Question: Is it sinful to physically attack a doctor who performs abortions and break his fingers so that he can not perform an abortion? If yes, why? If no, why? Does it depend on the circumstances?

Arguments against:

  1. It would seem that one should not attack a doctor because he is not doing something unlawful.
  2. It would seem that one should not attack a doctor because one does not have the authority to exert violence.

However, these arguments seem not to be good. To explain why I will give an analogy.

Imagine a situation where some guy wants to dismember a 3-year-old child. You see him going toward the child, and you know for certain what he plans to do. You are able to stop him via violence (and no-one except that guy will be harmed in the process). However, your stopping him will be illegal. It still seems that you should stop the guy. This analogy seems to explain why neither authority nor what is (il)legal matter, and therefore it shows why arguments against are not good arguments. Also, it is often said that: "Necessity does not know the law." And that "Unjust laws are not really laws."

  1. If it were not sinful to attack a doctor who performs abortions someone would already be doing it. But we did not see such a case.

Arguments for:

  1. Using the same analogy as above, it seems not only that it is not sinful to attack a doctor, but that we have a duty to attack a doctor, just as we would have a duty to stop someone (if we are able to) who wants to dismember a 3-year-old child.

Maybe the arguments above depend on whether we see a doctor who directly goes to the hospital to perform an abortion, but not to a doctor who does not directly go to perform an abortion.

I am interested in responses from a Catholic viewpoint (preferably a natural law response).

  • A question like this needs to be carefully scoped, so I've modified it accordingly. Adding the scope to the title made it too long, so I shortened it a bit as well. Aug 22, 2019 at 15:40
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    I initially voted to close as 'is X a sin' is off topic unless scoped to a denomination (which I at first did not see). I still kind of see this as should be closed as you haven't shown any research on the subject. There are several vaguely related questions here and here
    – depperm
    Aug 22, 2019 at 16:11
  • @depperm I thought about the question a lot, however, I do not see the answer clearly. If you think that the answer is a corollary of these two questions you linked, I would be thankful for your answer.
    – Thom
    Aug 22, 2019 at 16:20
  • I have the felling that this question is more opinion based than doctrine based. The Catholic Church does not permit such acts by the individual and through his own judgment in dealing with sinners. This question deserves to be closed.
    – Ken Graham
    Aug 23, 2019 at 22:30
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    The mothers-to-be are just as guilty. What about them? Kill the doctor and the others get off without penalty. How unjust!
    – Ken Graham
    Sep 7, 2019 at 1:43

4 Answers 4


Ends do not justify means.

It is never permissible to do evil so that good may come about: "let us not do evil that there may come good" (Rom. 3:8). Sin sometimes must be tolerated in order to prevent a greater evil.

St. Thomas Aquinas's answer to the question of "Whether the rites of unbelievers ought to be tolerated?" (Summa Theologica II-II q. 10 a. 11 co.) could be applied, mutatis mutandis, to whether abortionists ought to be tolerated:

although God is all-powerful and supremely good, nevertheless He allows certain evils to take place in the universe, which He might prevent, lest, without them, greater goods might be forfeited, or greater evils ensue. Accordingly in human government also, those who are in authority, rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred: thus Augustine says (De Ordine ii, 4): "If you do away with harlots [or abortionists], the world will be convulsed with lust."

cf. Vermeersch, S.J.'s Tolerance

In "Whether human law should repress all vices?" (Summa Theologica I-II q. 96 a. 2 co.), St. Thomas shows that human law should forbid murder:

human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.

Thus, "laws" permitting murder are no laws at all.

Abortion a state of war?

If the millions of abortions happening yearly constitute a state of war, then just war theory might be applicable. "In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary" (Summa Theologica II-II q. 40 a. 1 co.):

  1. "the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged"

  2. "a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked [e.g., abortionists], should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault [e.g., killing innocent babies]."

  3. "it is necessary that the belligerents [e.g., anti-abortionists] should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil [e.g., ending abortion]."

Conditions #2 and #3 certainly could apply to abortion, but it is unclear that condition #1 applies. Has any civil ruler ever openly declared war against abortion?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Peter Turner
    Aug 23, 2019 at 15:16
  • Note that while St. Thomas's arguments are good and representative of church teaching, the Summae aren't church teaching-- the arguments presented here are totally compatible with Catholic teaching but rejecting portions of the Summae isn't rejecting church teaching-- other theologic and moral positions are acceptable within the broader bounds of the Church's teaching. Aug 24, 2019 at 23:07
  • I mention this because a citation from a strictly binding document-- like the CCC or canon law or a papal bull or something-- might allow this answer to make the stronger claim that the Church forbids such violence rather than allows and generally encourages inasmuch as Thomastic theology is encouraged that one not do it. Aug 24, 2019 at 23:09
  • @thedarkwanderer There is no doubt that the Church teaches that ends do not justify means; Romans 3:8 clearly says: "let us not do evil that there may come good".
    – Geremia
    Aug 24, 2019 at 23:30
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    @thedarkwanderer The 1992 new catechism is not a "strictly binding document". Even bulls or encyclicals are not necessarily infallible. St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica has authority because the Church "invests it with its own authority".
    – Geremia
    Aug 24, 2019 at 23:38

According to Catholicism, is it sinful to physically harm abortion doctors or expectant mothers in order to prevent them from having an abortions?

The short answer is yes.

The big objection with your example is it is the mothers to be who are are going to such doctors. Should they also be the ones to be harmed or even sterilized in order to stop future abortions, your question does not address!

It is true that the ends do not justify the means as Geremia’s answer points out.

St. Thomas Aquinas states the individual does not have this right, for it remains with the state. Only the state can judge such sins and carry out sentences involving prison, mutilation or even death.

On the contrary, Augustine says (De Civ. Dei i) [Can. Quicumque percutit, caus. xxiii, qu. 8: "A man who, without exercising public authority, kills an evil-doer, shall be judged guilty of murder, and all the more, since he has dared to usurp a power which God has not given him."

I answer that, As stated above (Article 2), it is lawful to kill an evildoer in so far as it is directed to the welfare of the whole community, so that it belongs to him alone who has charge of the community's welfare. Thus it belongs to a physician to cut off a decayed limb, when he has been entrusted with the care of the health of the whole body. Now the care of the common good is entrusted to persons of rank having public authority: wherefore they alone, and not private individuals, can lawfully put evildoers to death. - Question 64. Murder

If St. Thomas says that it is unlawful for the individual to execute the guilty, it follows that the individual can not harm that same said evil doer. Besides in our present day, he is protected by law as abortion is not considered a sin or crime by many modern governments.

No one has the right (privilege) to take the law into his own hands.

It is the law that allows abortion to flourish that must be changed in order to stop a doctor from accomplishing such crimes. Until then the doctor is protected by the law of the state.

Since many states allow abortion, the question of how to stop this crime in our modern society is very complex to say the least.

The main point here is that society has to be sanctified. And that main work: a lot of work. It must always start with individuals and work outwards.

We must be willing to do penance and mortifications in order the our modern societies will repeal the laws allowing abortion. We need many more St. John Vianneys in order to bring holiness back into the Church and society in general. This is the way to really stop abortions.

To end the practice of abortion; both contraception and pornography must also vanish from being mainstream in every day life. Hearts and minds must renewed and purified, otherwise abortion will simply continue as it is.

Yes, we have our work cut out for us.

13 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. - Submission to Governing Authorities

Besides, no pope or council has or ever will officially accept the idea that doing harm to an abortion doctor is sinless, since it stops abortions. Let’s do our part by doing penance, mortifications and prayer in order to convert the sinner.

Nowhere does the teaching magisterium of the Church allows us to exercise our personal ideologies outside established laws of legitimate governments. The Church does not and will not permit individualistic anarchism to rule.

Individualist anarchism refers to several traditions of thought within the anarchist movement that emphasize the individual and his will over external determinants such as groups, society, traditions and ideological systems. Individualist anarchism is not a single philosophy, but it refers to a group of individualistic philosophies that sometimes are in conflict. Benjamin Tucker, a famous 19th century individualist anarchist, held that "if the individual has the right to govern himself, all external government is tyranny".

Open season on abortion doctors is not a Catholic social teaching that I have heard about!

If the Catholic Church were to allow the faithful to physically harm or mutilate a physician in order to stop him from preforming abortions, it would be widely known. No such principles exist in Catholic thought, tradition, philosophy or theology. End of argument!

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    We need to make a distinction between, 1) Punishing someone, 2) Defending someone. I agree that if someone wanted to punish some evil-doer that he can not do it because he does not have the authority to do it. However, the case, where the abortion doctor who walks toward the hospital to perform an abortion is attacked is not punishment, but rather a defense of the innocent from immediate danger. It seems to me that Aquinas is not speaking of defending the innocent but rather of punishing someone for some crime with a lack of proper authority.
    – Thom
    Aug 23, 2019 at 21:47
  • It is the law that allows abortion to flourish that must be changed in order to stop a doctor from accomplishing such crimes; not harming or mutilating him.
    – Ken Graham
    Aug 23, 2019 at 21:55
  • I understand your stance, but one cannot take the law into one’s own hands.
    – Ken Graham
    Aug 23, 2019 at 22:19
  • The big objection with your example is it is the mothers to be who are are going to such doctors. Are they the ones to be harmed or sterilized in order to stop future abortions? Your question does not address this issue.
    – Ken Graham
    Aug 24, 2019 at 23:36
  • @Thom Answer your own question if you want?
    – Ken Graham
    Sep 7, 2019 at 1:44

From "Moral Theology" by Fr. Heribert Jone (a book that was recommended to me by a traditional Catholic priest), Section 215 on self-defense: "One may defend the life and possessions of others even as he may defend his own."

So when and to what extent may I defend my own life? From the same book: "An unjust aggressor may be killed if the following conditions are verified: 1. The goods to be so defended are of great value. Such goods are life, integrity of one's members, [several more are listed but not relevant here].... 2. The aggression must be actual and unjust. ... Actual aggression is an imminent or practically present assault which cannot be evaded. ... Unjust aggression is had when the assault is at least materially unwarranted. Therefore one my kill an insane or intoxicated person in self-defense. 3. The defense must be moderate, i.e., the assailant must not be injured more than is absolutely necessary to insure self-protection ...."

I conclude from this that killing an abortionist would be permissible only if (s)he were at that moment committing an abortion (not merely planning to do so in the future) and killing were the least injurious way to prevent the abortion. This also presupposes that it really would prevent the abortion, not merely result in another doctor committing it.


Short answer: Yes.

However, the reason why is not so simple. I found an answer by Germain Grisez which, it seems to me, is satisfactory:

I am a woman, a nurse, and consider myself a feminist, but I accept the Church’s teaching that abortion is always wrong. Indeed, if the Church did not teach that, I would have a hard time believing anything it does teach about practical matters. I also am convinced that abortion should no more be legal than killing you or me or anyone else. But the fact of the matter is that in this country abortion is legal and, at least for now, there does not seem much hope of making it illegal. We therefore need some clear guidelines on our duties regarding abortion.

I have friends who have done sidewalk counseling; one of them also has engaged in rescues.435 For various reasons—one of which admittedly is cowardice—up to now I have been unwilling to do either of those things. My friends think I am failing to do my duty. The one who has been involved in rescues argues that everyone has the same duty to try to stop abortions as to try to stop the killing of an already-born child, the only difference being that the Supreme Court’s ukase has made abortion legal.

While I see the force of his argument, it seems to me to prove too much. Specifically, it seems to point to a duty to gun down abortionists—something a few people have done, but hardly anyone approves of, much less regards as a duty. Let me explain. My work as a visiting nurse sometimes takes me into rough neighborhoods at all hours. After one bad experience that I will not go into, I learned to use a handgun, got a gun and a license, and now carry the gun at all times in my shoulder bag. Suppose I am walking down the street and see a man brutally beating a small child with a baseball bat; I take out my gun and order him to stop; he shouts a threat at me, turns, and hits the child again. Surely, it would be right for me to shoot him, and, as I was taught to do, I would aim at the middle of his back to give myself the best chance of stopping him. If I killed him without using more bullets than necessary to stop him, I am sure nobody would object. But if everyone has the same duty to try to stop abortions as to try to stop the killing of an already-born child, then I have a duty to gun down abortionists.

While I would like to know what you think of the argument between my friend and me, I am more interested in the broader question: Does everyone have a duty to try to stop abortions?


This question calls for applying norms regarding civic responsibility and the use of force to protect innocent people’s lives. Everyone who recognizes the evils of abortion and its legalization should do something to oppose them. But since each individual has his or her unique personal vocation, each must discern what he or she ought to do. Prima facie, the justification of force to defend the innocent seems to extend to gunning down abortionists. Although arguments against doing so drawn from prospective bad consequences are not decisive, the action is unjustifiable insofar as, rather than being an effective means of protecting the lives of unborn persons, it is a revolutionary act that surely will not succeed.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Abortion and its legalization are great evils.436 They differ in some ways from the mass murders carried out under Stalin, Hitler, and others, but also in some ways are comparable to those crimes and in other ways even worse: because of the greater numbers being killed, their total innocence and defenselessness, the essential role played by those primarily responsible for nurturing the victims, the widespread support of this slaughter by both rulers and people in so-called liberal democratic nations, and the complicity in the killings of so many religious leaders, educators, people trained in law, health care professionals, people in the mass media, and so on.

Everyone who recognizes the evils of abortion and its legalization should do something to oppose them. What that should be depends on an individual’s unique opportunities and capacities. Opportunities—what can be done—are limited to what is morally acceptable as well as to what is possible in other respects; one’s capacities are limited by one’s other responsibilities. All of us should do what we can, that is, some of the morally acceptable things that are in our power and that we can do without neglecting duties that flow from other elements of personal vocation to which we already have committed ourselves or which, being inescapable, we have accepted as God’s will. So, for instance, the contemplative nun and the bedridden man in a nursing home ought to work against abortion chiefly by praying for divine intervention or by writing letters of protest, not leaving the cloister or sickbed to participate in your friends’ work at clinics.

Your friends’ commitment to their effort is commendable, but they and others engaged in a particular sort of activity against abortion, its legalization, or any other injustice should not think or say that everyone should do the same. Whether or not you should take part in their efforts, they are wrong in pressuring you. Conscientiously examine your opportunities and capacities and discern what you should do about abortion. Though your appropriate contribution might partly coincide with theirs, it also might well be entirely different.

As for your friend’s argument that everyone has the same duty to try to stop abortions as to try to stop the killing of an already-born child, your counterargument—that this would imply a duty on your part to gun down abortionists—might not move him. He might accept that implication and urge you to put your gun and your skill in using it to good use. Of course, he might say it would be wrong to aim at the middle of the back of the brutal man in your example instead of aiming, say, at his shoulder, and, likewise, that it would be wrong for you to kill abortionists rather than choosing some less drastic way of stopping them—for example, cutting off their hands. However, that would not address the issue your argument raises, namely, whether you are soundly applying the principles that can justify using as much force as necessary to defend innocent life. Prima facie, it seems sound, for you could gun down an abortionist with precisely the same intention with which you would shoot the brutal man beating the child: not intending to kill or even injure him, but only to stop him and protect the victim.437 Moreover, since in both cases those being stopped are engaging in objective injustices that should be stopped, in neither case would you be acting unfairly toward those you stopped, provided you used the minimally destructive means adequate to protect the victim.

Your friend could reply that, despite their common features, the two cases differ in other morally relevant respects. He might offer four arguments. First, that gunning down abortionists is hard to reconcile with the Christian gospel, which emphasizes loving even enemies and seeking the conversion of evildoers. A dead abortionist cannot repent; women prevented from obtaining the abortion they wanted are unlikely to be moved to repent by the abortionist’s death; and many hearts, reacting self-righteously against the killing of an abortionist, are likely to be hardened with respect to the slaughter of the unborn. Second, he might say it clouds prolife witness by making it seem that even those who oppose abortion approve killing people when they think doing so would serve some good end. Third, he might say that the cases of shooting abortionists have proved it to be counterproductive. It provokes a strong, negative reaction from most people and countermeasures by public officials that impede every other form of prolife work, not least nonviolent direct action such as sidewalk counseling. Fourth, your friend could suggest with some plausibility that violence against abortionists serves as a bad example for many sorts of extremists, thus contributing to an increase in the lawlessness and unjustifiable violence already common in our society.

You can, of course, point out in reply that none of those considerations is decisive, since the gospel does not entirely forbid the use of force to defend the innocent (such as the child being beaten to death with the baseball bat), and, although gunning down abortionists has some bad consequences, it also has various good side effects. For example, it bears witness to the truth that unborn babies are no different in human worth and personal dignity from people already born; it keeps alive the awareness that legalized abortion is morally equivalent to murder and not similar to other morally questionable practices and institutions tolerable in a generally good and just society; and it serves as an example of unselfish courage in a society pervaded by self-indulgence and moral cowardice.

Your friend might reply in either of two ways. He could accept the conclusion and concede that under appropriate conditions, which probably seldom occur, it is morally right to use as much force as necessary to stop abortionists.

Or he could point out another difference between stopping the brutal man in your example and gunning down abortionists. The brutal man is an isolated wrongdoer whose violence is afforded no protection by society and its institutions. But abortionists are others’ agents—they serve women who have decided to get rid of their unborn children—and both doing and having abortions are socially accepted, protected by law, and even, in some respects, supported by public policy. The fellow beating the small child with a baseball bat almost certainly will not be replaced if you shoot him. Thus, your effort very likely will achieve your good end of protecting the child. But if you gun down one or even many abortionists, the women who meant to use their services, and others who will decide to obtain abortions, certainly can—and almost all probably will—find someone else to kill their unborn babies. And while killing or maiming large numbers of abortionists might have a temporary deterrent effect on actual and potential abortionists, it probably would quickly provoke a well-organized public response. New governmental programs almost certainly would make doing abortions more lucrative and provide abortionists with special protections and privileges. Abortion probably would be at least as widely available as it is now, so that no fewer, and perhaps even more, unborn babies would be killed. Since our society already is deeply committed to the evils of abortion and its legalization, gunning down abortionists therefore would be pointless unless one went on to gun down the public officials who support abortion. But that would be starting a revolution with no prospect of success; and, like war generally, a revolution without a prospect of success is unjust to the nation, whose common good it injures rather than promotes. Therefore, your friend could conclude, gunning down abortionists is unjust, while nonviolent direct action—rescues, sidewalk counseling, picketing abortionists’ homes—is just.

But should you participate? Perhaps. More likely, it seems to me, your unique capacities and opportunities call you to make your contribution in some other way—for example, working to persuade other nurses to resist pressures to participate in doing abortions and/or using your knowledge and professional contacts to help desperate women find a suitable alternative to abortion.

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    Could you perhaps summarise the salient points in this rather long text? Mar 19, 2020 at 9:44
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    I do not see any doctrinal points noted by any Catholic theologians. Geremia’s answer is far superior to this one!
    – Ken Graham
    Mar 19, 2020 at 14:43

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