” movement. It also nicely explains why the vast majority of pro-life activists come from extremely conservative religious groups for whom that sort of outrageous sexism is customary. If you’ve already bought into this worldview, opposing abortion seems like perfect sense.

          • Lacunaria

            As I have pointed out several times, a right to life is necessary for the anti-abortion argument, but it is NOT sufficient. You need to demonstrate how the fetus gets to make claims on the pregnant woman’s body.

            Sure, the fetus’s moral claim is that the mother is causally responsible for its demands.

            The fetus is just a mechanism (with the right to life). It naturally did what the mother and father caused it to do. The fact that they voluntarily took the risk that that would happen amounts to a tacit grant of the fetus’s “demands”.

            If it were simply a leech that she put (or grew) on her body, she could remove it and kill it, but a fetus has a right to life, so she cannot revoke her grant if it would kill the fetus.

            In the EXACT SAME WAY that I do not get to demand that you donate an organ to me, a fetus does not get demand use of a womb.

            Your analogy is missing my causal responsibility in the same way as pregnancy.

            You need something MORE than just the right to life to establish that claim.

            Yep, that “something MORE” is the mother’s causing the fetus’s “demands”.

          • Kurt H

            You admitted previously that the state of dependence is NOT the mother’s fault, and now here you are once again putting her at fault for the state of dependence. Which is it?

          • Lacunaria

            I’m sorry if I did not make that clear enough for you when we discussed it above.

            “Fault” implies responsibility for an offense or violation. Prior to abortion, there is no violation. There is, however, still causal responsibility which constrains the mother’s moral options and obligations.

            The fetus does not make “demands” of its own volition, so it bears no moral responsibility for them. It is innocent. Its “demands” upon the mother are solely the parents’ doing, because they created it in her womb where, by the laws of nature, it attached and grows.

            So when the mother notices the fetus she created in her womb (thereby causing it by the laws of nature to be dependent upon her) and says, “oops, I intended to prevent that”, it is too late if the fetus has the right to life. Her actions caused it and she cannot revoke that implicit grant if it means killing an innocent being with the right to life.

          • Kurt H

            The demands the fetus makes are neither the fault of the fetus or the parents, they are simply natural facts about fetuses. Note, I am NOT treating the fetus as an invader. Rather, I am saying that no one has the right to force someone else to use their body to save a life. People who need organ donations don’t get that power, and neither do fetuses. My position is consistent.

            Consider if you had agreed to donate a kidney, but now no longer want to give it up. Do I have the right to carve it out of you? Of course not. Even if the process of organ donation were to take say, nine months, you would still have the right to stop the process, and it would be immoral to force you to complete the process.

            So, even if a pregnant woman *wanted* to get pregnant and then later decided not to complete the pregnancy, abortion should be legal.

            Thus, the anti-abortion stance can only avoid incoherence by appealing to sexist notions that women are here to make babies. Without the duty of motherhood, there is no way to ethically distinguish an abortion ban from forcible organ donation.

          • Lacunaria

            The demands the fetus makes are neither the fault of the fetus or the parents, they are simply natural facts about fetuses.

            Those “natural facts” are solely caused by the parents voluntary actions. They are responsible even though there is no fault (violation).

            Consider if you had agreed to donate a kidney, but now no longer want to give it up. Do I have the right to carve it out of you? Of course not. Even if the process of organ donation were to take say, nine months, you would still have the right to stop the process, and it would be immoral to force you to complete the process.

            What’s missing from your analogy is that I created your need for a kidney. I made you dependent upon me and only me and now I’m changing my mind. So, it’s roughly more like I already gave you a kidney and then I wanted it back.

            Similarly, the parents created a fetus in the mother’s womb where it naturally attached, dependent upon the mother, and now the mother wants her womb back.

            I think you may be missing the mechanistic nature of this whole scenario, so let’s consider a simpler analogy, focusing first upon natural mechanisms and causal responsibility and then we’ll introduce the right to life:

            Let’s say you stab your thigh with a knife. The knife is now making “demands” upon you. Your body is responding to its presence in ways you do not like, causing you pain, loss of blood, platelets to coagulate, restricting movement, etc.

            Who is morally responsible for this state? The knife? Or is no one responsible? Are these “simply natural facts”? No, you are responsible. The knife merely did what it does by the laws of nature. You put it there.

            Is it infringing upon your rights? No, because it is not a moral actor. If anything, you have infringed upon your own rights. You have implicitly granted the knife a place in your thigh by putting it there.

            Of course, you may revoke that grant and remove the knife! But not a fetus. Why is that? Because that would kill the fetus which you gave the right to life by creating it.

    • martinbrock

      Right. The article’s reasoning is sound. The complicity of pro-lifers in what they pretend to believe murderous is the problem, but “controlling female sexuality” is a ridiculous summary of their position. You might as well say that child support laws only “control the sexuality” of men. These laws don’t prevent men having any sort of sex they like, and neither would an abortion ban prevent women having any sex they like.

  • Corey

    You don’t agree that killing a fetus is murder but you don’t explain why. I don’t see how it’s disputable that the human life cycle begins at conception and that a fetus is in fact a human, albeit one at an early stage of development.

    Also, Vox already covered your arguments. Consider this quote:

    “…according to both civil law and moral law private citizens are permitted to use lethal force against another human being only if this occurs as an unintended effect of the act of defending oneself or another against an assailant’s unjust attack. Private citizens are not allowed to intend to kill another human being and are not allowed to engage in premeditated acts of deadly force in order to accomplish what they intend. In other words, a private citizen can intend to stop, but not to kill, an assailant regardless of the final result. Attacks on abortion doctors fail this test.”

    Source: http://www.vox.com/2015/12/1/9827382/southern-baptists-rejected-abortion-violence

  • Daryl McCullough

    Let me offer a different analogy. Suppose that a group of radical vegans decide that killing animals for meat is murder. So the same reasoning would suggest that they would be justified in killing anyone participating in the meat industry, right?

    You could make the same argument for any moral position, whatsoever. If some group finds some (legal) practice to be as evil as murder, then they are justified, based on that belief, in committing murder to put an end to that practice?

    That seems like a recipe for complete anarchy.

    • martinbrock

      Yes. To a chicken, I’m worse than a Nazi, and if God is a vegan, I may spend eternity in Hell for it.

      That’s not a recipe for anarchy. It’s the recipe for chicken soup.

  • Not sure if this was already mentioned, but unless a hypothetical clinic solely does abortions, and you have no way of knowing for what purpose any particular person is going there, then to perform bombings or shootings is reckless, even with the assumption that abortion is murder. It would then become an issue similar to war and how you can justify collateral damage. Is it any more appropriate to potentially kill a number of innocents in order to kill a fetus-killer, than it is to do potentially kill a number of innocents in order to kill terrorists in drone strikes?

  • martinbrock

    “Imminent” seems more appropriate than “immediate”.

    Would most of us look at the Women’s Rights Center with horror and demand that the government shut it down? At various times and places, most people have favored or at least turned a blind eye toward lesser horrors. Given your assumptions about the moral significance of a fetus, you are among most people doing so here and now. That you don’t accept these assumptions is relevant only to your actions here and now. If the policy of the Women’s Rights Center were a norm, I suppose you’d still be among most people. I can easily imagine Peter Singer’s ethics becoming normal.

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  • Bob Huddleston

    I think your statement that “if someone has locked you up wrongfully , and plans to murder you six days from now, I can kill him now, if necessary to set you free” is not even close to accurate.

    Considering you used LaFave for the source, I assumed it would be best to provide an explanation of the term from a LaFave source.

    “(a) Generally. It is only just that one who is unlawfully attacked by another, and who has no opportunity to resort to the law for his defense, should be able to take reasonable steps to defend himself from physical harm.”

    Note the clause regarding opportunity to resort to the law.


    2 Subst. Crim. L. § 10.4 (2d ed.)
    Substantive Criminal Law
    Database updated October 2015
    WestlawNext (retrieved 12/11/2015)
    Wayne R. LaFavea
    Part Two. General Principles
    Chapter 10. Justification

    • Jason Brennan

      You aren’t criticizing what I said, but vigorously agreeing with it. You quoted the “if necessary” part of what I said, and then elaborated on one of the conditions that has to fail before the necessity clause kicks in.

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  • Akil

    I know I’m late to the party, but I have doubts about this: >>“Immediate” here does not literally mean immediate. For instance, if someone has locked you up wrongfully, and plans to murder you six days from now, I can kill him now, if necessary to set you free. I needn’t wait until literally the second before he slits your throat.<<

    Here's my issue: If killing the captor isn't necessary to stop him from killing his captive in six days (which is easy enough to imagine—can't you just call the cops on him or something?), then it wouldn't be legal to kill him, would it?

    In the case of abortion, would it ever really be absolutely necessary to kill an abortion doctor to prevent an abortion from occurring? Even if you do walk into a room at an abortion clinic where the doctor's about to perform the procedure, there any any number of ways to stop the act from going down other than killing the guy. Hell, you could tackle him and get him away from the table and that should do the trick, at least for the moment. As medical procedures, abortions have to be performed in certain ways and with certain health and safety precautions taken, so even just storming into the room disruptively might be enough to prevent the abortion in an immediate sense.

    As for other circumstances where the abortion doctor isn't immediately about to perform an abortion, I can't see why it would be justified, legally or morally, to *kill* the doctor, precisely because it wouldn't be necessary to do so in order to prevent him from performing abortions.

    Unless your argument is that given the current state of abortion law, the problem is that he could just evade your attempts at disruption and just go on and perform the abortion on that patient at a later time, since it's legal for him to do so. But that just raises the larger issue that the real solution to abortion would be to get the laws changed, not to kill abortion doctors.