On Abortion, Civil Disobedience, the Execution of

Paul J. Hill and the Downfall of Randall Terry

Dr John R. Ling is a freelance writer and speaker on bioethical issues. In 1982, he co-founded Evangelicals for LIFE, and he is a member of the Central Committee of LIFE, the governing body of the UK’s largest pro-life charity. He has recently been appointed as a magistrate.

Abortion is an undoubted horror, but how far can Christians go in opposing it? Can civil disobedience ever be justified? What about trespass, violence, or even murder?

The recent execution in America of Paul Hill for the double murder of an abortionist and his bodyguard has again raised the issue of civil disobedience and abortion. But Hill was a deluded fanatic - his tactics must be resolutely disowned, and he must never be regarded as a pro-life martyr. Similarly, the civil disobedience advocated by Randall Terry and his Operation Rescue is as out-of-kilter with the Scriptures, as is his lifestyle. Yet the irrational antics of a few must not cause us to give up opposing abortion, wisely and legally.

On Wednesday 3 September 2003, Paul Jennings Hill, a 49-year-old former Presbyterian minister, was executed in Florida. His crime? In July 1994, he shot and killed John Britton, a doctor who performed abortions, as well as his bodyguard, James Barrett.

Hill was a deluded man – he thought that abortion could be stopped by violent civil disobedience, so he became a murderer. Hill was a self-righteous man – he thought that his crime was somehow beyond the reach of the Sixth Commandment. Hill was an unrepentant man – he had nine years in prison to repent of his crime, but he refused. Hill was a remorseless man – he said he would do it again. Hill was a disgraceful man – he brought dishonour to the name of Christ.

The man and his actions sent a shockwave throughout the abortion clinics of the US. It also sent a cold shudder through the pro-life Christian community, worldwide. The day before his death, Paul Hill stood before the television cameras at his final press conference. Displaying that familiar grin, he told the world that he believed his execution would make him a martyr. Thankfully, most anti-abortion Christians will not agree.

Hill had once been a conservative Presbyterian minister, but he had resigned from the ministry. He became a pro-life activist, peaceful at first, but then increasingly crazy and violent. His church urged him to calm down, but instead he went on national television and declared that abortionists deserved to die. He was then disciplined by, and finally excommunicated from, his church because he refused to listen to pastoral counsel. He also took little thought for the future of his wife and three children. So Hill was the worst sort of rebel – he rebelled against Scripture, his church, the law and his family duties – he will therefore never be a martyr because, according to 1 Timothy 1:9-11, he was not a righteous man.

That is the private legacy of Paul Hill. But he also leaves a public legacy. Hill's violent anti-abortion activities have seriously damaged the pro-life movement. He was not the first, nor will he be the last pro-lifer to turn violent – some still believe that abortion will be defeated by invading, burgling, ransacking and bombing abortion clinics, and by threatening and attacking doctors and staff. Hill started out protesting peacefully on the picket lines of Pensacola. And when, in 1993, another fanatic shot and killed an abortionist in that little Floridian town, Hill was galvanised – he became more confrontational. Some sixteen months later, he bought his 12-bore shotgun, and a few days later, he used it. And the shockwaves rumbled across America. And the morally sensitive took fright. Nowadays, peaceful and silent protests outside abortion clinics have become a rarity. Now public protests against abortion are few. Hill’s atrocious actions have scared off sensible, law-abiding pro-lifers. And who can blame them – who wants to be tarred with the brush of unfettered fanaticism? Look where it lead Paul Hill.

But Hill is not the only ‘enemy within the gates’ of the pro-life community. Indeed, there are too many others, like the Rev. Michael Bray of Bowie, Maryland, who has written a book justifying the murder of abortionists, or there is the Rev Donald Spitz, who maintains the inflammatory ‘Army of God’ website. And there is Randall Terry, another high-profile Christian leader, who has also brought dishonour to the pro-life movement. Terry is the founder of Operation Rescue, one of the first organisations to encourage civil disobedience as a means of opposing abortion. He is proud to have been arrested over forty times for trespassing and other public order offences.

Randall Terry stood as a Christian leader and was a celebrity of sorts, with his own national television programme. He was also an elder at the Landmark Church in Binghamton, New York. It was early in 1997, that his pastor of fifteen years, Dan Little, noticed signs of Terry’s spiritual deterioration, anger and self-will, which manifested themselves as impurity in speech and lifestyle. Then things got decidedly worse. In 1999, Terry abandoned his wife of nineteen years, Cindy, and their four children in favour of Andrea Kollmorgan, his twenty-something personal assistant. His church censured him, but he would not listen. The church carefully followed all the steps of Matthew 18, but Randall Terry remained unrepentant and he was therefore excommunicated. He then declared himself bankrupt, an action that deprived his former wife and children of their home. Then, without informing his followers of what he had done to his first wife and their children, he sent out a fund-raising letter so that he could purchase a $432,000 home near St Augustine, Florida. Terry has said that, contrary to the plain teaching of Mark 10:11-12, the Bible does not actually condemn divorce. Again, Randall Terry, just like Paul Hill, considered that his behaviour was somehow outside the purview of the Bible. He now says that he wants to be known as a statesman!

The progression is frightening, isn’t it? Firstly, there enters biblical disobedience and secondly, there follows civil disobedience, which thirdly, leads to a self-justifying way of life. It is nothing other than situation ethics – the very same philosophy that drives the abortionist. And the media know it and they love it – the downfall of Christian leaders always makes great copy. But far more seriously, such sub-Christian conduct unnerves the ordinary Christian. When our leaders betray us, we are not only bewildered, we run to ground. We become timid – we cast off our salt and we hide our lights.

For some, Paul Hill and Randall Terry have become the icons of anti-abortion activities based on civil disobedience. But why are they, and their followers, so very wrong? Back in 1990, I wrote a piece for the Evangelicals for LIFE Newsletter entitled, Some Thoughts on Civil Disobedience and Operation Rescue. It is reproduced here because the issues have again been raked up in the aftermath of Paul Hill’s execution and Randall Terry’s downfall.

‘Should we tackle this thorny issue? After all, civil disobedience is not a problem for most. Many have not even heard of Operation Rescue. On the other hand, members of some LIFE Groups (like those in Manchester and Birmingham) are continually confronted and embarrassed by Operation Rescue’s work. Furthermore, the media (including a wide spread of evangelical periodicals) have waded in and pronounced their verdicts. And by now we should be mature enough to assess and, if necessary, disagree with our co-belligerents.

Like most controversial movements, Operation Rescue started in the USA. Even today it divides the pro-life movement there. That must not be allowed to happen here.

So what is Operation Rescue? It is a movement of thoroughly pro-life people, often from the extremes of theological understanding, namely, traditional Roman Catholics and conservative evangelicals. Many of them are frustrated with seeking changes to national abortion policy by the ‘democratic means’. ‘Twenty years of campaigning have got us where?’, they ask. Many of those in Operation Rescue either belong, or used to belong, to LIFE and other UK pro-life groups. It has a notably greater proportion of men in its ranks than other pro-life organisations. Is this a reflection of men’s frustrations? Whereas LIFE women can tackle abortion at the sharp end by counselling women, do men feel isolated and left on the sidelines?

I am only too conscious of generalising. In Britain, there appears to be a wide variation within the movement. Some involved in Operation Rescue are happy to be arrested; others do no more than LIFE recommends. Not unnaturally, it is the former who have attracted media attention. Some do not ‘belong’ to Operation Rescue, but nevertheless use effectively the same tactics. Some are involved only locally; others regularly travel hundreds of miles at weekends to perform so-called ‘rescues’. Some cooperate with LIFE Groups; other compete.

So what does Operation Rescue do? Randall Terry, its US founder, confirms that they seek to persuade mothers, who are about to enter abortion clinics, to think again and choose life. That appears to be no different from picketing abortion clinics - a practice that LIFE has been advocating, and doing, for years. But is it different? Yes. Because Operation Rescue also practises civil disobedience. They will bar the entrance to clinics, they will trespass, they will be arrested, they will spend time in police cells, they will be charged with offences like trespass and even conspiracy.

This issue of civil disobedience and abortion must first be examined in the light of key passages of Scripture, such as Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17. We can then ask the big questions like, so what is our relationship to government and law? Firstly, God has commanded us to obey the State, meaning, civil government. Secondly, God has not set up authority/law in the State that is autonomous from Himself. Both civil government and its laws stand under the law/judgement of God. Thirdly, the State is the agent of justice, to restrain evil and the evil-doer. Are we to obey the State no matter what? No! (Matthew 22:21). The bottom line is that at a certain point, there is a Christian duty to disobey the State, as the early Christians did when the State insisted that they worship Caesar. But civil government and its laws are to be resisted only when a) it commands something forbidden by God, like idol worship, and b) it forbids something commanded by God, like preaching or praying.

Thus the Bible commands law-breaking when the State requires us to sin. But the State has NOT required/commanded us to kill the unborn. Do we then have a mandate to act against say, abortion clinic staff? No, our duty is not to compel others to do what is morally right. Can we break into and disrupt an abortion clinic? No. The violation of a proper law (trespass/unlawful entry) as a means of protesting against a rotten law (allowing abortion) is unworthy of Christian behaviour. It is the logic of terrorism. We may picket, debate, leaflet, counsel, write and protest, but violence will not work. Abortionists use it – routinely in their abortion operations, and also in their public demonstrations. Evil will not be overcome by evil. Our actions must be consistent with our Christian profession.

But does not the mass killing of the unborn of our land demand exceptional tactics? Cannot we simply break in and rescue those being led away to slaughter, based on Proverbs 24? No. This passage outlines an awesome responsibility, not a method.

Of course, this debate will continue. And if we gain no justice for the unborn in this 1990 session of Parliament – like a reduction in the upper limit for abortion from 28 to 24 weeks – it may be that exasperated pro-lifers will increasingly look to civil disobedience and hence to organisations that work like Operation Rescue. I hope not.

If I were a pragmatist, I might well support Operation Rescue. I might remind myself of how Greenpeace has heightened public awareness of pollution by its illegal publicity stunts. I might note that the Animal Liberation Front, with its laboratory break-ins and release of experimental animals did more to change public thinking and national policy concerning animal experimentation (culminating in the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986), than the RSPCA accomplished in decades.

But then I would ask myself, what if we started to block entrances to abortion clinics, what will the pro-abortionists do to us? They will probably visit every LIFE Pregnancy Care Service office and do the same. We have seen their tactics at LIFE rallies; if they can tear the door off the Birmingham Town Hall, what will they do to our LIFE offices, how will they harass our carers and clients?

And then I would recall the great ethical passages of Scripture, like those mentioned above. And I would continue to believe that we must obey God’s laws, even as we resist the injustices of abortion. We must learn to temper our impatience. We must control our anger. We must look to God. We must seek His face and His sovereign will, even in this perplexing matter. And we must increase our current efforts to defend and protect the unborn.’

I still stand by these words. I do not stand by the likes of Paul Hill or Randall Terry. They want to be remembered as a martyr and a statesman – I think not! They have both disgraced the name of Christ. And far from promoting the pro-life cause, they have hindered it, by their unlawful tactics and by their shameful lives.

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