Just Because It’s Legal Doesn’t Mean It’s Right
March 2nd, 2011

Maybe this makes me a bad person, but I don’t believe in moral absolutes.  I don’t believe that any one action is right in every situation.  I believe that we are complex beings and that the maze of conundrums we face during the course of a life requires a palette awash in shades of grey.  Black and white is kid stuff.

Matters of life and death are about the stickiest wickets we can hope to pass through, and every such matter is mired in the nuance of discrete circumstance.  Is it wrong to kill?  Is it wrong to kill if your own life or that of another person is in danger?  Is it wrong to kill if you are a soldier fighting for your country and a cause you believe is right?  Is it wrong to kill if you disagree with someone?

It’s that last question that has me fretting lately.

Surely the answer is yes, right?  It should be wrong to kill merely over a difference of opinion; even if that opinion is strongly held.  Yet when I read about the proposed legislation in South Dakota and Nebraska that would legalize the murder of abortionists on the grounds of “justifiable homicide” all I see is: It’s okay to kill someone if you disagree with them about abortion.

I don’t mean to start a debate over abortion.  I really, really don’t.  I have my opinions about a woman’s right to choose, and you have yours.  For the purposes of this post I will assume that your position is well-thought-out and private.  I hope you will grant me the same courtesy, because abortion itself is not what this post is about.  This post is about moral inconsistencies and vicious cycles.

The pro-life platform is rooted in the belief that all life is sacred.  I get that.  What I don’t get, then, is how anyone who believes that all life is sacred can explain the decision to murder someone else simply because they believe differently.  Is that person’s life no longer sacred because their belief conflicts with yours?

The proposed South Dakota bill (which has since been shelved) only protected the pregnant woman, her husband, her parents, or her children in acts of “justifiable homicide.”  The Nebraska bill reaches further and protects all third parties.  The significance of that discrepancy is huge.  As explained by Melissa Grant of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, “In short, this bill authorizes and protects vigilantes, and that’s something that’s unprecedented in our society.”

State senator Mark Christensen proposed the Nebraska bill and, according to the article (linked above), “For his part, [he] insisted that his measure is not intended to target abortion providers. … [He] claimed that his bill is merely meant to allow pregnant women to defend their unborn children without fear of prosecution.”

This is where Christensen really loses me.  I have never – ever – heard of any abortion provider wanting or trying to terminate a pregnancy against a woman’s will.  When I was pregnant with IEP I had no concern that I might go about my day and inadvertently walk into some altercation with an abortionist and be forced to terminate unless I killed him.  It just doesn’t happen.  Perhaps some women – women who aren’t equipped to care for a baby, or whose babies have been diagnosed with severe illness or deformity – are encouraged to terminate.  Perhaps some of these women are unduly influenced by an overbearing clinician.  But I have never heard of any woman have to “defend her unborn child” against the malicious advances of an abortion doctor.*

Further still, what if one “justifiable homicide” begets another?  In a hypothetical scenario let’s say you have a pregnant woman pursuing abortion, an abortion doctor, and an angry boyfriend who doesn’t want the pregnancy to be terminated.  On the pro-life grounds that all life is sacred, the boyfriend can legally kill the doctor for endangering the life of the fetus.  Can the doctor’s wife then legally kill the boyfriend for endangering her husband’s life?  Can the boyfriend’s mother then kill the doctor’s wife for endangering her son’s life?  How many homicides are “justifiable”?  Where does it stop?

Finally (and I am not a lawyer but I’ll lean on common sense for this one), how can a state authorize murder over an act that has been legalized by the United States Supreme Court?  It flies in the face of federal case law.  If Nebraska wanted to say, “It is justifiable homicide to kill any black student who enrolls in a white school,” it would go straight through the appellate court system and all the way to nine esteemed justices who would take one look at it and declare it illegal.  How is this any different?**

The legal maneuverings of this issue are certainly interesting.  But to me they pale in comparison to the moral ones.  For all my wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth on this topic I just don’t understand how Life A is sacred, but Life B is not.  I don’t understand how murder (and the legalization thereof) actually solves any problem.  It doesn’t even address the issue.

So I will hope.  I will hope that the Nebraska legislation is abandoned as the South Dakota legislation has been.  If it is not abandoned I will hope that it does not pass.  And if it passes I will hope that no one actually has to be murdered in order for the constitutionality of this law to be challenged in court, and (again, hopefully) overturned.

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*The only situation I can imagine where this kind of scenario might play out is one where the expectant mother is mentally handicapped in some way, is not equipped to make the decision herself, and is forced by some legal guardian to terminate.  I’m sure something along these lines has happened at some point.  I’m also sure that in this case – as in any other – murdering the doctor isn’t the answer.

**If we want to get technical about things, the difference here is that the nine particular justices on the Supreme Court bench today might see it differently from their Roe v. Wade-era counterparts.  The integrated school example was an easy one because there’s no chance that Brown v. Board will ever be struck down.  It made my point cleanly, but with a bit of oversimplification.

11 Responses to “Just Because It’s Legal Doesn’t Mean It’s Right”

  1. Rebecca Says:

    This is such a beautifully composed post, and I couldn’t agree more with your sentiment….the inconsistencies and the slippery slope of such legislation. Its so offensive to me that people feel the need to butt in so much to my life, esp people that have no personal experience or connection to the topic they’re legislating on. I know you don’t want a political rant here, which I will avoid, but can’t we just all agree to disagree. It’s one thing to disagree, judge and possibly feel moral contempt towards them for that choice (because I’d probably do the same), but just keep it out of our state/national legislation. Again, so well presented here!

  2. Jeanna Says:

    First, let me state that I totally agree with you if that was what the proposed law stated. I was mortified to hear that was being presented by pro-lifers. So I went out and did some quick research. From what I could gather the proposed legislation is an addition to the self-defense law to protect unborn children. This was proposed because a pregnant woman was punched in the stomach, stabbed her boyfriend in defense of her unborn child and he died. While her life was not in danger, her child’s was and she was not protected under the current self-defense law. The law does not mention abortionists. And from your analysis, I don’t see how they ever could be legally murdered even with this new legislation.

  3. Gale Says:

    Jeanna – Thanks so much for this comment. In all of the coverage I have heard/read on this proposed legislation, I never heard this story. It does help me soften my interpretation of the legislation to have an understanding of what sparked it. Nevertheless, what interests me most is that your explanation above is not how it’s being spun in the media. The news outlets are positioning it around abortionists, and since there’s nothing in the legislation (at least as I understand it) to preclude abortionists from being targeted then it seems that the spirit of the law could easily be forgotten as more attention is paid to the letter of the law.

    On a separate note, it deeply saddens me that the woman who was attacked would be found guilty of any crime given the circumstances of the stabbing. I sincerely hope that I will never be subject to the decision of a jury of my peers, because stories like this make me question how wise a jury can actually be.

    Thanks again for this contextual and informative comment.

  4. anne Says:

    Wow…I’d never heard of this. Very sticky indeed. I’m not even sure I know what to say. I personally have extraordinarily conflicted feelings about abortion, and have never been able to take a clear stance on the issue. But this just seems misguided and strange. I like to believe these types of legislation come about because of drastic circumstances and emotional situations–and people thus trying to prevent them happening again. I can’t imagine anyone would go so far as to push towards murder as a means to combat something they simply disagree with. I’d be curious as to the greater root of this legislation and how/why/from whom it came about.

  5. Gale Says:

    Anne – See Jeanna’s comment.

  6. Jana@AnAttitudeAdjustment Says:

    Gale, this whole issue gets my blood pressure worked up. I have to stay away from it mostly, because it’s not good for my health. It seems obvious to me that the Republicans are trying to gain power and they are playing dirty games–sneaking and lying–in order to get there. This discussion is much less about justice and more about carrying out a vendetta. And even under that, it’s about maintaining power for the old white men with bad hair who benefit from traditional standards and stereotypes that we’ve tried to conquer with progressive movements. This situation is similar to trying to take away collective bargaining rights so rich men can get more profit at the expense of American worker. I just hope they continue to dig their own party’s grave. (Sorry–I don’t suspect you were expecting all this venom.)

  7. Gale Says:

    Jana – When I post on controversial topics like this I take two risks. One is that people won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole (which is mostly what’s happened today, and which is totally fine). The other is that I’ll really strike a nerve and people will respond vehemently (which is also fine). There are obviously huge political angles to any situation like this and I don’t claim to know the ins and outs of it all. But this legislation has been presented in the media as an opportunity for people to murder abortionists (despite the fact that, as Jeanna pointed out, that wasn’t its original intent). That doesn’t sit right with me for all the reasons I explained in my post. I can’t understand where murder is ever the answer to a difference of opinion. These are big issues that deserve real attention and thoughtful consideration. This legislation is not the answer.

  8. Anna Says:

    Gale, there is one line in particular in your post that is still hanging with me 24 hours after I originally read your post. You said, “I will assume that your position is well-thought-out and private”. It’s the well-thought-out part that really gets me.
    Isn’t this legislation a good example of something not well-thought-out? I don’t think many people would disagree that a woman should be able to defend her unborn child, but clearly the way this legislation was written, it can do far more than that. These ARE real issues that deserve thoughtful consideration, not the knee-jerk reactions that people spew out and the media laps up.
    Sorry for the soapbox, between this and the Westboro Baptist Church, I’m really wishing we had less yelling and more conversations such as you have provided.

  9. Gale Says:

    Anna – You’re right. This legislation is the political version of a shouting match, where no one actually gets heard, no one actually considers the other side, and nothing actually gets done. My comment about positions being well though out was directed more at the pro-life vs. pro-choice issues itself. I wanted to clarify that I wasn’t writing about one platform being better than another and didn’t want readers to think I was. If someone is pro-life, as long as their decision to take that stance has been thoughtfully considered and is consistent, then I have to respect that. Same goes for pro-choice. (This is actually one area where the Catholic church gets it right. They believe all life is sacred and apply that belief across the board – no abortion, no capital punishment, etc.) This legislation, on the other hand, isn’t just about pro-life vs. pro-choice. It takes the whole issue (which is hard enough on its own) and goes right down the rabbit hole with it.

  10. Jeanna Says:

    Like Anna, this post and comments have really stuck with me so I had to check back. And it’s not the topics that have me bothered. It’s the misunderstanding that I see occurring based on what people hear, rather than the facts.

    From everything that I understand (as someone that is not an attorney), self-defense can only be claimed when a person is in imminent danger and has no method of escape. You can’t claim self-defense after the fact once the attacker is retreating or has already retreated. And you can’t pre-meditate an attack in anticipation of an attack by someone else and call it self-defense.

    Therefore I see no way that someone could kill an abortion doctor and call it self-defense unless they are being forced into the abortion and the doctor is killed during the abortion procedure. There is nothing in the proposed legislation that says you can kill an abortion doctor. Self-defense cannot occur before or after an attack, only during. Otherwise it’s just plain murder.

    I just want the public to actually read the legislation (it’s on the internet) before forming an opinion based on what the media says. The media allows stories to be spun for ratings, then people hear the spin and things get blown out of proportion.

    And maybe some crazy kook will murder an abortion doctor and try to claim self-defense, but I really can’t see it getting very far except in the media. Then everyone will be up in arms and never hear about the fact that the crazy person was eventually convicted of murder.

  11. BigLittleWolf Says:

    When I saw that particular item in the news, I did a double take. There is no logic to it. No matter how you feel about abortion, I don’t understand how it “justifies” murdering the physicians who perform the procedure.

    Termination is termination, no?