Anti-Abortion Advocacy, Violence, and Toleration

ERI 149
Wednesday 17 October 2018 (15:15-17:00)

Dr Williams has been with the Centre for the Study of Global Ethics since 2011, first as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, then as a Birmingham Fellow. 

His interests are in political philosophy and practical ethics, especially bioethics, and theories of political justification and legitimacy.


‘Pro-life’ advocates, of the traditional sort, object to abortion on grounds that fetuses have, from conception onwards, the full moral status of persons, including interests in and rights to life that are of no less a moral significance than those of persons generally. In the first part of this paper I argue that, unless it is conjoined with pacifism of a kind that is rarely endorsed and intrinsically implausible, the standard pro-life view implies the permissibility, under non-fanciful conditions, of employing lethal force against abortion providers in defence of fetuses (as well as of employing sub-lethal force against pregnant women to that same end). Since the conclusion that anti-abortion violence can even sometimes be permissible is deeply repugnant, this seems to constitute an especially decisive moral case against the pro-life position.

The implications of the pro-life view that I describe are not esoteric. They have been noted by other philosophers, and, indeed, acted upon by extremists on multiple occasions. The latter fact, however, raises an unexpected question for normative political theory, which I consider in the paper’s second half. To wit: given what the pro-life view is naturally read as suggesting about the permissible use of violence, why should expressions of that view necessarily merit the full protection of liberal toleration? I will argue that, even for the staunch Millian, the case for imposing at least some restrictions on anti-abortion speech is surprisingly strong.

This seminar is part of the 2018-19 Global Ethics Tea Seminar Series hosted by the Centre for the Study of Global Ethics.

Culture and collections

Schools, institutes and departments

Services and facilities