The Clinic Bombings: On “Pouncing” and Prudence

One of the choicer ironies to have surfaced lately in the abortion debate is this: Only the pro-life party, and not the pro-abortionists or their fellow-travelers, can explain why it’s wrong to blow up abortion clinics. The pro-abortionists can’t explain why it’s wrong because they can’t explain why anything is wrong. They have intellectually disarmed.

Pro-abortionists, you see, claim that one cannot distinguish between right and wrong for anyone but oneself. Abortion, as they explain it, may not be right for you, but you cannot legitimately make that judgment for anyone else. A wily Minnesotan has taken that moral reasoning seriously and in a few lines, deftly filleted that silly position: “Personally, I’m opposed to the bombing of abortion clinics, but I don’t want to impose my morality on anyone else.” How’ can pro-abortionists, given their brazenly asserted “Personally, I’m opposed” principle, justify imposing their moral judgments on other citizens who disagree with them and happen to express that disagreement in dynamite. Or aren’t pro-abortionists serious about being “pro-choice”?

Exquisitely futile, too, is the pro-abortionist complaint that violence against clinics should be deplored because it is, well, violent. Pro-abortionists are nonpareil practitioners of “solution by violence.” That is, after all, what an abortion is: a solution by violence. The conceptus, they tell us, is not a person; it is property. Should this particular kind of property become a problem, the solution is, variously, to scald, slice up or pull him (or her) apart. Nor are these “solutions” as comparatively rare as the two-dozen odd other attacks on property that so worry the defenders of abortion. Rather, their bloody “sad necessities” occur at the rate of 3 per minute, 1.5 million per year. How, one wonders, can the pro-abortionists seriously object when other citizens, also sadly no doubt, resolve to “solve” this problem of mass abortion by a similar resort to violence against property? Aren’t clinic bombings simply an uncomfortable application of their own principle of solution by violence?

The pro-abortionists; of course, faced now with opponents who reason as defectively as they, have been scurrying behind the law. Relativists in morals, they become positivists in practice. What is permissible, they hold, is whatever the law permits. As a placard at one of their rallies declared: “Abortion is legal; terrorism is not.” If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, his first refuge must surely be the law. The law, the pro-abortionists insist, must be obeyed.


Yet these are the same folks who warn of the carnage that will ensue should abortion once again be proscribed. Women, we are admonished, will break the law and at their peril procure abortions anyway. How, though, if right is determined by the positive law — that is, by humanly constructed rules — how will these lawbreakers differ from the lawbreakers who today are tossing incendiaries? Both, however sincere, violate the civil law. Yet surely no pro-abortionist would suggest that a woman who would secure an illegal abortion was acting immorally.

The pro-abortionists, of course, are merely selective relativists and positivists. They do believe in absolutes. They absolutely want what they want. To hell with consistency: What they want is the right to abortion. Their problem is that they can’t explain why anyone ought in justice to recognize that right. If tomorrow two or three personally opposed Justices really became personally opposed and joined with colleagues like Rehnquist and O’Connor in overturning Roe v. Wade, how many advocates of abortion on demand would believe that abortion, suddenly illegal, had also suddenly become immoral?

Ironically, only the pro-life party can explain why the bombings of abortion clinics ought to stop.

Pro-lifers insist on the distinction between the civil law and the moral law. The civil law is only law to the extent that it conforms to or at least does not violate the moral law. This moral law is not, as with the pro-abortionists, merely a matter of private sentiment or public statute; rather, the moral law is the natural law, which is the law of the Creator reflected in His creation. Man does not make this law, he discovers it. He discovers it, in discussion and debate with his fellows, by reflecting on what he is and what he was made for. Pro-lifers will concede that, as a matter of prudence, not everything that violates the moral law ought also to be illegal. The civil law, though, may not attempt to permit or to protect actions that grievously violate basic human rights of persons. To the extent that civil laws permit or protect grievous violations of natural rights of persons, those civil laws are unjust laws and must be opposed. Opposition to them, though, can take a variety of forms. Can one of those forms be the bombing of abortion clinics?

Pro-lifers insist that the bombing of abortion clinics is indeed wrong, but not wrong in the same sense that abortion is wrong. Abortion is an attack on the natural right to life of identifiable human individuals. Like rape or child molestation, abortion is intrinsically wrong, wrong because of what it is. No circumstance could ever make it right. Thus no civil law may ever permit it or protect it. Such a civil law, in fact, is no law precisely because law derives its authority solely from its conformity to the natural law, not from its being proclaimed in the proper way by the proper “authorities.”

Similarly, laws which protect facilities that attack basic human goods, such as life, are no laws. To violate such unjust laws is not intrinsically wrong; rather, it is what such laws permit or protect that is intrinsically wrong. But the violation of unjust civil laws can be prudentially wrong, that is, wrong according to circumstances.

Violence against abortion clinics is prudentially wrong. To oppose evil, or, as Aquinas graphically phrased it, to “pounce upon” it, can be an act of heroism. Such pouncing, though, can also be an act of stupidity. It depends upon the circumstances, and the circumstances of 1985 America counsel against violence in the struggle for justice for the unborn.

First, private individuals who oppose abortion do not have, in today’s circumstances, sufficient reason to act beyond the civil law, at least in a violent way. Blowing up an abortion clinic is not like blowing up a train carrying cyanide pellets to Auschwitz. Yes, abortion clinics are the places where doctors coldly slice up innocent human beings. But we do not live in a totalitarian society where all or even most political and moral recourse against this evil has been exhausted. In fact, the case is quite the opposite. Canny political observers such as Charles Rice believe we have this year an excellent chance of passing a good Human Life Bill. Soon, too, Dr. Rice tells us, there will be in operation more pro-life pregnancy counseling and assistance centers than abortion clinics. The tide may well be turning. What was permitted von Stauffenberg and his colleagues in their desperate situation is not permitted to us.

Second, clinic bombers, however well-meaning they may be, contribute to the dissolution of the moral community by helping perpetuate the delusion that whenever private individuals disagree with a law they become automatically empowered to disobey that law. What should be the exception becomes increasingly the norm. Civil order is a fragile construct. Any resort to violence against even unjust civil laws represents a grave decision. It is the sort, of course, that ought only to be followed by individuals capable of nuanced moral reasoning, after serious deliberation and after all other means of redress have been tried and exhausted. We must take care to be as concerned with preserving our constitutional order and our traditions of moderation and decency — the concrete guarantors of our human rights — as we are with overturning unjust laws. How we achieve our ends is as important as what we achieve.

Finally, the American people, that majority we must seek to convince, are repelled by extremism. They instinctively — and rightly — reject the notion that 1985 America, for all its manifest wickedness, is like 1944 Germany. Any pro-lifer who becomes an apologist for violence against property risks muddling the real issue for these folks. Americans are a people of wholesome sentiments but sometimes blurry reasoning. Despite the powerful sanction of the positive law, they are coming to see what Geraldo Rivera saw the other night on 20/20: That those two-month-old “blobs of tissue” have arms and legs and suck their thumbs and are not blobs of tissue but are precisely what noisy pro-lifers have been insisting for years — unborn babies. Pro-lifers ought riot to do anything that would obscure for that growing majority who the violent ones in this debate really are.

Robert L. Houbeck, Jr.


In 1985, Robert L. Houbeck, Jr. was a librarian at the University of Michigan, where he was also working on a doctorate in European history.