Editors' note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to ask@thegospelcoalition.org along with your full name, city, and state. We'll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition's Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Dennis E. writes:

On Twitter, Jill Filipovi, a columnist at The Guardian and the former senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine, wrote:

If you actually believe abortion is legal mass murder on par with the Holocaust, then how is it 100% wrong to kill abortion providers? Answer: most prolifers don't even believe their own claims and don't think abortion is quite the same as murder. Because it's not. 

I know we're supposed to be quick to say that killing an abortionist is as much a murder as the abortion itself, but this question bothers me. And I'm not sure how to give it a solid answer. 

We posed this question to TGC editor Joe Carter.


Since abortion was legalized in the United States in 1973, those of us in the pro-life community have been called upon to respond to this charge that we are inconsistent. But is it really inconsistent to think that premeditated homicide is not the moral response to mass murder? If not, how should we answer such charges?

The first, and most obvious, point is that some pro-lifers are pacifists. Because they believe it is morally wrong to resort to violence—even to prevent murder—they are being consistent when they also reject the killing of abortionists.

Most pro-lifers are not pacifists and yet still think it is illicit to kill abortion providers. Our reasons for doing are often varied and complex, making a general justification of our position difficult. To rebut the charge of inconsistency, though, we need merely to provide a single acceptable rationale to serve as a defeater.

We could attempt to base our argument on the claim that it would always be morally wrong to kill abortionists. However, such an argument would likely be overly complicated and technical. Also, because many pro-lifers would not agree with the main premise, the lack of broad-based support would make it susceptible to dismissal by our critics. Instead of taking that approach, it’s easier and more effective to start with the assumption that it may sometimes be morally licit to use violence to stop those who kill unborn children.

If pro-lifers believe abortion is legal mass murder on par with genocide or the Holocaust (and most of us do), then the question becomes, “When it is morally justified to use violence against all abortionists to prevent the mass killing of the unborn?”

Just Warfare and Abortion

The reason this question simplifies the issue is because Christians have attempted to answer that type of question for more than a thousand years. The question takes a form that is common in considerations of the just war tradition: “When is it morally justified to use violence against Group A (e.g., abortionists) to prevent the killing of Group B (e.g., unborn children)?”

Over the centuries Christians have tended to agree that five criteria need to be met before for engaging in violent conflict against one group to protect another. The criteria for jus ad bellum (justice toward war) are: (1) proper authority, (2) just cause, (3) right intention, (4) war as the only way to right the wrong, and (5) reasonable hope of success. (For the sake of simplicity, we’ll assume that we have already met #2 and #3 and focus solely on the remaining three criteria.)

(1) Proper authority — Almost all Christians agree that the proper authority to engage in warfare is the sovereign leader or leaders of a country. Since the New Testament era it has been recognized that the use of violence for the purposes of bringing justice is reserved for governing authorities. As the apostle Paul said,

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for she is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. (Romans 13:1-5)

In the United States, we have a range of leaders—from the local to the federal level—who are tasked with “bearing the sword” (primarily through law enforcement and the military) to enact justice and protect the lives of others. We are not allowed to take the law into our own hands and be an “avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.” Even if we were inclined to play the role of vigilante, pro-lifers simply do not have the proper moral authority to engage in warfare against abortionists.

(4) War as the only way to right the wrong — While we may sometimes grow discouraged, most pro-lifers have not given up on peaceful means to end the legal killing of the unborn. Even if we thought we met the criterion of proper authority, most of us would still believe it would be premature to resort to violence to right the wrong of abortion.

(5) Reasonable hope of success — Even if a radicalized pro-life Christian were deluded into thinking they themselves are the “proper authority,” and even if they think that war against abortion providers is the only way to right the wrong, they may still have reason to think there would be no “reasonable hope” that their violent efforts would accomplish their objective. 

The use of violence against abortionists is markedly different from some other situations where it might be justified to kill a person to save the life of a child. Take, for example, the case of an active shooter in an elementary school who has killed several kids and threatens dozens more. If you kill the shooter, the threat is neutralized and no other children will suffer. However, if you kill an abortionist the mother can simply find someone else to murder the child. “Abortion is murder; the placement of the unborn life doesn’t change that,” Kevin DeYoung says. “But the placement of the unborn life does change what we can do about it.” 

As experience has shown, the killing of individual abortionists is ineffectual; there is no evidence that murdering abortion providers has prevented the killing of any unborn children, nor is there any reasonable assumption that it would ever do so. The lack of any “reasonable hope of sucess” thereby negates any moral justification for engaging in violence against abortionists.

By examining the issue through the framework of just war theory we find that even if we begin with the assumption that it may sometimes be morally licit to use violence to stop those who kill unborn children, the conclusion most pro-life Christians would draw is that it would be immoral to kill abortionists to prevent them from engaging in the murder of the unborn. There is therefore no inconsistency in Christians believing both that abortion is murder and that murdering the abortionist is not a proper pro-life response.

Other Resources: 

The Struggle Against Abortion: Why the Use of Lethal Force is Not Morally Justifiable” in the Nashville Declaration of Conscience

Killing Abortionists: A Symposium, First Things