Just War and Abortion Mill Shootings

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Painting of the Battle of Grunwald by Jan Matejko.

The recent shootout which took place near and then inside of a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs is of course a tragedy. It has been fairly widely condemned by pro-life leaders—as it should be. And while there seems to be some discrepancies in the narrative [1], the fact that there have in the past been both indiscriminate shootings of abortion mills and targeted assassinations of abortionists has made this a topic of some interest to the pro-life community.

In particular, the question has arisen as to whether (and how) such shootings fall astray of just war theory or for that matter of simple “self-defense” extended to defending others. Just war theory, as expounded by St. Thomas Aquinas [2], gives us three criteria which must necessarily be met before entering a war:

1. Proper authority: war is to be declared by the ruling body, not private individuals, “For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. Moreover it is not the business of a private individual to summon together the people, which has to be done in wartime. And as the care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city, kingdom or province subject to them” (ST II-II.40.1).
2. Just cause: those whom the war is waged against must be in the wrong in such a way that they are causing harm to those who declare war. “A just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault” (ibid). This means essentially that those who are being attacked must have gravely wronged those who are doing the attacking, and then refused to repent and make restoration for those wrongs.
3. Rightful intention: the wrongs committed by those against whom war is to be declared cannot use those wrongs as a pretext for attack. “It is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil…For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention” (ibid.). A harms B, and so B (justly) declares war on A—but the war becomes unjust if B decides to harm A for the sake of revenge, or old hatreds, or for sport.

A fourth criterion may be added to these, namely that war is the last resort:

4. Last resort: all other possibilities for resolution have been attempted. “War is morally permissible only when no other means to achieving the Just Cause is possible. This means that the nation considering war has exhausted all potential solutions, including political and diplomatic. This condition seems to mitigate against the national pride that sometimes leads to war as the resort of choice. A nation may have to compromise and negotiate to win solution short of war. But at least, the condition of last resort requires that political and diplomatic approaches to a solution have been fully attempted.” Note that this criterion is somewhat implicit in the criterion of rightful intention.

Once war has been declared, there are three more rules which should be followed if the war is to be waged justly:

1. Discrimination: A distinction must be made between combatants and non-combatants. Special care sould be taken to avoid where possible inflicting casualties onto non-combatants.
2. Proportionality: This is related to discrimination, but it basically means tat the damage inflicted and the costs incurred should be proportionate to the good to be obtained (or the evil to be deterred) by the war.
3. Reasonable expectation of success: If there is no hope of success by arms, then war should be avoided. This is largely to avoid inflicting wanton damage while accomplishing nothing. War is unpredictable, and so this criterion is often one of the more difficult to establish. As the Catholic Answers article on “Just War Doctrine” notes, “Because it is impossible to guarantee the outcome of an event as chaotic and destabilizing as war, all that is required for this condition is that there be a substantial possibility of success.”

On a smaller scale, these might also be taken as a guide for when (and to what extent) violence is permissible in defense of life and limb.

This brings me back to the question at hand: is such violence as abortion-mill shootings or targeted assassinations permitted under just war theory? I answer that it is not. For one thing, the individuals who perpetrate such crimes are not competent authorities to do this; we have redress to the courts, however corrupt they may be, and to the legislatures; and we may work to change society, but we are not each an authority to decide upon this course of action.

Suppose for the sake of argument that we are competent—perhaps under some rubric of “self-defense’ or “defense of innocent life.” Are the other criteria then met? I answer that they are not. Granting that the unborn are also human persons, their lives do matter and should be defended: then there is just cause. But the other side of this coin is just intention, namely that these actions would prevent abortions from taking place. It is possible that some such shooters do have this as their sole intention—but many of the angry calls for assassination or screed written in pre-meditation of the deed betray darker motives.

Police Officer Garret Swasey, who lost his life during the shooting.

In this most recent shooting, it is obvious that no discrimination was made between “combatant” and “non-combatant” [3]—if we grant the assumption that “combatants” are active aggressors (e.g. the abortionist [4]). Nor was there any sense of proportionality involved (there generally isn’t with these). Certainly there is no way to discriminate between an abortionists who will commit more abortions and a person like Abby Johnson or Bernard Nathanson who is on the cusp of repentance and conversion. Nor does it make sense to target a pregnant woman who is procuring an abortion, in the name of saving her child!

Moreover, there is no reasonable chance of success in these actions. In this particular incident, the abortion mill will be shut down for a day or two, and then open for business. Some abortions were perhaps delayed a bit, but few if any were postponed indefinitely. There will always be many more women who choose abortion so long as there is no change in the culture (and these acts of violence do not precipitate such change), or so long as they are led to believe that there are no other choices. There will always be one more practitioner willing to ply his trade in death so long as there is money to be made (and making the job a more hazardous one certainly tends to enable those willing to engage in it to make more money). Thus, these act of violence against abortionists and abortion mills have no reasonable chance of success, but rather serve only to proliferate violence and death. They can end the atrocity of abortion only by engaging in the atrocity of mass-murder, and so they fail the criteria of proportionality as well.

Finally, these are hardly a last resort. There are a variety of things which we can do to fight the culture of death without engaging in violence. Here area few things which we actually can do, and which have found varying degrees of success:

  • Contribute (time, talent, and/or treasure) to a crisis pregnancy center
  • Contribute to the various maternity homes which house young women who are pregnant and who have nowhere else to live
  • Contribute to charitable organizations which specialize in providing for those in need (Saint Vincent de Paul and the local food pantry are good options, as are the Knights of Columbus)
  • Contribute to a baby bank, which provides for the needs of a baby and his or her mother
  • Peacefully protest in front of an abortion clinic.
  • Work to elect pro-life statesmen when possible; this takes discernment, as a number of politicians who claim to be pro-life are only tenuously (or cynically) so.
  • Become a sidewalk counselor
  • Counsel and console your loved ones who become pregnant, especially if it is a crises pregnancy, and especially if they have no one else to turn to. Be there for them even if they make the wrong decisions, be a friend.
  • Get involved in 40 days for life
  • Above all else, pray.
The abortion rate (number of abortions procured annually per 1000 women) is declining.

Abortion claims about 1 million victims annually in the US [5], a terribly large number. However, this number also represents a dramatic decrease in total per year since the 1980’s. The overall rate has also decreased from a high of 29.2 per 1000 women in 1981 to about 16.3 per 1000 women today. While there are a variety of factors which may contribute to this, or which have a dubious effect on decreasing the abortion rate, it is more certain that some people who were considering abortion have walked away from it, and chosen life instead.

This is due to the peaceful activity of those who have urged a different choice, and who have stepped up to provide the resources to make that choice more viable, or to make abortion less viable. The violence of madmen shooters does not accomplish this. Far from being a sort of “just war” effort against the violence of abortion, these shootings add a few more murders to the death toll of abortion.


[1] For example, was Planned Parenthood actually the target of this, or just the building into which the shooter happened to take cover and hole up? Much of the media and “internet commentary” seems to be assuming that this was an “anti-abortion” gunman who was targeting an abortion clinic and its client-victims. On th other hand, The Gazette‘s timeline of events and the fact that none of the 15 people working in that Planned Parenthood location that day, nor any of the clients, were harmed suggests that they may not have been the gunman’s targets.

[2] The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists four criteria for a just war, and notes that these must be evaluated by a proper authority before declaring war:

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
there must be serious prospects of success;
the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good. (CCC 2309)

Thee seven criteria which I list above can be seen reflected in these criteria found in the Catechism.

[3] The victims included quite a few innocent bystanders and police respondents.

[4] Ironically, this would make the police responders–perhaps the only other armed individuals on scene–be non-combatants.

[5] Two million, if you count the mother as a second victim, and more if you count the deleterious moral and spiritual effects on all others involved.

Nicene Guy

Nicene Guy

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”

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1 thought on “Just War and Abortion Mill Shootings”

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    It is interesting to realize that this assassin could, by the 2nd condition for sin, be not
    guilty in some celestial court but very culpable here in the temporal one. This duality
    doesn’t change the fact that two wrongs don’t make a right and the law of karma as outlined in eastern deism stops at direct speculation for decency’s sake.

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