On Roe v. Wade's Anniversary: Let's Reflect on the Consequences of Violent Rhetoric, Which Abortion Providers Know All Too Well
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With the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that affirms women’s right to choose abortion, approaching tomorrow, National Abortion Federation President Vicki Saporta calls civil dialogue a national responsibility.
I was saddened and disturbed on January 8th when I heard the news about the shooting in Tucson that left six people dead and 14 others injured, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. As the coverage began to focus on possible political motivations for the attack and the influence of violent rhetoric, I couldn’t help but think about the parallels between this tragic event in Arizona and the senseless murders of eight abortion providers and clinic staff, including my friend Dr. George Tiller.
Both Congresswoman Giffords and Dr. Tiller were gunned down in public. Congresswoman Giffords was interacting with her constituents at a “Congress on Your Corner” event and Dr. Tiller was ushering at the church where he and his wife had been active members for more than 20 years. Both of them were shot in the head at point-blank range, and both incidents caused our nation to examine the prevalence and effect of violent political and ideological rhetoric.
Unfortunately, this discussion is not new to the abortion provider community. Since 1993, there have been eight murders and 17 attempted murders of physicians and clinic staff.
Abortion opponents have a long history of using violent rhetoric to attempt to justify their crimes and incite others to violence. They regularly refer to abortion providers as “murderers” in interviews and articles and utilize imagery associated with murder such as “wanted” posters and “hit lists” in their campaigns to end legal abortion. Unfortunately, instead of marginalizing these extremists, other opponents of abortion have picked up on this dangerous rhetoric to advance their political agenda.
The devastation this rhetoric can cause has been keenly experienced by the abortion provider community. In late 1992, Michael Griffin, who had no history in the anti-abortion movement, became involved with a local anti-abortion leader who took him under his wing and mentored him by showing him graphic anti-abortion videos and involving him in efforts to target a local clinic where Dr. David Gunn worked. Earlier that year abortion opponents had distributed western-style "wanted" posters featuring a picture of Dr. Gunn, his home phone number, and other identifying information. In 1993, Dr. Gunn became the first abortion provider to be murdered; shot to death by Griffin in Pensacola, Florida.
Following the murder of Dr. Gunn, anti-abortion extremists publicly advanced the idea that the murder of abortion providers was “justifiable.” Paul Hill appeared in media outlets, including the nationally televised Donahue show, calling for the execution of abortion providers. In fact, he was so well-known for making such inflammatory statements that reporters often asked him, “If you believe so strongly in killing doctors, why don’t you do it yourself?” One year later, Hill acted on the violent words he had been preaching when he shot and killed Dr. John Bayard Britton and volunteer escort Lt. Col. James Barrett, and injured June Barrett, in the driveway of a Pensacola, Florida, abortion clinic. Hill’s ideas were carried forward by others including James Kopp, who unsuccessfully attempted to use a “justifiable homicide” defense during his trial for the 1998 murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian in Buffalo, New York.
Scott Roeder, convicted last year for the murder of Dr. Tiller, also testified in court that his actions were justified and made repeated unsuccessful attempts to use a so-called “necessity defense.” Prior to murdering Dr. Tiller, Roeder had been in contact with others who advocated using violence against abortion providers, and was influenced by the media and what he watched on TV. He testified in court that he converted to Christianity as an adult after watching conservative programs like “The 700 Club.” Roeder stated that he believed Dr. Tiller was a murderer, a belief advanced by Bill O’Reilly, who repeatedly referred to Dr. Tiller on national TV as “Tiller the Killer.”