[This is not a general discussion of the ethics of civil disobedience, but a specific treatment of the ethics of Operation Rescue. The latter provides us with an excellent case study by which to analyze the primary issues.]
Many of those involved in Operation Rescue (hereafter OR) argue that what they are doing is not only morally and biblically prudential, not only morally and biblically permissible, but morally and biblically obligatory. That is to say, many insist that not only are they permitted to break the law in the attempt to prevent other people from having/performing abortions, you are obligated to do so as well. Or again, they contend that not only is it not a sin to do it, it is a sin not to do it.
Let us consider the arguments in favor of the morally obligatory nature of the activity of OR.
A. The Case for Moral Obligation
1. Divine Law supercedes Human Law
According to this argument, if the government passes a law that conflicts with biblical morality, the individual is not only permitted but also obligated to disobey that law. Simply because the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that a woman has a legal right to get an abortion does not mean she has a moral right to do so. The reality of this higher, divine law prohibiting the murder of innocent human life requires the Christian to engage in civil disobedience.
2. The Good Samaritan Argument
Intervention to save the lives of the unborn is a moral duty no less than it was the Samaritan's moral duty to render aid to the man beside the road.
But note this significant difference (to be discussed in detail below): the Good Samaritan did not have to disobey a civil law in order to fulfill his duty to the injured traveler. But those in OR cannot act in fulfillment of what they regard as their moral duty (intervening to save the lives of the unborn) without violating another law.
3. The Argument from Self-Defense
It is certainly permissible to defend oneself against an unjustified attack. One also has a right, even if it is not a moral obligation, to defend someone else who is the object of an unjustified attack. The unborn are certainly being attacked without moral justification.
4. The "Necessity Defense"
All would agree that it is morally permissible (if not obligatory) to break a window in a burning house in order to gain access for the purpose of rescuing someone trapped inside. Under normal conditions, breaking and entering is against the law. But in this particular case, it was necessary to violate the law in order to preserve a life. Similarly, violating the law against trespassing at an abortion clinic is permissible because it is necessary to protect the life of the unborn.
5. Proverbs 24:10-12
"Deliver those who are being taken away to death" (v. 11a).
B. A Response to the Case for Moral Obligation
Many insist that such arguments are not sufficient to morally require that all Christians participate in the tactics of OR to prevent abortion. They respond as follows:
The key element in this response is the distinction between direct and indirect civil disobedience. Direct civil disobedience occurs when a law that demands or forbids something is directly violated. For example, when the apostles were forbidden to preach the gospel in Acts 4, they directly violated the law. Indirect civil disobedience occurs when the breaking of a law is only indirectly related to the problem. The Feinbergs point to the case of those who trespass on government property to protest the nuclear arms race. In other words, "direct disobedience involves breaking the law when it compels me to sin or do evil [as in the case of being forbidden from preaching the gospel]. Indirect civil disobedience occurs when the law allows someone else to sin, and we break a law to protest what they are doing" (Feinbergs/93).
Apply this distinction to the issue of abortion and the tactics of OR:
"There are no laws in the U.S. which require anyone to have an abortion. If a Christian were commanded to have an abortion, she would be morally obligated to refuse. If a doctor were mandated to perform an abortion, he or she should refuse. But if doctors were compelled to perform abortions, those of us not in the medical profession would not be in a position to violate that law directly. And if women were compelled to have an abortion, those not pregnant could not directly disobey. Civil disobedience is morally obligatory, we believe, in cases where one is directly compelled to do what is evil or a sin, but not when the law simply permits someone else's sin" (Feinbergs/93).
Another reason many find the tactics of OR illegitimate is that indirect civil disobedience requires that one break a good law (the law against trespassing and destroying private property) in order to protest a bad one (the law permitting abortion). Whereas direct civil disobedience entails breaking bad laws, indirect civil disobedience entails breaking good laws to protest bad ones. Many believe that this latter situation will lead to disrespect for law in general and contribute to moral anarchy in society.
Virtually all Christians will admit that on certain occasions civil disobedience is morally and biblically obligatory, as for example, when a believer is forbidden to preach the gospel (Acts 4). This is a case in which a law seeks to compel me to do evil. In such a case I can, and must, directly violate it. But in the case of abortion, no law is compelling me either to have an abortion or to perform one.
Whereas the previous line of argument may demonstrate that the tactics of OR are not morally obligatory, are they morally permissible? In other words, whereas Christian A may not be right in condemning Christian B for declining to get involved with OR, Christian A is himself morally free to protest abortion in this manner.
The Feinbergs, for example, say No, Christian A is not morally free to utilize the tactics of OR because there is never a case in which it is biblically or morally right to break a good law in order to protest a bad one. Or again, there is never a case in which it is biblically or morally right to break the law in order to protest others' doing of evil.
The advocates of OR are not without a response to this argument. They could argue that a higher, biblical law does indeed require us to do whatever we can to intervene in the protection of innocent life, even if it entails breaking another, lesser, law (the law against trespassing and destruction of private property). In other words, they might argue that a law permitting someone to kill an innocent human being does indeed compel me to directly break a biblical law, namely, the law that requires me to intervene, if possible, to prevent the killing of an innocent person. But does the Bible in fact contain such a law?
Not everyone will agree with the reasoning of the Feinbergs. Let us apply the preceding argumentation to a vivid case in point:
If we believe that the unborn fetus is no less a human being created in the image of God with a right to life than is the one or two-year old toddler, consider the moral response to this scenario:
Next door to your home is an office building in which the practice of infanticide is openly pursued. Infanticide has been declared legal by the U.S. Supreme Court. One day you witness a mother carrying her one-year old baby into the building for the purpose of killing it. What is your moral obligation in such a case? Would you be morally and biblically required to intervene and save, if possible, the life of the one-year old baby? If not morally obligated to do so, would you at least be morally free to do so? How, if at all, does this scenario differ from the mother who, carrying her unborn baby in her womb, enters an abortion clinic for the purpose of killing it? If there is no moral or biblical distinction between their respective rights to life, notwithstanding the law of the land permitting abortion and prohibiting infanticide, on what basis do we forbid one action (intervening to prevent the abortion) and commend the other (intervening to prevent the killing of the baby)?