NEW YORK — Dr. George Tiller was murdered because he performed abortions. Those who defend such actions justify them by claiming it is entirely appropriate to kill a person in order to prevent them from killing other people. Unless one is a genuine pacifist, the argument that we kill one murderer to prevent the murder of many innocents is not an unreasonable argument.
But are those who defend such behavior when it comes to doctors who perform abortions correct in their application of that ethical principle? It’s important to ask this question, upsetting as it may be, because the fundamental claim (no pun intended) made in defense of Dr. Tiller’s murderer claims to follow that logic. If correct, it might justify the actions of Dr. Tiller’s accused killer and his defenders.
Simply asserting that they are wrong is both as pointless and arrogant an approach as theirs — relying on the “obvious” truth of one position and the wickedness or stupidity of the other. Progress on this issue will require more than sanctimonious harangues of that nature from either side.
According to Jewish law, the principle that the murderers argue is, in fact, correct. It’s called the law of the rodef, or pursuer. Based on a rule found in Exodus 22 and explained by the Babylonian Talmud on page 73a, the law actually demands that one pre-empt a murderer by killing him before he commits his crime. Based on these facts, one might come to the conclusion that the events in Kansas actually have the biblical and religious grounding that supporters of accused murderer Scott Roeder claim.
They are wrong, at least from the perspective of Jewish law.
Under no circumstances is a fetus considered a human life, according to Jewish law. Ironically, Maimonides, calling a fetus a rodef, uses this law to explain why a baby must be aborted if the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life. While Jewish law is no fan of abortion, and does not sanction abortion on demand regardless of circumstances, it is never murder.
Now I have no expectation or desire to see Jewish law become the law of the land. Nor do I expect to convince radical Christian murderers to change their ways because of a Jewish reading of scripture. But I think that all of us who want to see Dr. Tiller’s murderer prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and even more importantly bring about an end to such murders, consider the claims made by the murderers. We must because actually our views are ultimately not so different. Yes, I really mean that.
If we truly believed that abortions were murder, and had the ability to stop someone from performing them, would we not be justified in using all available means to do so? Would we not want someone to do just that if a person was heading off to kill one of our kids?
So how would you respond to someone who genuinely believes that is the case in this incident? What arguments can be used to dissuade the future murderers from following a path to what they imagine to be a justifiable homicide and most of us know to be murder?
One approach would be to work with hard-core pro-life advocates, such as Operation Rescue, who claim not to support these murders. We need real alliances to protect the sanctity of those lives that we all agree are actual lives. We need to establish relationships that empower them to use their own credibility in an effort to end the killing and assaults. If they don’t, then at least we smoke out their true views.
Ultimately, though, we need to reframe the debate from one about abortion to one about democracy. The debate needs to be framed as being about nothing less than democracy in America. When zealots act as they did this week in Kansas, they are making war on America, upon the Constitution and the rule of law. Whether pro-life or pro-choice (terms that I don’t even like, and which fail to capture the nuance of most Americans’ position on this issue), attacks like the one on Dr. Tiller are an attack on us all.
We can and probably will disagree about abortion for a long time to come. We may well be divided precisely because we all cherish life but cannot find a common definition of when it begins. The one thing we must share is a commitment to keeping abortion from being the cutting edge of a crusade that trades our shared democracy for some people’s theocracy.
(Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism” and president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. This piece first appeared on his blog, “For God’s Sake,” on Newsweek.WashingtonPost.com’s “On Faith.”)