Why Pro-Life and Pro-Animal Violence Are Immoral


When I have conversations with people about “pro-life” violence or “pro-life” killing, I typically—though not invariably—hear that such an idea represents a contradiction in terms. I hear the same with regard to pro-animal violence against humans. Since the people who perform abortions are themselves a form of human “life” and since humans are a kind of animal, it seems to many hypocritical for anyone to view as permissible the killing of a doctor who runs an abortion clinic or the attempt to frighten scientists who work at an animal research facility. I ultimately agree with this conclusion, but for somewhat more complicated reasons. In this column, I will consider the moral status of perpetrating violence as a means of protecting unborn humans and nonhuman animals from violence.

Actual Violence

Only a tiny minority of people involved in the two movements perpetrate violence in furtherance of their respective causes. Acts of killing or near-killing are, to my knowledge, virtually unheard of in the animal rights community, which is generally an extremely peaceful group. Pro-life violence, though rare, has happened, and we know of cases in which pro-life activists have actually ended the lives of abortion providers, including Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola, Florida, and Dr. George Tiller of Wichita, Kansas. And just recently, a string of arson attacks at Planned Parenthood clinics across the country have placed pro-life violence in the news again. The people engaging in these acts of violence against abortion providers almost certainly viewed themselves as acting righteously and morally, so it is worth considering how they could have thought so.

In early 2016, Columbia University Press will be publishing Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights, a book I co-authored with fellow Verdict columnist Michael C. Dorf. We were recently invited to speak about the book at a law and philosophy colloquium held at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, and we chose to focus on two chapters of the book. One of the two was on the proper role—if any—of violence in promoting the objectives of either the pro-life or animal rights movements. This column is a very-much-abbreviated discussion of the themes found in the violence chapter.

The Argument for Violence (Which We Reject)

To argue past the paradox of “pro-life killing” or “anti-animal violence against human animals,” we ask the “extreme situations” question. If you found yourself in an extreme situation, one in which you could save your own life or the life of another entitled being (whether born, human, or neither) only through violence or killing or not at all, what would you do? One answer is that we cannot always predict what we would do in extremis and that whatever the answer might be should not provide a moral guide to anyone. In extreme starvation scenarios, people have been known to kill and eat other humans, yet few would suggest that this conduct provides moral lessons on how we ought generally to behave. When faced with imminent danger, we predictably do what we have to do to survive, morality be damned.

Still, there are situations when most people believe that violence or killing is not only understandable, foreseeable, and perhaps excusable but justifiable and morally correct as well. If you are walking down a street and happen upon a man beating a child to death with a baseball bat, you can—if necessary for rescuing the child—take out your own bat (or other weapon) and use it to kill the child’s assailant. Both law and conventional morality call your action the defense of others, a variant on self-defense, and we say that through his own murderous conduct posing a threat to the life of a child, the assailant may have forfeited his interest in avoiding your violence to the extent that such violence was necessary to end the threat that he posed to an innocent child.

To the extent that we regard such violence in defense of others (or self) as justified in these limited circumstances, a pro-life killer or a hypothetical killer in defense of an animal might ask why he or she may not invoke this principle as well. Why can’t he similarly take advantage of the right of self-defense and defense of others by killing the doctor who would otherwise kill innocent fetuses (shorthand for “zygotes, embryos, or fetuses”) or by killing the researcher who would otherwise perform torturous experiments on innocent animals and then kill those same animals afterwards?

Violence Is Not Necessary

The statement that violence is unnecessary to the task of rescuing human fetuses or nonhuman animals might seem fanciful. With over a million abortions and billions of animal slaughters happening each year, intervention could not be more necessary, so how can I maintain that violent intervention is unnecessary? I say so precisely because the violence is so pervasive.

Recall that my hypothetical case about self-defense or defense of others involves walking down the street and happening upon a murder in progress. To rescue the person attacked in that situation might truly require violence, but that is in part because murders in progress are, in ordinary times, an unusual phenomenon. By contrast, fetuses and especially animals are being killed quite regularly. One does not, then, “happen upon” the killing of a human fetus or animal so much as one chooses to go somewhere where such killings take place routinely (such as an abortion clinic, a laboratory, or a slaughterhouse).

In the law, going out and looking for a fight undermines one’s claim of a right to self-defense. This is in part because the choice to go looking for a fight entails another choice—not to attempt to address the violence that one expects to find in some other, peaceful way. In the case of animals and fetuses, the simple numerosity of victims means that one can make a choice between carrying out a rescue in a violent fashion or carrying out a different rescue in a nonviolent fashion. Selecting the former over the latter is accordingly not a choice that comes out of necessity but is instead a choice that emerges from a preference for the violent over the nonviolent means.

Other Choices

The person spending time in prison for killing an abortion doctor might be expected to ask how he could possibly have saved as many fetuses through non-violent means as he did through committing the homicide that he committed. My answer would be that there are many pregnant women contemplating abortion who might be open to his message that it is morally better to take one’s pregnancy to term than to terminate it in abortion. He can offer people education, and he can even collect and supply funding for the women who would be choosing to remain pregnant if only they could afford to take care of another child. That is, a pro-life activist has a large potential audience of people through whom he can bring about the rescue of fetuses that would otherwise die in abortion. Moreover, he can—if he is not opposed to birth control (as addressed in my last column)—help collect funding for contraception to prevent pregnancies likely to end in abortion from coming into being in the first place.

For someone who wishes to rescue animals, the nonviolent choices may be even more extensive. One can, first, consume only vegan products oneself and thereby spare the animals who would have been hurt and killed to supply one’s own consumption habits. It would indeed be difficult to take seriously a moral argument for the defensibility of interventional violence coming from the mouth of someone who is himself or herself participating in animal exploitation.

Next, one can rescue animals from the many places where they wait to be rescued. One can visit a shelter and adopt an animal, and if one is able, then one can go to a livestock auction and take in animals from dead piles (where some of the animals, though discarded as garbage, are still alive). Alternatively, one can travel to a farm sanctuary and offer to help care for one of the rescued animals there, either through money or through actual adoption, thus opening up the sanctuary space for more new rescues. And last but not least, one can engage in vegan advocacy that has as its aim the education of people whose own values, when examined, support what vegans are actually doing—withdrawing from the violence involved in consuming the flesh, secretions, and skins of living, sentient beings.

Unnecessary and Therefore Immoral Violence

So long as people have peaceful choices about how to help vulnerable victims of violence, as those within both the pro-life and animal rights movements do, it is wrong for them to choose violence over the non-violent option. If one wanted to spend every waking moment of one’s life educating people about refraining from violence, there would be plenty to do without ever having to contemplate bringing death and destruction to another living being. This is true for both pro-life and animal rights activists. And given equally effective nonviolent choices, a violent choice responds to no imminent necessity and is accordingly immoral.