The Tiller Murder

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By George Kane

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

On a Sunday morning at the end of May, Dr. George Tiller, who was well known as one of the few doctors in the country who performed late-term abortions, walked into Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita Kansas, which he had attended regularly for years. Inside the church, long-time anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder shot and killed him.

Many online abortion opponents could not conceal their delight with Roeder’s “street justice.” Dr. Tiller had also for years been the object of incendiary attacks from Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, which many blame for inciting Roeder to the murder. Abortion opponents rankle, of course, at the notion that they bear any responsibility for the criminal violence of extremists like Roeder. They point out that the mainline anti-abortion organizations denounced Dr. Tiller’s murder, and that few of them would ever engage in violence. Nevertheless, the argument on which religious opposition to abortion is always based, that abortion is murder, is inherently inflammatory. If they insist that Dr. Tiller committed hundreds of murders, they can hardly denounce his own murder as inappropriate or disproportionate punishment. Their arguments justify violating the law by appealing to a higher law.

An atheist’s position on abortion does not follow necessarily from disbelief in supernatural gods. Nevertheless, when a committee of the Board drafted our public policy positions last year, we decided that we had to include protection of reproductive choice among them. Although it might be possible to come up with purely secular arguments for opposing the legal right to abort one’s pregnancy, in fact the political movement to outlaw abortion consists of religious groups making religious arguments. In order to fight for the strict separation of church and state, we are forced to refute these arguments.

To assert that abortion is murder, abortion opponents have to identify the conceptus as a person. In the magical mind-set of religion, this is justified by asserting that God breathes a soul into a person at the moment of conception. To a nonreligious person it is counterintuitive, even comical, to call a fertilized egg a ‘person,’ like calling an acorn a tree. They will usually suggest some other medical event as the magic moment when ‘personhood’ arises. Court cases like Roe v. Wade and legislation usually point to calendar dates, while the more medically-minded will identify personhood with responsiveness to pain, brain-wave activity, or viability. Once it is admitted that abortion after a certain point is murder, the rhetorical task becomes much easier for the abortion opponent: he just needs to keep moving that date earlier. If abortion is murder after 24 weeks, why not 23? Why not 20? Why not one? If independent viability is the issue, advances in medical care are continuously bringing that date in. If in vitro gestation should ever become possible, would we have to move ‘personhood’ back to conception?

But this entire ‘magic moment’ form of argument is wrong because it mistakes ‘personhood’ for a medical state. Rather, it is actually a valuation – it is when we say to the offspring “we recognize you as one of us, and confer to you the same rights we recognize for each other.” So the real question is not “how do we identify when this medical moment of personhood appears,” but instead “how do we justify assigning personhood to this point in development rather than any other?”

The answer that you reach will depend on what you consider the source of moral value. As an atheist, of course I reject “divine declaration,” but I also reject as the basis for law moral judgments that are subjective or arbitrary. I reject as invalid, therefore, the argument made by showing supposed pictures of fetuses early in development and saying “Look, you can’t murder this! It’s too cute!”

I am a utilitarian, so I believe that law must be justified by promoting the greatest good for the greatest number. In utilitarian analysis we always have to take into account the effect of an action upon everyone affected by it. The problem becomes, when do we include the welfare of the fetus in this calculation? Once we do, then abortion is murder, and we cannot counterbalance an individual’s loss of life with any small benefit no matter how widely distributed. But that would be circular reasoning – assigning ‘personhood’ in order to determine when we should assign personhood. A consequential analysis is only possible if we decide when an abortion should be permissible by examining the consequences to society as a whole.

I think that the highest quality of life in America will be reached if the abortion decision is left to the woman, in consultation with her mate, her doctor, and her support group. Of course I could be wrong, but until I am shown that I am, I can only conclude that elective abortion should be legal.

To see the Minnesota Atheists’ public policy on reproductive rights, go to

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