Murdered for defending women’s rights

June 1, 2009

Nicole Colson reports on the murder of an abortion provider in Kansas who faced a quarter-century of hate and violence from the misnamed "right to life."

DR. GEORGE TILLER, an abortion provider in Wichita, Kan., 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.

Dr. George Tiller
Dr. George Tiller

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, Fla., 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.

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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 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.

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