Erik Larson

Nov 13, 2008

The Problem of Eric Rudolph

The supermax incarcerated abortion clinic bomber, in his words:

“I’m here today to be sentenced for my actions on January 29, 1998. On that date I detonated a bomb at an abortion mill here in Birmingham, killing the abortion mill’s security guard and injuring one of the abortion mill’s employees. I had nothing personal against either of these individuals, Sanderson and Lyons. I did not target them for who they were - but for what they did. What they did was participate in the murder and dismemberment of upwards of 50 children a week.”

“My actions that day were motivated by my recognition that abortion is murder. Because it is murder, I believe that deadly force is indeed justified in an attempt to stop it. I do not claim this as a right but rather consider it the moral duty to come to the defense of my fellow man when he is under attack. This is an essential concept embedded in Western Civilization - that we are our brother’s keeper.”

Crazy, of course. But from a philosophical standpoint, troubling. The problem is that his logic makes a certain sense, given the assumption that life begins at conception. Of course his violence is reprehensible , but it’s a troubling case, because his words are bluntly consistent, given a literal interpretation of life at conception. I think it’s his lunacy that ironically helps us search for sanity in the abortion debate. We’ll find the lunacy on the Pro-Choice side as well.

So here goes, let’s jump into abortion…

If life really begins at conception, isn’t then abortion really murder? Think it through. Pro Life proponents say it’s just so: life begins at conception. But they don’t really believe this, because even hard core Pro Life types tend to make exceptions (e.g., for victims of rape). But if it’s murder, it’s murder, whether the life began with an act such as rape or not. The rhetoric isn’t consistent with the policy. This is what I call the strange logic to Eric Rudolph, his (superficial) clarity. They kill defenseless persons. I kill them. He took the message on face value. Bully for consistency. But you’re still crazy, Mr. Rudolph. We don’t, in fact, treat a woman having an early stage abortion on a par with someone committing infanticide, or just killing someone else in the world. So something’s gone wrong. Rudolph was wrong.

Now Pro-Choice types have their own problem: if it’s just all about a woman’s right to choose, if the life or possible life of the fetus is trumped by a right to privacy (poof!, our Roe V. Wade result…), then why not partial birth abortions? Why get weak-kneed in the third trimester? It’s easy (and suspect) to say just that the right to privacy diminishes . Why? Because the cells in your body gained more mass? But why should this matter? Sounds like losing your nerve, mother-to-almost-be. Be strong. Privacy. Consistency. Eric-Rudolph-it.

Think of it this way, what’s really the difference between an organism (I use this “person neutral” language just to get at the point) that exists, one moment, in its mother, and the next minute, in the world? A few minutes? That’s the difference? What wonderous changes could have happened through the birth canal? C’mon. This too makes hardly any sense at all.

So, Pro Choicers supportive of third term procedures must, somehow, ignore weighty considerations of life, of human life, in their bodies. Strange that otherwise normal people can manage this particular moral magic trick. A judicially created right to privacy seems much too flimsy, obviously too flimsly, to cancel the empirically obvious fact of a human life. And their logic, like Mr. Rudolph’s, leads them quickly into troubling waters. If they see no problem with third trimester abortions (especially in cases where the fetus could live outside the womb, if delivered), they ought not to balk at infanticide, also. Because, again, what’s the difference? If the baby is alive now, the fetus was alive two minutes ago. (Running the argument the other way, if the fetus had no right to life a few minutes ago, how did the baby suddenly acquire it?)

Of course, the “infanticide” result is crazy too, just like Rudolph’s “abortion is murder” interpretation. So we’ve never figured out this debate. It’s horribly incomprehensible, when consistent, on both sides. Best left inconsistent? Hardly comforting.