Are one's beliefs ever justification for taking a life?

February 27, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

Let's try, just for a minute, to put ourselves in the position of Michael Griffin, the guy on trial in Florida for the killing of the abortion doctor.

Let's examine his alleged motives. They're not complicated.

Griffin believes Dr. Gunn, the abortionist, is killing unborn babies.

He takes a gun and fires three shots into Dr. Gunn's back.

In taking Dr. Gunn's life, he saves the lives of the yet to be born.

Is Griffin a hero? A martyr? Or is he just a nut?

To most of us, he's a nut. Or, at best, a zealot. As a rule, we don't take kindly to zealotry. We are suspicious of people's motives when they take extreme positions.

Take Dr. Kevorkian. A nut, right?

The people who protest in front of nuclear test sites? Wacky.

Surely, somebody who kills a doctor in the name of saving unborn lives and doesn't understand the irony, much less the consequences, must be a nut case.

Griffin has his followers. Of course, so did Charles Manson. Way out there on the fringe of the anti-abortion movement are those who insist that killing doctors who perform abortions is morally justifiable.

Can killing ever be justified?

Obviously, it can. You can kill someone in self-defense. That can be morally and even legally justified. We stretch the boundaries of that claim all the time. See: the Menendez brothers.

We kill in wartime.

And isn't the slave justified in killing the slave-holder?

What about killing Hitler? Or Mengele? Wouldn't it have been morally justifiable to have killed the architects of the Holocaust?

As you know, many in the anti-abortion movement like to throw the term Holocaust around in the abortion debate.

Maybe that's extreme.

But, if you actually believe abortion is murder, and many do, what is the limit of your obligation?

Murder, my God.

If it's really murder -- and murder on a massive scale, murder of tens of thousands -- don't you have to do whatever you can to stop it?

If I thought abortion was murder -- I don't, but millions say they do -- I'd have to be out in the streets every day in protest.

Where are the millions?

I can only guess they're not really committed. I guess, despite the rhetoric, they don't really think abortion is murder. You couldn't just sit by and allow it to happen if you did.

The true believers -- the nut cases? -- are out in front of clinics, petitioning, cajoling, threatening, intimidating. They get carted off to jail, in the tradition of the civil rights workers.

Some take it another step.

The courts aren't much help these days to the anti-abortion folks. The Reagan-Bush Supreme Court, which will turn more liberal with Clinton and time, wouldn't overturn Roe vs. Wade.

If the legal system provides little relief and the polls are against your position, where do you turn?

Some turn to violence. Bomb threats at clinics are up. Death threats to doctors who perform abortions are up.

Why not? If it's Mengele, you blow a hole in his head without a single pang of conscience.

But are doctors who perform abortions and people who run clinics really mass murderers? Isn't that where the argument finally breaks down?

The abortion issue, as heated as it can become, is a debate with legitimate arguments on both sides.

It's a discussion of when life begins and about the sanctity of a woman's body and how the two are balanced. It goes to the heart of people's beliefs.

But no doctor, surgical tools in hand, sees himself as a murderer.

Dr. Gunn didn't. Dr. Gunn thought he was providing a service. Dr. Gunn was, from all accounts, a good man. You can think he was doing a bad thing and still not think of him as a bad man.

There were no such moral ambiguities in the real Holocaust. Murder was murder. The murder was done in secret. These were evil people carrying out evil deeds.

Abortion is something entirely different.

Or is it?

We are in the midst of a difficult ethical debate. Most of us think the answer can be found somewhere within our consciences.

Michael Griffin doesn't see it that way. He lives in a world of absolutes. In his world, he gets the final say. And a doctor lies dead.

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