Kansas Abortion Provider Murdered

Dr. George Tiller, a Witchita, Kansas, doctor who provided abortion services was gunned down yesterday while ushering for services at his church.

I’m not sure what to say about this. Numerous voices have already chimed in on both sides, and it is hard to know what I can offer to the discussion, beyond my own anger, sadness and outrage.  But, yes, just as we go to demonstrations, one more face in the crowd, to register our views, I want to stand up and register my anger, sadness and outrage over the murder of Dr. Tiller.But since so many other commentators are already discussing the murder itself and its background – such as previous incidents in which Dr. Tiller was shot and his clinic bombed – I won’t say much about that, but confine myself to some observations, unstructured and “in the heat of the moment” as they may be.

guardian_redThe death of Dr. Tiller appears more prominently on the homepage of The Guardian newspaper in the UK than here in the United States on the New York Times website, where it has been pushed into a minor position in the “More News” section, in part by the extensive coverage of GM’s bankruptcy. The Guardian also takes a more passionate tone, titling their piece “For years anti-abortionists tried to stop Doctor Tiller. Finally a bullet did” – in sharp contrast to the blandly factual titles of the NYT pieces on Dr. Tiller’s murder. There is also an excellent op-ed/comment piece discussing, among other things, the hate speech that contributed to this crime.

Operation Rescue has long been a major spewer of such hate speech. Operation Rescue, which mounted regular mass protests against Dr. Tiller, pushed for legal action against him, and maintained a “Tiller Watch” page on its website, was quick to distance itself from the doctor’s murder, and his murderer, but not all anti-abortion groups were as reserved. Dave Leach, the editor of the anti-abortion newsletter, Prayer and Action News to which the alleged murdered Scott Roeder subscribed, said that he and the alleged killer shared similar views on abortion and added, “To call this a crime is too simplistic. There is Christian scripture that would support this.”

All the anti-abortion groups that have preached for years that abortion is murder and that thousands of “innocents” were being killed each year by people like Dr. Tiller, that exhorted their followers to stop these crimes, and that have claimed like Leach that the Bible supports killing doctors who provide abortions must bear a heavy burden of responsibility for the death of Dr. Tiller. The language on Operation Rescue’s website is typical of the extreme rhetoric used to incite followers of anti-abortion groups: clinics providing abortions are called “death chambers,” days they are open are “killing days,” legal abortions are compared to Hitler’s final solution, and not only the doctors but also women who have abortions are called murderers. Given this kind of language and their sustained campaign against Dr. Tiller, Operation Rescue’s share of that burden of responsibility should be particularly heavy.

The perverse and bitterly ironic fact that Dr. Tiller was gunned down at the door of his church, the Reformation Lutheran Church, where he was ushering for Sunday services while his wife was inside with the choir, should cause every decent Christian, regardless of their views on abortion, to denounce hate-mongering, fundamentalist groups like Operation Rescue and Prayer and Action News.

In “Hello Birmingham,” Ani DiFranco sings of the 1998 murder of another doctor who performed abortions, Dr. Barnett Slepian, who was shot by a sniper while sitting with his family in his home in the Buffalo area. A fan video, setting this song to images, was posted on YouTube, and in the hours since Dr. Tiller’s murder, it has received a number of posts commemorating Dr. Tiller:

NARAL has a webpage “In Memory of Dr. George Tiller” that includes information on what you can do in response bo this death. They have a link that you can use to show appreciation and support for his staff.

PlannedParenthoodPlanned Parenthood has also released a statement on the death of Dr. Tiller through their main organization and also through the Planned Parenthood Action Center on “The Loss of a Hero.”

Events such as this have a profoundly chilling effect, which is part of why they are an effective tactic for fundamentalist anti-abortion extremists. Killing a doctor or blowing up a clinic generates a powerful wave of fear – of terror, which is why this is a terrorist act. I can attest to the chilling effect, and the terror, from first-hand experience. As a volunteer escorting women into a clinic providing abortion services, I saw women turn away rather than run the gauntlet of anti-abortion fundamentalists, spitting and jeering and yelling about “murder.” Later, working for the Planned Parenthood national organization, we had to take serious security precautions, and on one occasion our offices were evacuated when a white powder, supposed to be anthrax, was received through the mail.

With the murder of doctors, bombing of clinics, and the general violence and intimidation of anti-abortion fundamentalists, the chilling effect is far-reaching:

  • medical students don’t study abortion procedures or pursue interests in reproductive health;
  • doctors and medical facilities don’t offer abortions;
  • pharmaceutical companies and medical researchers don’t research drugs or procedures related to abortion or birth control;
  • property owners refuse to lease premises to clinics providing reproductive health services or to groups like Planned Parenthood; and so on.

It’s a powerful lesson in the ability of a small group to achieve its aims through intimidation. It bothers me a bit that the protests that I get involved with, for instance against the war in Iraq, or Chevron, don’t seem nearly as intimidating, but I hope to a certain extent that is because we are not willing to engage in the same level of rhetorical violence, let alone actual violence, as these fundamentalists, and because nice people are easier to scare and guilt-trip than bad people…

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