“ESSAY” By Michael Kinsley


IN THE END, ALMOST EVERYONE IS AGAINST KILLING DOCTORS who practice abortion, though it is a little hard to understand why.

The logic of Paul Hill — that abortion equals baby killing, that there is a "holocaust" going on and that therefore killing an abortionist is "justifiable homicide" may be insane, but it is more consistent than the logic of those who share all of Hill's premises but reject his conclusion.

On July 29, Hill shot and killed Dr. John Britton and a clinic volunteer at an abortion clinic in Pensacola Florida. Almost all elements of the right-to-life movement condemned the killings. But why? After all, the practical effect of such actions is not merely to put one baby killer out of business but to chill the entire practice of abortion in America. Surely during the real Holocaust it would have been "justifiable homicide" to kill a German camp guard, if that would have slowed the feeding of the gas chambers.

Until last week, the American Center for Law and Justice (A.C.L.J.), a self-styled conservative clone of the American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.), was supplying Hill's legal defense on earlier charges of harassing abortion patients. The A.C.L.J. is part of the religiopolitical empire of Pat Robertson, who certainly considers himself mainstream. Yet Hill never made a secret of his belief in the moral necessity of killing abortionists. The A.C;L.J. says it was representing Hill because the harassment charges infringe his First Amendment right to protest.

But the A.C.L.J. is not the A.C.L.U., which routinely defends the rights of people it profoundly disagrees with (such as Nazis who wanted to march through a Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, Illinois). The very fact that the A.C.L.J. dropped Hill when he became too hot to handle suggests that its previous defense of him was motivated by something other than abstract dedication to the First Amendment.

Disrupters at abortion clinics frequently invoke the First Amendment. They also invoke the traditions of the civil rights movement. Believers in abortion rights should take these arguments seriously to demonstrate that we don't just believe in civil liberties for people we agree with. But there are flaws in the reasoning.

As for the First Amendment, Operation Rescue is quite frank that the purpose in its sieges of abortion clinics is not communication. It is not attempting to persuade doctors and patients to come around to its view that abortion is the murder of innocent babies. It is attempting to physically prevent the operation of the clinics and/or to make the experience so unpleasant for doctors and patients that they will give it up, without the necessity of changing their beliefs.

The First Amendment does not grant me the right to harass you into giving me the contents of your wallet. So it certainly doesn't grant abortion opponents the right to harass women into giving up their constitutional right to choose abortion.

Of course if abortion is truly murder, Operation Rescue may well be right not to stop at mere persuasion. But in that case it cannot self-righteously invoke the First Amendment. And if it is going to invoke instead the glorious tradition of civil disobedience, other problems arise. There are different rules for legitimate civil disobedience in a democratic society than in a place (e.g., Nazi Germany) where working for change through the established political system is not an available option. A cardinal principle of civil disobedience in a democracy is that you accept society's punishment — as acknowledgment that you are breaking society’s rules for what you see as a higher cause. Operation Rescue activists have submitted to arrest for minor charges like trespassing. But they also like to flood the home phone lines of judges who have ruled against them. Their purpose is not to "petition for redress of grievances," as protected by the First Amendment, their purpose is to make those judges miserable. And even the larger right-to-life movement opposes efforts to protect abortion clinics with laws that work.

An abortion clinic is not a lunch counter — and anyway, no one was ever prevented from eating lunch by the civil rights movement. The antiabortion movement, like the civil rights movement, may ultimately persuade society that it has been profoundly wrong. But meanwhile, a democratic society can not fail to protect the exercise of what it has determined to be a fundamental right.

Which brings us back to the question of killing abortion doctors. Even someone who believes that abortion is murder might reasonably conclude that killing abortionists is not justified because America is not Nazi Germany: we are a democracy under the rule of law. But once a group accepts the premise that the laws enacted by a democratic society are no legitimate deterrent in efforts to prevent "baby killing,” it becomes harder to see what is wrong with stopping the murders by killing the murderers. The Operation Rescue people are not pacifists. They do not believe in the principle that violence is always wrong, even in response to violence. So why not kill the doctors? Paul Hill understands their logic better than they do.