Death’s Hand on the Tiller

Flannery O’Connor couldn’t have written it better, although she would have found a way to make it funny: A wealthy abortionist, who specializes in the destruction of children exactly as old and fully developed as those you see doctors saving in the preemie ward, stays out of prison for his activities thanks to a technicality at trial. Although he has been shot twice in his arms by misguided pro-lifers trying to stop his medical practice with “minimal force,” he soldiers on heroically for years, as Rod Dreher writes, “putting scissors into the brains of partially-born babies and sucking their brains out.” He lasts long enough to see his political patron, the state’s Catholic governor, get appointed the nation’s healthcare czar with the backing of a local Catholic convert senator, by a president who won the majority of the Catholic vote and did a star turn collecting an honorary doctorate from Notre Dame — with the seeming approval of the editor of L’Osservatore Romano.
Things are looking pretty good for Dr. George Tiller, and he goes to his local house of worship to thank his particular god for the triumph of moral sanity in this country. Then someone bursts in with a gun and shoots him down right in front of his family and the entire congregation, someone who turns out to be a longtime schizophrenic with flimsy ties to the uttermost fringe of the pro-life movement, whose obsession is waging an anarchist war against the “tyrannical” U.S. government. The group with which the apparent assassin, Scott Roeder, 51, had kept some connection was, according to LifeSiteNews, “the so-called Army of God, a group that advocates domestic terror, violence, and murder against abortion facilities and those who work there.” To find an equivalently outlaw and irrelevant pro-choice organization, you’d have to turn to the Church of Euthanasia — a group led by the flamboyant transvestite Chris Korda, which celebrates abortion along with pandemics, natural disasters, and the deaths on 9/11, since they cull the “dangerously high” human population. (Check out its home page for an image of Korda licking the World Trade Center tower as one of the high-jacked planes plows into the side. Is this the face of pro-choice America? Maybe it’s time we started insisting it really is.)
We shouldn’t be surprised to see that pro-choice commentators are moving already to turn last week’s snuff farce into a morality play, whose take-away message is that the pro-life movement is to blame for Tiller’s death. (Give him time, and Stephen Spielberg will make a three-hour epic called Tiller’s Gift, starring Tom Hanks as the man with the healing hands.) A powerful, mainstream Democratic Party Web site,, published on May 31 a column that blames the death of Tiller on the simple fact that pro-lifers accurately describe what happens in the course of an abortion. As the anonymous blogger writes:
Ever since the Roe v Wade decision by the Supreme Court made abortion safe and legal the nation has endured an endless, vitriolic campaign of harrassment [sic]led by the Roman Catholic Church and Fundamentalist Protestants. This is an indisputable fact. For decades these institutions have drilled into the heads of their flocks that those who participate in any way in any abortion are “murderers” and “baby killers”. This would include the the [sic] mothers as well as the doctors and all the other healthcare workers involved. They founded the anti-abortion movement, they have grown it, they have taken credit for it, they have led it, they have exhorted it, they have driven it, they have funded it, they have been responsible for continuing it long after the legal question was decided and put to rest for the vast majority of our people — even those who so blindly follow them.
They have harrassed [sic] doctors, nurses, pregnant women and anyone else who happened to have business in any office or building that provided abortion services or even advice about where to find abortion services. Gore drenched pictures of mangled fetuses in garbage pales, swastikas, and all manner of shrill visual and audio props have been shoved in the faces of any passers by and those who enter the buildings housing such offices. These props (provided by the religiously motivated opposition to abortion) are used by misguided zealots whose hearts and minds are often filled with so much love for Jesus and the unborn that they lose sight of any boundaries of propriety in their behavior and their obsessive harrassment [sic] of people who are seeking help for a legal and safe medical procedure. More than once this zealotry has turned criminally violent. These narrow-minded mobs never tire of hurling invectives and the worst sorts of bile at anyone or any institution that is connected in any way to an abortion provider.
Now the spelling and grammar errors above indicate that this is not the work of the finest minds in the Democratic Party. Instead it’s a trial balloon, a little Hindenburg sent over to explode above our heads and see how much shrapnel we will take.
More dangerous to the cause of life than rants like this are statements and actions by Christians asserting that pro-life speech is inherently deadly — and so must in the end be regulated, as speech is ever more tightly controlled in Canada and Great Britain. Rod Dreher has already said all that needs to be said about the service held in a Boston Episcopal church denouncing pro-lifers and celebrating Tiller’s medical practice. Dreher mentions Moloch — the ancient pagan god of infant sacrifice. Oops! Rod’s speech right there might have been inflammatory, so let me try that again in Anglo-Canadian: “Moloch, the pre-Christian god of reproductive health care services.” St. George Orwell, ora pro nobis.
Having spent an afternoon this week praying with an Anglican curate in Westminster Abbey at the tomb of St. Edward the Confessor, I’ll refrain from cracking wise about the state of the Episcopalians. Reading excerpts from Archbishop Weakland’s puling memoirs I’m forced to say, “There but for the writers of The Wanderer went we.”
More sickening and surprising than the rites of Boston druids was the response of Franky Schaeffer, whose pro-life book A Modest Proposal I read as a teenager. Schaeffer writes today:
My late father and I share part of the blame for the murder of Dr. George Tiller, the abortion doctor gunned down on Sunday. Until I got out of the religious right (in the mid-1980s) and repented of my former hate-filled rhetoric, I was both a leader of the so-called pro-life movement and a part of a Republican Party hate machine masquerading as the moral conscience of America.
One needn’t read any further to get Schaeffer’s drift: “Hey, NPR listeners out there! I’ve reinvented myself, as you can read in my prominently plugged new book, Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (Or Atheism).” Schaeffer’s column reminded me vividly of the anger provoked in me by his “hate-filled” book: I was angry because it wasn’t better written, and hated slogging through it.
But there is a serious point that nestles here behind all the bull-hockey and fulminations: If we as pro-lifers really believe that a million or so American children are being murdered every year, why don’t we do something about it directly? We rightly use metaphors recalling the Holocaust, U.S. chattel slavery, and other atrocious assaults on human dignity — and if we think those through, we will remember that they were ended not by pacifist prayer chains but armies in battle. People who say that “violence never solves anything” should come to Germany, where I’m staying this week. The flags here are different than they were in 1945, and my father who served under Patton that year said that the transition wasn’t seamless.
Like 99.9 percent of pro-lifers, I do not advocate the use of armed force to end abortion today. But I want to be clear about why.It’s not because the use of force is wrong; it isn’t. When Gandhi told Jews to employ non-violent resistance against the Germans, he proved himself an ass. Non-violence worked against the British because that empire was possessed of two things that didn’t exist in Germany: a strong moral conscience and an open-minded press.
Likewise, the American Civil Rights movement could count on the Christian conscience of most Americans and, equally importantly, sympathetic newspapers and TV stations outside the South. The good people (and several of them are friends of mine) who were leaders in Operation Rescue looked to Martin Luther King Jr. as the model for ending the scourge of abortion. Surely, they said, the sight of non-violent Americans going to jail by the tens of thousands would waken America’s conscience . . .
Except that the (90 percent plus) pro-choice media made sure no one ever saw them — or worse, that they only saw the occasional fruitcake using a bullhorn to shout in a pregnant woman’s face. They didn’t see the samizdat videos of cops in West Hartford, Connecticut, hitting old ladies with billy clubs, or L.A. police using martial arts weapons to break the wrists of teenagers. And apart from YouTube, no one ever will. If the national media through the 1950s and 1960s had been at the hands of segregationists, Bull Connor might have enjoyed such a triumphant Viking funeral as surely awaits George Tiller.
The reason it’s wrong to kill abortionists is that it is an act of war, and one that does not meet the conditions for a Just War.When the State allows an activity, and you use force to prevent it, you are declaring war on the State — as surely as early Christians would have been doing if they used force to free their co-religionists from the Coliseum, or free Roman slaves from the mines or prostitution. None of which, students of history will know, early Christians actually did. This wasn’t because they were pacifists; many Christians served in the Roman armies, such as that patron of soldiers St. Sebastian. Some early version of the Just War theory finally formulated (not invented) by St. Augustine was surely at work. That Just War theory found in Augustine’s writings still binds us today — albeit with certain adjustments and clarifications to cover cases of legitimate revolt against a tyranny, and speculations by the likes of Robert Bellarmine on the rightness or wrongness of killing tyrants.
If, by engaging in organized violence to save lives left unprotected by the State, one is indeed declaring war upon that State, the conditions of Just War teaching must be met — or else you are nothing more than a terrorist, an irresponsible person (like poor, deluded Guy Fawkes) whose actions will do nothing more than encourage a persecution of the Church.
What are the conditions for a war (in this case, a revolution) to be just? You can read them in detail here, but central to them are:
A just cause, defending the innocent from attack. (Check.)
A situation that long experience has shown cannot be resolved by peaceful means. (Not yet, not by any means; impatience with rejiggering the Supreme Court doesn’t equal the presence of the Gestapo.)
An evil proportionate to the evils that will come from war. (Not clear at all; see the horrors of the civil strife in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Bosnia, Palestine — are we ready to inflict all that upon our neighbors?)
A reasonable chance of success. (Would a civil war launched by orthodox Christians against America’s secular regime end in a just peace that preserved innocent lives? Or millions of dead, and a de-Christianized America? Would “winning” even be worth it — given what happened to the Church in Spain shortly after the “friendly” regime installed by Franco passed from the stage — when Catholics were tarred, rightly or wrongly, with all the crimes of the victors?)
As the soul is more significant than the body, the Church’s mission of preaching the gospel and administering the Sacraments is more important even than saving innocent lives. Pope Pius XII knew that and acted accordingly, trying to save as many innocent Jews and others as he could without depriving millions of souls of the Sacraments. He paid for his decision with his reputation — a price I am sure he would pay again.
This price of patience, of painful solidarity with the suffering and grim, tedious activism in the face of apparent futility, is the cross we must carry today. Instead of dying nobly (much less killing) for a cause, we are called to live and suffer for it humbly — each in our various ways. As time goes on, as more madmen take it upon themselves to execute mass-murderers like George Tiller, the State they are provoking will respond with increasing force. Pro-lifers who stay faithful to Just War teaching, and live within the law while fighting to change it, will pay the price. Some of us may end in jail, like the good Joan Andrews. If matters escalate into a full-scale persecution, such as happened in Mexico, there may well come a time when we are called on to act like the Cristeros, to make the bitter choice of accepting civil war instead of tyranny.
But let us remember the awful price exacted by any such war, and consider it truly the bitter last resort. As Pope John Paul II repeatedly and rightly said: “No more war, never again!” He spoke as a citizen of Poland, a land where one out of every four human beings perished in World War II, where Nazi conquerors established Auschwitz, and Soviet liberators perpetrated the massacre at Katyn. His voice was born not of naiveté but of memory — which is always the enemy of extremism.
No doubt we are called on to pray for the soul of Dr. George Tiller. Myself, I’m a little bit more concerned for Franky Schaeffer’s.

John Zmirak is author, most recently, of the graphic novel The Grand Inquisitor and is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. He writes weekly for


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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