Law in Contemporary Society

Investigating the Devils We Know

-- By PaulinaSalmas - 16 May 2010

Popular response to the stories of John Brown and Joseph Stack illustrate how easy it is to focus so narrowly on immorality of killing that the context in which the killer acted is ignored. When a person dies, the killer is often vilified as a soulless demon; entire news shows are devoted to this theme. In abortion-related killings, this stigma is particularly dangerous because it conceals the otherwise innocuous factors that contributed to the crime.

In 2009, Scott Roeder murdered abortion doctor George Tiller, believing that the killing might save some of the approximately 820,000 “preborn children” (as Roeder referred to them) that are aborted every year. It was not the devil that provoked Roeder to kill, though this is the conclusion that other pro-life activists, discomfited by the violence, would endorse. Rather, Roeder was simply bringing pro-life rhetoric to its logical conclusion. Pro-life activists sentimentalize the unborn until, according to their mythology, a torpid, globular fetus is the equivalent of a plump, beatific infant. The abortion procedure is similarly embellished: this miracle creature is ripped from the womb by sadistic doctors that torture it to death as it gasps for air. To pro-lifers, abortion is war, holocaust, and genocide committed on defenseless infants. Surely, from this point of view, a person that attempts to stop such a widespread murder of innocents should be hailed as a hero. Pro-lifers have constructed a rhetorical platform based on the idea that abortion is murder. From there, righteous homicide is only a step away. Because Tiller performed late-term abortions using procedures that , his practice fit neatly into the pro-life narrative.

Like Stack, Roeder became affiliated with a group whose message misled him (perhaps coincidentally, Roeder also attempted to avoid paying his taxes on Constitutional grounds). Demonizing Roeder for Tiller’s death absolves more moderate pro-life activists of responsibility. Though they argue that abortion is murder and that fetuses are children, most pro-lifers do not know how to translate these supposed truths into criminal law. A woman that conspired with a doctor to murder her five-year-old would be universally condemned, but most pro-lifers are unsure of how to punish a woman that elects to have an abortion. This is because pro-lifers’ conception of abortion’s immorality cannot keep pace with the direness of their rhetoric. The average pro-life stance rests on a sentimental conception of fetuses, distrust of female sexual autonomy, and perhaps a little religious fervor. This translates into a general feeling that abortion is wrong, but it does not carry most pro-lifers to the conclusion that women who seek abortions should receive a jail sentence, let alone that their doctors should be executed. However, Roeder took the message at face value and carried out the justice that he believed the law could not. Instead of stigmatizing Roeder as a criminal anomaly and allowing moderate pro-lifers to distance themselves from his actions, we should recognize how similar his beliefs are to the mainstream movement. If pro-lifers cannot wholly endorse Roeder’s actions, they need to abandon the dramatic rhetoric that declares that abortion is murder. Absent this rationale, pro-lifers will be forced to examine what truly motives their beliefs.

Recently, a seventeen-year-old paid a man $150 to beat her because she wanted to miscarry. Instead of inquiring into the circumstances that made her feel that soliciting a beating from a stranger was her best option, many were outraged that there was no law under which she could be convicted. That was remedied when the governor of Utah signed a bill that allows pregnant women who arrange illegal abortions to be charged with homicide.

Perhaps the woman that inspired this bill was a selfish sadomasochist that enjoyed her fetus’s suffering. However, it is more likely that, unable to secure the parental consent that is required in Utah for an abortion, she attempted to terminate her pregnancy in the only way her desperation suggested to her. It is also likely that she became pregnant in the first place because she was uninformed about contraception due to the abstinence-only education that Utah mandates. Legal restrictions on sex education and access to abortion in Utah contributed to the situation that this woman found herself in. Creating exceptions to the parental notification law or introducing comprehensive sex education in schools would reduce these hurdles so that such a situation would be less likely to happen again. However, Rep. Carl Wimmer, after learning that the seventeen-year-old could not be punished under any existing law, instead introduced the abovementioned bill that would sentence future offenders to fifteen years to life. In an interview, he stated, “We should not make excuses for a woman who decides to beat her 7-month unborn child.”

By analogizing the illegal abortion to child abuse, Wimmer tapped into same narrative that the pro-life position in general thrives on: that fetuses are children and abortion is murder. This is likely intentional, considering that Wimmer is an opponent of abortion whose stated goal is to see Roe v. Wade overturned. But this kind of sentiment is immeasurably more harmful to both teenage girls and fetuses than it is to Roe. To peg the offender as a child abuser makes her actions seem alien, even though in a more humane, medical context what she was attempting would have been recognizable as an abortion and a legitimate exercise of her constitutional rights. Few people are willing to identify with a child abuser, but if people were willing to view her in a more compassionate light the flaws in the system that led her to the choice that she made would be better illuminated.

Barriers to abortion and sex education and the exaggeration of abortion’s moral import foment crimes like those described above. Stigmatizing the offenders as monstrous people whose murderous plans were concocted independently and not at all socially influenced does nothing to prevent the same crimes from occurring again.

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r5 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:14:24 - IanSullivan
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