Last spring, George Tiller was killed. (I was going to say murdered, or assassinated, but both of those are morally and legally weighted…) Tiller was one of a very small community of doctors in the US willing to give late-term abortions, and it was for this that he was shot. Scott Roeder is currently on trial for murder in connection to the killing. What’s interesting is that he has been told by the judge that he will be able to plead necessity.
According to the New York Times, Kansas law allows defendants to plead that a deliberate killing should be tried as voluntary manslaughter if the defendant has “an unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force”. The presiding judge has made it clear that he is unwilling to bar Roeder presenting arguments and evidence based on this notion during the trial – though he has stopped short of promising to allow them. Roeder’s defence – he doesn’t deny the killing – is that his hand was forced and that he was defending innocent lives. (See here for a report.)
It seems to me to be fairly straightforward to say that the protection of the innocent may mean we can violate or bend some of the rules of everyday conduct. For example, I’ve suggested elsewhere that if Smith and Jones work in a noisy factory, and if Smith is about to pull a lever that will result in Jones’ death, and if Smith cannot hear our warnings, we might be entitled to throw a stone or small bolt at him to distract him and stop him, even though we would not dream of throwing anything at him in any other circumstance.
So when examining Roeder’s action, we have to ask two questions: first, is the foetus really that important?; and, second, was his action proportionate? I’ll leave aside the first question, except to note that I tend to think that a termination of pregnancy is frequently, if not invariably, permissible (although also frequently, if not invariably, a matter of regret). But suppose I thought differently – that all ToP was a grievous wrong. Would that justify killing?
No matter how hard I try to put myself in the shoes of the anti-abortion lobby, I can’t make that leap. There seem to me to be far too many ways to stop a person performing ToP procedures that stop far short of killing, even though it’s possible that violence of some sort against persons or property might be permissible at times. Bluntly, it’d’ve been enough to shoot Tiller in the arm, or to pour sugar into his petrol tank, or something like that. Even if I strain my imagination and sympathetic capabilities to their limits, though, that’s as far as I can go.
I’m also puzzled by the Kansas statute. There’s a couple of oddities here. First, it’s strange to imagine that someone could stand up in court and say that, even though he believes that no reasonable person would find his action defensible, it is so anyway because he really believes it is. Second, if I’ve understood the law aright, it would seem positively to offer protection to the unreasonable. Indeed, it gives no incentive at all to people to examine their own motives, since that might undermine their ability to endorse their own actions and beliefs honestly. Strange stuff indeed.
UPDATE: The unreasonable-but-honest defence reminds me of something… something half-remembered… a sense of familiari…. AH-HA! Yes! It’s the Chewbacca Defence!