Feminist Philosophers

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I Thought This Era Had Come and Gone May 31, 2009

Filed under: reproductive rights — brynhild @ 7:48 pm

A prominent US abortion doctor has been shot dead at a church in Wichita, in his home state of Kansas.

Sixty-seven year-old George Tiller was killed just after 1000 (1500 GMT) at the Reformation Lutheran Church.

Dr Tiller – one of the few US doctors who performed so-called late-term abortions – had been a long-time target of anti-abortionists. His clinic had often been the site of demonstrations, and he was shot and wounded by an assailant 16 years ago.

Kansas is my home state (though you’ll rarely hear me admit it). My teen years were heavily tinted by the anti-choice violence that went on there at the time. But I admit, I was feeling pretty carefree about it all by now; feeling like those were the old days. And I bet most of my fellow pro-choice Kansans (not that there are many of us) were too. What sad news.


33 Responses to “I Thought This Era Had Come and Gone”

  1. Jender Says:


  2. libhomo Says:

    The anti abortion movement is a terrorist network. It needs to be prosecuted as such.

  3. Ross Cameron Says:

    Well, hang on. I’m positive that many – and I would guess the vast majority – who oppose abortion don’t condone murder and think this is disgraceful. There are certainly anti abortion campaigers whose actions are criminal and violent, and who ought to be prosecuted, but there are also peaceful protestors who, while I think they’re wrong, ought to be able to make their protest. Just like there are plenty of peaceful animal rights or environmental activists who don’t appreciate their movements being called terrorist movements as a result of the reprehensible actions of a small band of extremists.

  4. extendedlp Says:

    ross, that was my thought when i first read libhomo’s comment, as well. eg, my christian fundamentalist relatives have been on facebook all day posting about what a sad event this is, how sorry they are for his family, how their religion teaches that god loves the sinner and so should they, etc etc. but on the other hand, i think there is something to be noticed in comparing this to other acts that we call terrorist and associate with a particular ideological group. eg, i think it makes just as much sense to call anti-choice activist groups terrorist groups on account of this murder as it does to call muslims terrorists on account of so-called ‘muslim extremist’ violence. (as if violence just is extremely muslim!) so yes, i think talking about this event in the context of discussion about ‘terrorism’ is potentially illuminating.

  5. Ross Cameron Says:

    I agree that it makes just as much sense: it’s nonsense to call Muslims (in general) terrorists as well. I don’t disagree that we should talk about such an event as an act of terrorism; my only disagreement is with calling the anti-abortion movement (in general) a terrorist movement. Individual acts, such as this murder or the bombing of his clinic earlier, I am happy to call acts of domestic terrorism – I just think we should be careful which group we blame.

  6. jj Says:

    On the other hand, doesn’t the rhetoric invite violence? I would have thought that calling any group “baby murderers” was clearly going to put those people’s lives in danger, perhaps especially in the US, given its gun laws.

    I’m not sure how wide-spread the rhetoric is, but my sense is that it is wide-spread indeed, in part just from listening to ordinary people. People who are anti-abortion and speak to the issue seem disinclined to allow that there is anything to be said for the other side, who consist of supporters of culpable murderers. I don’t necessarily think that merits calling them terrorists, but I’m completely *disgusted* with the right wing who use horrible rhetoric and then disown its effects.

  7. extendedlp Says:

    i agree with you jj. i wonder does this simply point to a very basic problem with the ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ approach to strong moral stances? is it really possible for us, psychologically, to do so? maybe they’re letting themselves off the hook: ‘even if i call them murderers, i’m not really condemning them, because i have this other belief about sin and forgiveness. so i’m not *really* contributing to violence by talking this way’.

    yes ross, you’re quite that it’s nonsense to call it so. of course of course. but we mustn’t sit blind in our ivory towers and think the population at large agree with us, right? i suspect many don’t. so, my point was just that i think it’s a useful comparison to draw–not for the sake of understanding this event, so much as for the sake of understanding what the hell we’re talking about when we talk about ‘terrorism’.

  8. Ross Cameron Says:

    There’s an empirical question about whether the rhetoric incites violence, of course, and then there’s a further question if it does: are those who engage in the rhetoric culpable for the violence if they had no part in it? I don’t know the answer to the empirical question, but I would be hesitant to lay the blame for the violence on those who spoke so even if it turns out there is such a link (at least, to attribute the amount of blame that would warrant branding them terrorists).

    Peter Singer tells us those who work in slaughter houses are animal murderers, and meat eaters culpable in their murder. But he’s not aiming to incite violence against them, he’s trying to state what he takes to be the moral facts – and, of course, to convince us of their truth and change our behaviour accordingly. Some of those who agree with him think it’s right to terrorise butchers, scientists, etc. They are wrong – but I think it’s them that’s to blame for their actions, not Singer.

    Of course, it all depends on *how* you say things, not just the content of what is said. If the empirical facts are such that the majority of the anti-abortion movement state their claims with the intention of inciting violence then that’s another matter. But I very much doubt that this is the case, even amongst those who would use ‘baby killer’ rhetoric.

  9. extendedlp Says:

    ooo. hmm. yes, i admit i am very happy to say that meat is murder. i think it is. …but no, i don’t think i’m inviting violence. just bean-eating. …there’s probably a rhetorical difference between calling someone a ‘baby killer’ and calling someone a ‘chicken killer’ tho… hm…

  10. Ross Cameron Says:

    I’m just not sure there’s a difference. I think meat is murder too – but I, like you, don’t want to harm meat eaters: I just think they’re wrong, and would like to convince them of this. My impression is that many who think abortion is killing babies have exactly the same stance.

  11. jj Says:

    I think we need to be careful about what we put aside as an “empirical question.” In all sorts of ways, the idea that speech by some people can lead to action by others is a kind of fundamental in our understanding of social groups, and it’s also in laws about incitement to riot, violence, etc.

    Further, behavior research has shown that speech accompanied by images is particularly powerful, though there is some evidence that images alone are even more powerful. The anti-abortion movement uses all of these, and they probably consult advertising people on some of it. The end result is a very negative image of abortion and the providers and participants. Further, such ideas are cited by those who do murder the doctors.

    For these reasons, I’m inclined to say we should assume there is a connection. But now there is more evidence coming in from brain-imaging.

    We do now know that advertising can have extremely powerful effects on the brain, and it can even change how something tastes to you. (The first work on this was done by Read Montague at Baylor College of Medicine; interestingly, it was suggested by a then teenage daughter.) Other recent research has shown that if you are in a room with people who are maintaining that uneven lines are actually even, that can change the visual processing at the earliers stage in your visual cortex, so you will see them as even.

    So it looks as though words and images in a social context can be extremely powerful.

  12. extendedlp Says:

    PETA people do the same thing with photos from slaughter houses, etc. annoying as PETA people clearly are, i would be very hesitant to say that they’re inciting violence against meat producers. but then i *still* feel i’m with you jj, and want to say that these anti-choice people are doing something at least to clear the way for violence against abortion providers (and emotional violence at least against abortion recipients, and so on). i wonder is it because of other ideological stances that i associate with each group? PETA seem like angry, but ideologically peace-loving sort of crunchy types, whereas (in my mind; i don’t know whether stats bear this out) anti-choice people are gun lobby, death penalty, eye-for-an-eye types. so, if the former are saying ‘x is murder’, it doesn’t make me think they want retribution against xers. whereas in the latter case, it does. hmm.

  13. Rob Says:

    An excellent documentary, encompassing (I think) the entire spectrum of attitude towards abortion:

    Lake of Fire

    I can’t recall if Tiller appears in it, but Peter Singer and Randall Terry do.

  14. "J-Bro" Says:

    A huge difference between saying “meat is murder” and “abortion is murder” is that, because only one of the situations involves the death of humans or proto-humans, only one of the two statements implicates legal doctrines in the US which allow the use of deadly force. Thus, one is a more direct incitement of violence than the other.

    In the US, if someone points a gun at (say) my sister Jender, I am allowed to shoot them because they are threatening the life of a human being with deadly force. I am unlikely to face charges for it, provided there weren’t clear alternatives available to stop the guy. I’m legally “justified” in doing so — not just “excused,” but justified. It’s an appropriate act under the law.

    The anti-choice movement considers fetuses to be human beings. So the message of “abortion is murder” is quite blunt: you’re justified in using deadly force to stop it if there’s no other clear alternative. This is reflected in rhetoric on some anti-choice sites about “justifiable homicide” or “defense of others,” and you’ll see this argument if you look at the comments section of any US online newspaper covering the story.

  15. "J-Bro" Says:

    (I should add: no, the US doesn’t allow you to shoot someone because you have good reason to believe they’ll commit some murders tomorrow. You’re only allowed to do it to protect someone who’s in imminent danger.)

  16. Ross Cameron Says:

    Interesting potential disanalogy J-Bro. Do you know, does the law explicitly let you protect *humans* with lethal force or is it *persons*? Because if it’s persons the disanalogy seems to vanish: we’ve just got two groups who think some other group (animals or fetuses) are persons despite the law not according them the same rights RE defence to life as those persons who happen to be post-birth/humans.

  17. extendedlp Says:

    it seems to me that the word ‘being’ in ‘human being’ functions as person in these sorts of discussions. so, ‘human being’ should be read really as something like ‘human person’. there’s still a disanalogy, then, if you take it that being human is special above and beyond being a person. (and i suspect that lots of people are implicitly committed to this view. i suspect it’s why, eg, highly intelligent philosophers can think their housepets (i won’t say cats. i’m not picking on the cat people!) personlike, and yet think it’s sort of okay to eat chickens and cows.)

  18. lani Says:

    One part of this debate, at its foundation, is dispute about the facts of the matter – is a fertilized ovum a person or not. If not, then at what point does the person emerge. It is my view that the debate cannot be resolved in any way as long as the facts are in dispute and they are, even within the Christian community as well as other religious communities. I think the abortion debate is confused and confusing for this very reason.

  19. extendedlp Says:

    personally, i don’t think personhood is the issue. no one is actually committed to the view that it’s never okay to kill a person. self defence; war; death penalty; mercy killing. everyone has at least some exceptions built in, even for clear persons. in other words, nobody actually holds the view that persons have an inviolable right to life. further, i think a lot of people *are* committed to the view that we owe at least a certain level of moral consideration to at least some nonpersons. so, settling the person question wouldn’t settle the abortion question. in fact, i think it somewhat likely that talking about personhood at all is a distraction.

  20. lani Says:

    extendedlp – I agree that this is the case for philosophers, e.g., but the nonacademic often rests her/his case on the claim of fact that an abortion kills a baby. The rhetoric is all about murdering a child.

  21. "J-Bro" Says:

    The laws vary state by state, and generally say “individual” or “person,” both of which are understood under the law and by the general public to mean “human”. While US laws *generally* don’t explicitly scope fetuses in as humans, there are exceptions (e.g. laws that allow the unlawful killing of a fetus to be prosecuted as murder, for example if someone assaults a pregnant woman and she miscarries), and it’s clear from public statements that the anti-choice movement does think of them that way.

    I think we could argue back and forth about what the various groups that make up the animal rights movement believe, but I’d be shocked if any large portion of them actually *believed* that animals were “persons” in the legal sense as opposed to stating that they *should* be as an advocacy position. PETA euthanizes animals it takes in, for example, which would be deeply inconsistent if they actually believed animals had full legal rights as “persons.”

  22. Ross Cameron Says:

    Sure, I wasn’t meaning anything legal in claiming that animals are persons: I was just claiming that they are persons. That view, I think, is held by many.

    I don’t agree that thinking about personhood is a distraction. Yes, most of us (although not all – think about certain strands of Buddhism) don’t think there’re no circumstances in which it’s permissible to take the life of even a clear uncontroversial person. But most of us think there’s a pro-tanto duty not to take the life of persons. And one can accept that independently of one’s view about what kinds of things are persons; that’s a further – partly empirical, partly philosophical – question.

    I agree that settling the person issue wouldn’t settle the abortion question. But it does seem relevant to me. If the fetus is a person, then there’s a pro-tanto duty not to destroy it. If it’s not a person then, in the absence of some other status it has conferring moral worth upon it, then there’s simply no issue concerning what we do to it. But personhood seems to me necessary and sufficient for there being a pro-tanto case against abortion. Of course, pro-tanto is just that, and I think a lot of the problem with anti-choice arguments is that they take the pro-tanto moral reason not to destroy a fetus to be an overriding reason.

  23. "J-Bro" Says:

    My comments were directed more towards the blameworthiness of those who use the “abortion is murder” rhetoric, rather than the justifiability of abortion itself.

    (But for the record, I don’t think one needs to reach the question of whether a fetus is a person to decide whether abortion is okay. One only needs to recognize that the woman *is* a person…)

  24. "J-Bro" Says:

    (Which may actually be what Ross is saying in the conclusion of comment #23, though as a non-philosopher I’m kind of guessing at the meaning of “pro-tanto”… ;-)

  25. extendedlp Says:

    so, i take it that j-bro’s claim is one about the psychology of those engaging in the rhetoric, rather than about moral facts. is that right? what you mean is that people will think that ‘abortion murders a human being’ is grounds for violence, because our laws enshrine human-being-killing as justification for violence. yes?

    ross, i was going to say ‘it’s not clear to me that pro-tanto gets you very far’. but then your further comments addressed that concern. so never mind! i will say, however, that things like the capacity to feel pain could be a reason to think something has rights even if we don’t think it’s sufficient for personhood. so, on the face of it it looks as tho we might have reason to think fetuses have some claim to consideration even if we decide/discover that they’re not persons.

    and j-bro, just for the record: i do think a lot of animal rights people precisely do think some animals are persons. i’m with ross: i do. but of course, one needn’t think this to think that animals have rights (or are morally considerable, or however you want to put it).

  26. jj Says:

    It’s relevant that the anti-choice people talk about an innocent baby.

  27. extendedlp Says:

    yes. i definitely think ‘innocence’ does something. i *suspect* that it does so because of this eye-for-an-eye mentality. if you do something wrong, you might somehow forfeit your right to consideration. so, if someone is *innocent*, the implication is that there could be no justification for overriding their right to life. yes. so, it’s not just that they’re persons, it’s that they’re *innocent*–ie, not deserving of life-loss–persons. personally, i think this whole idea is sick. like, if you’re not a nice person it’s sort of okay for me to treat you badly. totally bizarre.

  28. captiver Says:

    Re the ‘terrorist’ discussion, I spend a fair amount of time working as a pro-choice activist. Dr. Tiller and other doctors are targeted by certain (not all) anti-abortion groups (e.g. Operation Rescue) on their Web sites. Information about them is gathered and distributed (where they live, where they go to church, where their children go to school in some cases). They are, at the same time, called mass murderers, are likened to Nazis, what they do is likened to a holocaust. If ‘terrorism’ is a spectrum of behaviour rather than characteristics of a certain group, then *some* anti-abortion groups qualify in my view. I am reluctant to expand federal policing powers, and believe that if this were taken as seriously as it should be by the authorities, they have the tools to act on some of the above to protect physicians, clinics and other providers. Bottom line though, some of this behaviour is “terrorist” — ask any abortion doctor in the U.S. and s/he is likely to say s/he has felt
    On the original post, that this was an era we thought had come and gone, there’s a very interesting analysis
    by Cristina Page at HuffPost about upticks in anti-abortion violence under pro-choice presidents. i.e. It COULD be (we don’t know yet) that part of the reason there hadn’t been much in the last 8 years at least is because there was an anti-abortion president who was in some senses keeping the anti-abortion forces at least somewhat satisified.

  29. jj Says:

    Very interesting conjecture, captiver.

    The NY Times has a ’round-up from the web’ (or some such) on the murder of Dr. Tiller. It’s very germane.

  30. "J-Bro" Says:

    extendedlp: because our laws enshrine *the prevention of* human-being-killing as justification for violence, even if that violence is itself killing.

  31. Rachel Says:

    An interesting piece from an article by the Nation: The department of Homeland Security has been looking at Right Wing extremism. Not that this means we should call this “terrorism” but it’s another angle to this discussion…

    Conservative activists this spring mounted an aggressive campaign to get Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to withdraw a report titled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment” from her department’s official website. [...] Among the statements that drew the loudest objections from the conservative camp was an observation that domestic threats might be posed by “groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single-issue, such as opposition to abortion.”

  32. [...] the only one to notice this. Cristina Page comes to the same conclusion in a piece on HuffPo (hat tip): The pro-choice movement, specifically our abortion providers, are in the greatest danger of [...]

  33. john Says:

    Somebody please explain why abortion is ok! I seriously dont understand the reasons why it would be ok. Ive tried to have debates about this but they usually end up being shouting matches so please dont let it become that. I want a real debate.

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