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Operation Rescue:

Debating the Ethics of Civil

Two Opposing Views

by Francis J. Beckwith and Paul Feinberg

from the Christian Research Journal, Spring 1995, page 32. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.


by Francis J. Beckwith

Morally reflective people have wrestled with the question of whether civil disobedience is ever morally justified, and if so, under what circumstances?[1] Throughout history there have been cases of civil disobedience that seem morally justified, including: the early Christian church's refusal to obey the government's command not to preach the gospel (Acts 4); Martin Luther King, Jr.'s refusal to obey racially discriminating laws;[2] and Christians' violation of religiously oppressive laws when smuggling Bibles and doing missionary work.

Many pro-lifers who peacefully block abortion clinics defend civil disobedience from a theological/biblical perspective, and some of their critics thoughtfully argue against them from that perspective as well. I maintain that pro-lifers have a right to violate antitrespassing laws in order to rescue unborn children. I do not contend, however, that pro-lifers have a moral obligation to do so, since it would be physically impossible as well as entail significant personal risk to save every oppressed person -- born or unborn -- by breaking the law.[3] Moreover, I believe that prudential considerations -- those having to do with whether rescuing as a strategy will do greater harm than good in changing minds and laws -- may well lead pro-lifers to avoid civil disobedience altogether during this stage of the abortion controversy in North America.

My position differs from that of Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue (OR), the pro-life group that has given high visibility to pro-life civil disobedience. Terry argues that Christians are obligated to violate the law.[4] My position also differs from certain pro-life critics of Terry, such as Norman Geisler and John and Paul Feinberg, who argue that as the current law exists people have no right to engage in pro-life civil disobedience.[5]


There are many biblical instances of divinely approved civil disobedience.[6] In Exodus 1:15-22 Pharaoh commanded the midwives to slay every male Hebrew baby. But Hebrew midwives Shiprah and Puah "feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live" (v. 17, NIV). As a result "God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own" (vv. 20-21).

In 1 Kings 18:4 wicked queen Jezebel "was killing off the LORD's prophets." In defiance of her orders the prophet Obadiah "had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves...and had supplied them with food and water" (v. 4). Although Scripture does not explicitly approve of Obadiah's act, the context and manner of the Bible's presentation implies that God condoned it (see vv. 13-15).

In Joshua 2:1-14 Rahab saved the lives of two Hebrew spies by hiding them from soldiers who were searching for them. Randy Alcorn points out that "the spies had no legal right to be in Jericho, while the soldiers had every legal right to apprehend them."[7] Other instances of divinely approved civil disobedience can be found in Exodus 5, Daniel 3 and 6, Acts 4, and Revelation 12-13.

These and other biblical cases of justified civil disobedience seem to have the following factors in common: (1) the state commands the believer to do something contrary to the Word of God; (2) the command is disobeyed; and (3) there is explicit or implicit divine approval of the refusal to obey the state.

Since the Bible permits or commands Christians to disobey the law only when the state commands them to do evil or not to do good (Acts 5:28-29), some opponents argue that pro-life civil disobedience is wrong because the state does not compel pro-life Christians to abort their unborn children or to participate in abortions. This argument does not succeed for at least two reasons.

First, by forbidding the rescuers to exercise Christ's command to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:39), the government is in fact compelling pro-life Christians to do evil (or at least not to do good). Pro-life Christians believe the unborn child is their neighbor and to rescue that child from certain death is a good thing.

Second, this objection fails if one believes that those who broke the law when hiding Jews from the Holocaust did a good thing. Based on the reasoning of those who oppose pro-life civil disobedience, those who rescued Jews from the Holocaust were wrong since the state was not compelling most of them to kill a Jew or to work in a concentration camp.


To better understand my view, consider a few objections to pro-life civil disobedience. Since it is impossible in the allotted space to address every objection in the abortion literature,[8] I have chosen three that are the most forceful and popular.


It seems that pro-life civil disobedience is morally justified from a biblical perspective. When we look at the Bible, we find that it allows for the violation of a law when -- whether directly or indirectly -- it prohibits one from obeying a command of God. Since pro-life Christians are required by the enforcement of trespassing laws not to love their unborn neighbors, the law indirectly commands Christians not to obey Jesus' command to love one's neighbor as oneself. Meanwhile, the objections to this view are not compelling. In addition, since pro-life civil disobedience is not morally obligatory, the question confronting the pro-life movement is whether it is a prudent thing to do. The leadership of those groups that engage in pro-life civil disobedience must answer this serious and important question.


by Paul Feinberg

The apostle Paul said that a God-ordained duty of human civil governments is to reward those who do good and punish evildoers (Rom. 13:1-7). When governments fulfill their duty, it should be easy for Christians to support them. When civil authorities fail in this duty, however, Christians find themselves faced with a crisis of conscience. This is particularly the case when a government grants its citizens a legal right to do something immoral.

Christians have wrestled with this problem throughout church history, and unfortunately they have not always come to agreement on what the duty of a disciple of Christ should be. Therefore, it should not surprise us that Christians do not agree on what should be done concerning the liberal abortion laws that are presently in place in North America.

I shall argue for a position that has two elements to it. First, civil disobedience is not always wrong. Cases clearly exist in which it is our duty to disobey the demands of our government. Second, however, conditions that obligate Christians to acts of civil disobedience do not presently exist in North America with respect to the abortion laws.


To understand my position it is necessary to give some important definitions and make some critical distinctions. First, not all forms of protest against a governments actions require civil disobedience. In fact, means of protesting do exist within the laws of the land. What characterizes civil disobedience is that it involves breaking a law passed by the government.

Second, it is important to see that civil disobedience takes two forms. Citizens may demonstrate their disagreement with certain laws by taking violent action. Actions of this sort may result in personal injury, even death, and/or the destruction of property as in the bombing or arson of abortion clinics. Citizens may also show their displeasure with laws by engaging in nonviolent action. In the civil rights struggle, African Americans refused to obey a law that allowed them to sit only at the rear of buses. In the fight to stop abortions, many pro-lifers also engage in nonviolent action by blocking the entrances to abortion clinics to prevent the death of babies.

There is another important distinction related to civil disobedience. One may disobey a law directly or indirectly. When civil disobedience is direct, there is typically a law which, if obeyed, would require one to do something immoral. Imagine a law that required one to commit adultery with a neighbor's wife. Direct civil disobedience would require that one disobey this law by refusing to become sexually involved with the neighbor's wife.

Whereas direct civil disobedience involves the breaking of a law when it compels me to sin or do evil, indirect civil disobedience occurs when the law allows someone else to sin, and we break a law or some laws to protest what they are doing. To protest a law's permission of others to do what is immoral, we must break other laws that are only indirectly related to this law in an effort to prevent others from exercising their legal right. In the case of abortion, this means the breaking of trespassing laws and laws that govern private property. Good laws must be broken to protest bad or immoral laws in indirect civil disobedience.


Civil disobedience is not always wrong. It's difficult to see, however, where Scripture or reason permits individuals to disobey immoral laws by violent acts. The use of the sword is placed in the hands of civil government, not individuals. Therefore, the murder of doctors or support staff at abortion clinics is morally wrong. Nor is it helpful to attempt to soften the immorality of such acts by pointing out the immorality of abortion. Those who destroy innocent life in the womb and those who take justice into their own hands through violence are both wrong.

On the other hand, nonviolent civil disobedience is sometimes justified. God does not require blind obedience to our governments. In fact, when government requires that I do something evil or immoral, I am obligated to disobey that law.

Many such examples appear in the Bible. The midwives disobeyed Pharaoh's order to kill all the Hebrew baby boys (Exod. 1:15-22). Rahab lied to protect the Jewish spies who reconnoitered Canaan (Josh. 2:1-14). Daniel's three friends disobeyed Nebuchadnezzar's command that everyone should fall down and worship a pagan image on the plain of Dura (Dan. 3:1-18). Peter and John refused to cease preaching the gospel, saying it is better to obey God than man (Acts 5:29). Each case involved nonviolent direct civil disobedience.

Therefore, I think one would be justified in disobeying any law that required one to have an abortion. Repeatedly there are reports from the People's Republic of China that families are allowed only one child. If a woman gets pregnant again, the government demands that the fetus be aborted. In this case I think the woman would be justified in disobeying the law since it demands that she do something sinful.

By contrast, I do not think the conditions that justify civil disobedience are present in North America at this time. No law requires one to have an abortion. Laws only permit those who desire to have an abortion to do so. Since these laws permit others to do something that is immoral and wrong, the only nonviolent act of civil disobedience one can perform requires the breaking of good laws to protest laws that are immoral. For instance, one could block entrances to abortion clinics. Or one might try to change a woman's mind about having an abortion by shouting arguments at her or even calling her names -- actions she most likely would consider to be harassment. In my opinion, then, the only act of civil disobedience one can perform against the law as presently constituted in North America is to indirectly disobey it, and I see no justification for that.

Before I turn to the justification for my view, let me guard it from some common misconceptions. My position in no way entails the belief that laws that permit others to do immoral acts are right or moral. Laws that are wrong and immoral should be repealed as quickly as possible. Nor do I excuse the guilt of those who act on such laws. They have sinned in the exercise of their freedom, and they are guilty before God.

Furthermore, my view does not release me from the obligation to protest the evil that is occurring. In fact, my obligation is to protest within the limits of the law. In democracies like those in North America, possible courses of action are many and varied. For instance, we can write about and speak out against abortion. We can support pro-life candidates. God may even call some of us to run for public office to address this ill. Crisis pregnancy agencies are another way we can protest the sin of abortion. I do not praise quiescence and passivity to evil.

The reasons for holding that civil disobedience is not always wrong, but that it is not justified at present in North America, are as follows:

Will civil disobedience bring about pro-life goals? Some argue that it will bring the issue of abortion to the attention of the public, and the arrest of protesters will force the courts to deal with the issue. All of this, it is argued, will result in the limiting or elimination of abortion. There is no question that civil disobedience will bring the matter of abortion to the public's attention. It is not clear, however, that it will result in the pro-lifers' desired end. Will those who fall in the middle of this debate -- those who are undecided on the matter -- be moved to the pro-life side by their perception of such tactics? Or will it result in the reinforcement of negative stereotypes of the pro-life movement?

Furthermore, I am concerned about a number of other consequences of those who practice civil disobedience. Will it create a climate where those who are at the fringes of the pro-life movement feel justified in taking violent action, like bombing clinics and killing doctors? And as more and more pro-lifers are arrested, how will the overload on the court system be handled? Our court and prison systems are already overloaded. To aggravate that problem is a serious matter. There is definitely the possibility that those guilty of more serious crimes and who constitute a more imminent danger to society will have to be released.

Finally, does the breaking of good laws foster disrespect for the rule of law and ultimately raise the specter of anarchy? One cannot say with certainty, but it does raise this troubling prospect.


I agree with much of what my friend Paul Feinberg has said. I believe he is correct in saying that (1) biblically, civil disobedience is justified in some circumstances and not in others; (2) the Christian has an obligation to obey the laws of the state except when those laws require that one directly violate biblical norms; and (3) even if nonviolent civil disobedience is morally permissible, one must question whether the activity is prudent.

I believe, however, that we have two points of contention: (1) Feinberg stresses abortion as a sin performed by the mother, whereas I stress abortion as an evil against her unborn child; and (2) Feinberg seems to be arguing that one may violate only evil laws, whereas I believe it is permissible to violate a "good" law (trespassing law) if used in an evil way.


The first contention is evident in Feinberg's claim that "one would be justified in disobeying any law that required one to have an abortion...," but "no law requires one to have an abortion. Laws only permit those who desire to have an abortion to do so." Therefore, "the only nonviolent act of civil disobedience one can to indirectly disobey them, and I see no justification for that."

The pro-life objection to abortion, however, is not that it is merely an immoral act performed by a moral agent (the pregnant woman), but rather, it is an act of unjustified homicide against an innocent, vulnerable, and defenseless human person by means of crushing, dismembering, suffocating, and/or burning. Consequently, it is wrong to characterize pro-life civil disobedience as merely trying to prevent a fellow citizen from performing an immoral act. Indeed, it is an attempt to rescue innocent human persons from a brutal and morally unjustified execution. Feinberg's stress on the mother's sin rather than on the victimization of her unborn child skews the nature of pro-life civil disobedience.


Feinberg also argues that the Christian is permitted to break only laws that directly require one to violate a biblical norm. Laws that do not directly require the Christian to do evil should not be violated. I believe this argument is flawed.

First, Jesus commanded us to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27b). The government, however, by forbidding Christians to save the lives of the unborn, is telling them not to love their neighbor as themselves. Doesn't this law violate a command of God?

Suppose Feinberg replies, "The government is merely forbidding pro-lifers from disobeying trespassing laws. It is not telling them not to love their neighbor." But isn't this more insidious than a law that forbids them from loving the unborn by saving their lives? Trespassing laws are being used to force Christians to disobey a command of God, just as perjury laws were used in Nazi Germany to force those who hid Jews from certain death to tell the truth under oath as to the Jews' whereabouts. Based on Feinberg's position, one could characterize the situation in Nazi Germany this way: "The government was just forbidding its citizens to disobey good perjury laws but not directly forbidding them to rescue Jews." Consequently, according to this reasoning, those who rescued Jews from the Holocaust were wrong, since the state was not compelling most of them to directly kill a Jew.

Second, how is one to evaluate whether a law is good or bad? Is it how the statute is written and intended by a legislator? Or is it how the statute is applied in practice by law enforcement, the courts, and the executive branch? It seems that Feinberg thinks it is the legislative branch's written text and not its application that is the arbiter in morally evaluating a law. But he has provided no reason to believe why that is the case.

Even though Feinberg and I disagree over the issue of when civil disobedience is justified, what we hold in common is far more important: abortion ought to be illegal since it is unjustified homicide. I applaud Feinberg's important work in this area.

About the Author:

Francis J. Beckwith, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy, Culture, and Law, and W. Howard Hoffman Scholar, Trinity Graduate School, Trinity International University (Deerfield, IL), California Campus, and Senior Research Fellow, Nevada Policy Research Institute. His books include Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights (Baker, 1993), Matters of Life and Death: Calm Answers to Tough Questions about Abortion and Euthanasia (Baker, 1991), and The Abortion Controversy: A Reader (Jones & Bartlett, 1994).


The discussion between Beckwith and myself demonstrates that a variety of positions may be taken on the question of abortion and civil disobedience. Actually, though, our views are quite close in several respects. For instance, we agree that civil disobedience is not always wrong for the Christian; we agree that pro-lifers have no obligation to commit acts of civil disobedience; and we agree that such acts are most likely imprudent in the struggle to save lives today.

There is, however, an important point of disagreement between us. It is over the question of whether pro-lifers have a right to commit acts of nonviolent civil disobedience to prevent others from having abortions. Beckwith thinks they do; I disagree. In this short reply, I will focus on the two arguments Beckwith offers for his view.

The first argument is drawn from biblical examples of civil disobedience that are presented with divine approval (Exod. 1:15-22; 5; Josh. 2:1-14; 1 Kings 18:3-15; Dan. 3, 6; Acts 4; Rev. 12 13). In my judgment, however, none of these cases parallel what pro-lifers are doing today. The biblical examples involve direct civil disobedience. That is, believers are commanded by their government to do something that disobeys God, and they refuse to comply. None of these cases involve indirect civil disobedience. Nowhere is there an example of believers breaking good laws to prevent others from doing wrongs permitted by their government. Thus, I think this argument fails to prove its intended point.

Beckwith's second argument at first seems to offer more promise, but in the end it is equally flawed. He defends the right to civil disobedience based on what might be called the Good Samaritan principle, which requires that I love my neighbor as myself. The unborn is my neighbor. To love him or her I must try to save that life. Since the state is preventing me from following God's command, I am justified in breaking the law so I may love my neighbor.

This argument fails in the end for these reasons:

Let me close by reiterating two points. First, I do not believe abortion is morally right. It is a terrible wrong. But it must be fought in a morally justifiable way. Second, I am not saying we have no obligation to oppose abortion. I have simply argued that our opposition must be within the law.

About the Author

Paul Feinberg, Th.D., is Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is co-author of Ethics for a Brave New World (Crossway Books, 1993, with John S. Feinberg) and Introduction to Philosophy (with Norman Geisler).


1 See Randy Alcorn, Is Rescuing Right? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990); John Feinberg and Paul Feinberg, Ethics in a Brave New World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 91-98; Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy, ed. James Rachels (New York: Random House, 1989), 236-53; Randall Terry, Operation Rescue (Springdale, PA: Whitaker, 1988); Ernest Van Den Haag, "The Dilemma of Civil Disobedience," Philosophy: The Quest for Truth, ed. Louis P. Pojman (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1989), 433-42; and John Rawls, "The Justification of Civil Disobedience," The Right Thing to Do, 254-70.

2 King.

3 They are called supererogatory acts -- acts in which one has a right to engage but not an obligation since they involve great personal risk. For more on this subject, see Hadley Arkes, First Things: An Inquiry into the First Principles of Morals and Justice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 288-308.

4 Terry, 99-111.

5 Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics: Options and Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 239-56; and Feinberg and Feinberg, 91-98.

6 For an excellent overview of the biblical passages, see Alcorn, 4-56.

7 Ibid., 42.

8 Some of the strongest objections to pro-life civil disobedience can be found in Geisler, 239-56; and Feinberg and Feinberg, 91-98.

9 See the recent symposium on this issue: "Killing Abortionists: A Symposium," First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life (December 1994): 24-31.

10 John and Paul Feinberg do an excellent job of weighing these prudential considerations in Ethics in a Brave New World, 97-98.

End of document, CRJ0197A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"Operation Rescue: Debating the Ethics of Civil Disobedience.
Two Opposing Views"
release A, July 20, 1995
R. Poll, CRI

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Copyright 1995 by the Christian Research Institute.

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