When is civil disobedience against abortion laws legitimate?

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Speaking about laws that legalize abortion, Pope John Paul II states flatly in Evangelium Vitae that “there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection” (no. 73, emphasis in text).  It is clear from the context in the encyclical that “oppose them by conscientious objection” refers to laws that require one wrongfully to cooperate in doing evil.  In such a case one has a “clear obligation” to refuse, even when one’s refusal threatens considerable sacrifice.  For example, doctors, nurses, and medical students have an obligation to refuse to participate in performing abortions or abortion training.  When following a human law means violating God’s law, we are not only justified but have a duty to refuse to follow the law—as St. Peter proclaims before the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

The pope, however, does not take up the question of civil disobedience against laws that in themselves are just (e.g., trespassing laws) as a witness against unjust laws.  In this case we are dealing with acts of conscientious objection that are not always obligatory.  For example, when is it legitimate for defenders of the unborn non-violently to block access to an abortion clinic where abortions are being performed?  Or how should non-violent protesters on a college campus, marching in a pro-life rally, respond to the commands of the campus police to leave the campus or be arrested?  We can see that contemplating these types of acts of non-obligatory conscientious objection is more complicated, since the actors are not confronting a law requiring them to do evil, but the question of the rightness and timing of breaking another law in protest against the grave injustice of killing the unborn.

I would like to set forth four moral principles from Catholic ethical tradition relevant to the deliberations of one contemplating these types of non-obligatory civil disobedience:

1. Respect for the rule of law.  Christian faith teaches that all legitimate human authority has been instituted by God for purposes of defending and promoting the good of the community (see Romans 13:1-5).  Just human laws, as instruments of legitimate authority for establishing good order, are good, God-given, and should always be respected.  Unjust laws, on the other hand, as St. Thomas Aquinas states, “can have no binding force in conscience,” indeed are not even laws in the strict moral sense.  Nevertheless, Christians always have a duty to respect legitimate laws and legitimate authority.  Persons contemplating civil disobedience, therefore, should ask themselves whether their breaking of this particular law will lead to a greater respect for or a denigration of the rule of law in the minds of those who interact with them or hear about their actions.  They should have reasonable confidence before proceeding that their actions will lead to a greater respect for the rule of law, or at least not its denigration.  Otherwise it would be unfair to the members of their community since the denigration of the rule of law harms the entire community.

2. Attention to consequences.  Since civil disobedience is contemplated in the first place because of injustices being done against innocent human life, persons contemplating it should have reasonable confidence that their actions will not precipitate greater injustices against those or other innocent human lives.  So, for example, if a consequence of some act of civil disobedience is to motivate lawmakers to enact greater protections and liberties for abortion providers; and if one can foresee that one’s actions might precipitate such a response from lawmakers, one ought not to engage in the act of civil disobedience.  To do so would be unfair to the babies against whom greater injustices are threatened.

3. Consideration of one’s prior duties.  In contemplating an act of non-violent civil disobedience, one needs to be mindful not only of the consequences to oneself, the babies, and respect for the rule of law, but to those for whom one has prior responsibilities.  A mother with small children who faces considerable time in prison, or a father of a single income family who if arrested may face dismissal from his job, might have the duty to refrain from acts of civil disobedience precisely out of responsibility to those who rely upon them for their wellbeing.

4. Sensitivity to the Holy Spirit: Since acts of non-obligatory civil disobedience are not required by the moral law, and because undertaking them may bring upon oneself and one’s loved ones avoidable harms, Christians should only choose such acts and accept such consequences if they believe that it is God’s will for them to do so.  Admittedly, this discernment is not always so clear.  They can be confident that it is not God’s will if they believe that by choosing such actions they will violate some prior duty, cause greater injustices to be committed against the unborn, or cause denigration of the rule of law in the minds of those impacted by their decision.  But how does one recognize when it is God’s will?  Often God’s inspiration comes after prayer in the form of a conviction (or sense or feeling) that we “ought” to do something that is not otherwise required by duty or forbidden by the moral law.  We should look for this spiritually motivated sense of “ought.”  But we also should be careful to discern between the genuine movement of the Holy Spirit and motivations to act arising from impatience or enthusiasm stirred into flame by the emotions of the moment.

If through our deliberations we prudently judge that our duties to our dependents, to the babies and to the rule of law will all be respected; and if after prayer in the quiet of our hearts (and not the roar of our emotions) we feel we “ought” to sacrifice ourselves in this way for the babies; and if we have no other reason unique to ourselves that would forbid us from proceeding; then we may proceed in good conscience with choosing a non-violent act of civil disobedience and with accepting the consequences of doing so.  In fact, if we believe it is God’s will for us to do so, then we should proceed with the act.

Editor