Murdered for Defending Women’s Rghts

Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Wichita, Kansas, who for decades has been a target for abuse and harassment by anti-abortionists, was shot to death Sunday morning as he attended church.

Tiller was one of the few remaining doctors in the country who performed late-term abortions. His murder is the culmination of a decades-long campaign against both him and Women’s Health Care Services, the clinic he operated.

In June 1986, Tiller’s clinic was bombed — no arrests were ever made in that case. Last month, the clinic was vandalized, with wires to security cameras and outdoor lights cut. The building’s roof was cut through, and downspouts were plugged, leading to flooding that caused thousands of dollars in damage. Tiller had reportedly asked the FBI to investigate.

In 1993, anti-abortion fanatic Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon attempted to murder Tiller, shooting him in both arms. Shannon remains behind bars, convicted of attempted murder and charges stemming from at least six arson and acid-attacks at clinics in Oregon, California, Nevada and Idaho.

According to press reports, a suspect in the murder is in custody, though not charged–he is 51-year-old Scott Roeder of Merriam, Kan. Roeder was allegedly a member at one time of the anti-government militia group known as the “Freemen.” In 1996, he was reportedly found with bomb components in his car trunk.

In a comment left on an anti-abortion Web site two years ago, someone with the same name wrote: “Bleass (sic) everyone for attending and praying in May to bring justice to Tiller and the closing of his death camp.”

Tiller is the fourth abortion provider to be gunned down by “pro-life” extremists since 1993.

That year, Dr. David Gunn was shot to death outside a Pensacola, Florida, clinic. The following year, Dr. John Bayard Britton and one of his volunteer escorts were shot and killed by former minister Paul Hill outside another abortion clinic in Pensacola. Hill had reportedly been “inspired” by Shannon’s attempted murder of Dr. Tiller the year before.

In 1998, anti-choice extremist James Kopp killed Dr. Barnett Slepian in his home in Amhest, N.Y.

As well, there have been dozens of clinic bombings, arsons and other attacks that have injured or frightened staff and volunteers across the country. This includes the 1998 bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., clinic in which nurse Emily Lyons was maimed, and off-duty police officer Robert Sanderson killed by bomber Eric Rudolph.

The immediate aftermath of Tiller’s death included predictable statements from anti-abortion groups claiming that this murder does not represent their movement.

The anti-abortion group Operation Rescue was among those that mercilessly harassed Tiller in life, only to feign surprise and concern at his death. “We are shocked at this morning’s disturbing news that Mr. Tiller was gunned down,” the group said in a statement on its Web site. “Operation Rescue has worked for years through peaceful, legal means, and through the proper channels to see him brought to justice.”

Yet Operation Rescue’s director Troy Newman moved the headquarters of the group’s operations to Wichita in 2002 specifically to target Dr. Tiller. The group launched a “Year of Rebuke” campaign in 2004 that targeted what it termed Tiller’s “collaborators” — anyone with political, professional or social ties to the doctor.

The “Year of Rebuke” included plans for protests at the home of every employee at Tiller’s clinic. Typical of the campaign were hundreds of postcards showing mangled fetuses that were sent to the neighbors of clinic employees like Sara Phares. As author Kimberley Sevcik noted in a Rolling Stone article “One man’s God squad“:

[The card read], “Your neighbor Sara Phares participates in killing babies like these.” The postcard implored them to call Phares, whose phone number and address were provided, and voice their opposition to her work at the clinic. Another card soon followed. It referred to Phares as “Miss I Help to Kill Little Babies” and suggested, in an erratic typeface that recalled a kidnapper’s ransom note, that neighbors “beg her to quit, pretty please.”

One of Phares’s neighbors, a federal agent, called her at work to warn her. “Just be careful, ma’am,” he said. “You never know what kind of nuts these things will draw.”

Founder and former head of Operation Rescue Randall Terry didn’t even pretend to be sorry about the murder. “George Tiller was a mass-murderer,” Terry told the Associated Press. “We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God.”

Terry’s real concern was for the renewed scrutiny that the assassination might bring on the anti-choice movement. He told a reporter:

I am more concerned that the Obama administration will use Tiller’s killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions…Those men and women who slaughter the unborn are murderers according to the Law of God. We must continue to expose them in our communities and peacefully protest them at their offices and homes, and yes, even their churches.

While a far-right fanatic may have pulled the trigger, the truth is that the “respectable” right–and the state of Kansas — put a very large target on George Tiller’s back.

Fox News blowhard Bill O’Reilly repeatedly attacked Tiller on air, referring to him as a “so-called baby killer” and the clinic as a “death mill.” In segments he called “Tiller the Baby Killer,” O’Reilly hurled wild accusations:

In the state of Kansas, there is a doctor, George Tiller, who will execute babies for $5,000 if the mother is depressed. And there are rapists impregnating 10-year-olds who are being protected by abortion clinics. It doesn’t get worse than that.

Tiller was also forced to defend himself against trumped-up criminal charges brought by the state. This March, he was acquitted on 19 counts of performing illegal late-term abortions in 2003. Jurors took just 45 minutes to find Tiller not guilty of failing to secure an independent second opinion, which, under Kansas law, is needed to perform late-term abortions.

The court case against Tiller was brought by then-Kansas Attorney General Phil Kline–an abortion opponent, who later lost re-election and has since become a law professor at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

Given this kind of harassment, it’s not surprising that the number of physicians willing to provide abortions — in particular late-term abortions — has dramatically declined in U.S. in the past several decades.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2005, 87 percent of all U.S. counties (with 35 percent of the U.S. female population) lacked an abortion provider. Just 20 percent of providers offered abortion services after 20 weeks — and only 8 percent of all abortion providers offer abortions at 24 weeks.

This, combined with recent statistics from a Gallup poll, show a troubling shift to the right in attitudes on abortion in the U.S. According to the poll, for the “first time, a majority of U.S. adults have identified themselves as pro-life since Gallup began asking this question in 1995.” The poll found 51 percent describing themselves as “pro-life,” up seven points from a year ago.

As SocialistWorker.org columnist Sharon Smith noted:

Since [Bill] Clinton’s election in 1992, the anti-abortion crusade has remained defiant while the pro-choice movement has been in steady retreat. This is the only way to understand how a small but dedicated army of religious zealots has managed to successfully transform the political terrain in its favor — and why a figure as ridiculous as Randall Terry is now regarded as legitimate within the political mainstream.

Dr. Tiller’s violent death at the hands of an anti-abortion extremist should be a wake-up call to supporters of the right of women to control their own bodies.

Despite the rhetoric — adopted today even by mainstream abortion rights groups — that “no woman wants to have an abortion” and that abortion should be “safe, legal and, above all, rare,” the truth is that some women do desperately need and want to have abortions, and they shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for it.

That was something Dr. George Tiller understood — and ultimately gave his life for. As a statement from Tiller’s family following his murder emphasized:

Our loss is also a loss for the City of Wichita and women across America. George dedicated his life to providing women with high-quality heath care, despite frequent threats and violence. We ask that he be remembered as a good husband, father and grandfather, and a dedicated servant on behalf of the rights of women everywhere.

Nicole Colson writes for Socialist Worker. Read other articles by Nicole, or visit Nicole's website.

19 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Tom Hodges said on June 4th, 2009 at 10:33am #

    Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center successfully sued the KKK for their compliance in the death of Michael Donald. He also successfully sued several other neo-Nazi groups and won large monetary judgments resulting in their bankruptcy. In lieu of Dr. Tiller’s assassination, I feel it would be appropriate for some entity to sue Bill O’Reilly and Fox News, as well as Randall Terry and Operation Rescue. I think you would agree that both individuals and their organizations are responsible for spewing forth HATE, and I feel a good case could be made in court that they contributed to Dr. Tiller’s death, in the same way the United Klans of America, White Aryan Resistance, and other neo-Nazi groups contributed to hate crimes against minorities.

  2. Jim K said on June 4th, 2009 at 11:17am #

    Here’s some opinions from different sources on the horrid shooting:
    http://www.newsy.com/videos/free_speech_or_sparking_violence

    Notice the gist? The thing that strikes me is the debate that video tries to frame: are we going to let murder be turned into an argument over free speech? Let’s not get sidetracked on laying the blame on different sources, let’s focus on the fact that a man was murdered for performing his job. Tiller is a martyr and this is about the dangers of fundamentalism, not that hack Bill O’Reilly. If we let him become a lightning rod then we’ve lost focus of the real target, the religious right like Operation Rescue.

  3. BARB said on June 5th, 2009 at 12:25pm #

    Tiller’s killer murdered one man. Tiller became a millionaire by murdering thousands. He got what he justly deserved.

  4. lichen said on June 5th, 2009 at 1:08pm #

    No, it is murder to bring more unwanted children into our overpopulated world; especially if they will be raised by child-beating christians.

  5. Tyrvald said on June 6th, 2009 at 3:43pm #

    It must also be noted that late-term abortions are the result of medical necessity or grim circumstance. We must not allow an inquisition against women’s health and medicine! To the supposedly pro-life an egg with sperm around it is a human being, a clump of growing cells is a human being, a fetus that never grew a brain is a human being… but a child is nothing but property and an adult is nothing but a consumer.

  6. Deadbeat said on June 6th, 2009 at 8:53pm #

    Speaking of women’s health, there seems to be a disconnect with women’s health and the demand for single payer. The Hyde Amendment has been voted on every year since 1978 denying poor women their right to an abortion. If there is a struggle going on for single payer how will abortions be handled under this system of federal guarantees.

    In other words I never hear single payer advocates address this contentious issue. Are they fearful they would lose support for single payer because abortions then would have to be covered? Will this remove the obtrusive Hyde Amendment? It is an interesting question that I haven’t quite seen addressed.

  7. Tyrvald said on June 8th, 2009 at 2:43am #

    I’ve had a lot of arguments with supposed “libertarians” (Republicans?) who frankly don’t like they idea of paying for heart disease treatment if someone ate hamburgers. I’m a vegan, but I don’t support the death penalty for eating meat! Medical treatment should be provided by doctors and the government should pay these non-profit hospitals and clinics for providing care to all who seek it.

    Poor women would have their right to control their reproduction. There would be no question about that here in California if we ever get single-payer, state or federal. It’s not Communist healthcare, unless you believed President Reagan! The taxes pay the bills, the physicians care for their patients {period}

  8. Tyrvald said on June 8th, 2009 at 3:21am #

    The government wouldn’t be able to gain access to patient records to see who required an abortion, let alone the reason for it. You’d just report operating costs and statistics, which couldn’t be audited in such a way to deny some of the women an abortion while allowing it in other more gruesome situations. I don’t see how they could get away with underfunding a clinic that offered more abortions than another. Medical privacy would almost certainly win in this battle!

  9. Melissa said on June 8th, 2009 at 7:08am #

    Anti-abortion and pro-life? What a twisted play on minds and words. The two are mutually exclusive it seems.

    Why are the unborn more valued and worthy of lobby $ than the born, living, children? It’s just wierd.

    Peace, Melissa

  10. Michael Hureaux said on June 8th, 2009 at 9:17am #

    Yes. The pro-lifers are all so pro life that no child in this country does without shelter, nutrition, health care, or basic education. I stopped listening to them years ago. It takes a special breed of sociopath to build a “pro-life” movement that preys on the emotional stress any woman who decides to abort experiences in making such a decision. Most pro-lifers are obdurate, dogmatic people who think the complexities of life can be shuffled into neat little categories, and the fact that their more ardent supporters resort to violence so often should surprise no one at all.

    This country talks about individuals, but has no commitment to making sure every individual grows up with the rudiments of life guaranteed. So long as there are throw-away people, there will always be throw-away fetuses. No level of life is important enough to us that we’re willing to uphold the sanctity of life over the imperatives of profit and production. And until we reach that place, abortion will be a regular part of our lives. Given that, it has to remain safe and legal. As the pro-choice movement has always asked, if you can’t trust a woman with a personal choice, what makes you think you can trust her with a child?

  11. Michael G. said on June 8th, 2009 at 9:27am #

    I am a member of an organization, Consistent Life. We oppose all forms of violence, including the taking of human life, which abortion does. I invite everyone to visit our site at http://www.consistent-life.org. I host a radio program on a low power fm station, WVLP. The program is quite Left, and is wryly named ‘The Liberal Bias Media Hour’. Podcasts can be accessed at http://www.wvlp.org. The program champions GLBT rights, No wars, economic justice, No death penalty, and virtually every NOMINALLY Left or Liberal cause. Strictly non-violent, I oppose killings by abortion. I very strongly support women and their born childrens’ right to economic opportunity, right to the best healthcare, and dignity. This is not a contradiction as you suggest at the end of your piece. I also suggest that you check out the organization Democrats For Life (although my politics run left of theirs), they are but one of many groups who are not at all conservatives and are pro-life. Of course, there are even more individuals who are not members of anorganization who are also pro-life and quite progressive.

    Bill O’Reilly disgusts me, as does his ilk. Many other anti-abortion people that I have met over decades abhor the ugliness of the rhetoric of such voices that claim to be pro-life, but that I agree with you are actually only anti-abortion.

    Your stereotyping of people of nonviolence who believe in reverence for all life, especially human life, as right-wing bullies does a great disservice to their cause, which is a good one. Why do you think that I’m a reader of your site in the first place?

    Wanting to be able to say, “There are no enemies on the Left!”, I will continue to work for peace and justice, and truly with no violence, trying to keep an open mind and engaging in intelligent discourse.

    Michael G.

  12. bozh said on June 8th, 2009 at 10:17am #

    it seems that people who oppose all abortions attribute only one reason for it: since fetus has a soul, it is murder to perform abortions.

    once again one reason or one cause justifies killing a doctor for doing abortions. Causes/reasons for not killing a doctor who does abortions do not exist to these people.
    they also do not believe in multiple causes for abortions. Theoretically speaking, causative factors in need or must to abort one fetus may differ from causative factors for most other abortions.

    in fact, anti-abortionists do not allow even one [justifiable or otherewise] cause for abortions let alone a multitude.
    such thinking represents an absolutism. One of the causes for such absolutism is the teaching by the bible. Another is reinforcement of the absolutistic attitude by other absolutists.
    clergy is also responsible for that attitude. Believing that bible was a dictation from god, is the largest reason for wrong thinking. tnx

  13. Tyrvald said on June 8th, 2009 at 12:53pm #

    If you would have the government deny women access to reproductive choice, you are a misogynistic sadist! Forced pregnancy is rape and rape is a form of torture. Would you vicariously rape someone to death? No woman should ever be assaulted, arrested, imprisoned or institutionalized for choosing not to experience the physical changes, agony and mortal danger of carrying an embryo and giving birth to a child!

  14. Suthiano said on June 8th, 2009 at 1:30pm #

    Tyrvald,

    I agree,

    however,

    Many should choose not to have unprotected sex but do. Not just those without access to protection. PPL are generally irresponsible when it comes to pleasure, myself included, and (un)fortunately that’s how babies are made.

  15. Tyrvald said on June 8th, 2009 at 3:27pm #

    When a woman consents to sex with a man, she is not agreeing to create a human being from his genetic material. Should not irresponsible people who accidently get pregnant choose not to irresponsibly bare children?

  16. lichen said on June 8th, 2009 at 3:43pm #

    Yes, when unwanted children are forced to be born, the child, both parents, and society as a whole suffers; abortion should be universally available, and so should contraceptives/education about them.

  17. Barry99 said on June 8th, 2009 at 5:43pm #

    All societies now and since the beginning of human time have made decisions about the worthiness of lives. We send our youths off to war, execute those found guilty, and expect people to work dangerous jobs. So life is not so sacred after all. So when it comes to human fetuses, I have to side with the right of women not to be forced to carry a pregnancy to term. Besides, that’s what American women want – the right of reproduction when and if they choose. What, I’m going to be some guy telling women that their uterus does not belong to them? The termination of pregnancies is a small price to pay in a society that expects sex of us all.

  18. Avenger said on July 6th, 2009 at 6:15am #

    Nicole, Nicole, Nicole!! Tiller was murdered because he murdered countless thousands of little human beings! Think of one of your loved ones, and imagine them still in the womb. Then imagine a monster like Tiller ripping their little arms and legs off as he performs his brutal assault on their little defenseless body! Tiller was a cold, vicious murderer. I’m quite sure he is now reaping the results of the evil he has sowed.

  19. Harry Canary said on July 6th, 2009 at 9:41am #

    Avenger, Avenger, Avenger!! If that is indeed your real name. (It probably really is Sydney Dweeble) Murder is murder is murder. Those making excuses for murders are no better than the murderers themselves. As much as it makes you feel superior to be a Christian with a capital C complete with brass bands, patriotism, wars and murderers of doctors you condemn yourself with your two faced, weaselly words and hypocritical actions. Think of the Savior driving out the money changers from the temple with knotted cords. He would surely be equally outraged at todays TV preachers with their silk suits and prosperity gospel let alone the anti abortionists pretending to be pro life while supporting murder and war.