Piecing Together the Murder of Dr. George Tiller: Right-Wing Violence Rears Its Head
Dr. George Tiller, one of the few OB-GYNs in the country who performed late-term abortions despite ongoing threats to his safety, was fatally shot yesterday while attending a church service in Wichita, Kan. Scott Roeder, 51, has been detained for questioning.
Roeder -- a registered Republican previously arrested for having bomb materials in his car -- posted this chilling message on an Operation Rescue Web site called Charge Tiller in 2007 (via the Daily Kos):
It seems as though what is happening in Kansas could be compared to the "lawlessness" which is spoken of in the Bible. Tiller is the concentration camp "Mengele" of our day and needs to be stopped before he and those who protect him bring judgement upon our nation.
Tiller had long faced the threat of right-wing violence. The Tiller Women’s Health Clinic clinic was bombed in 1985; in 1993, Tiller was shot in both arms by abortion protester Rachelle Shannon. The heavily fortified clinic was guarded by a private security team, and Tiller relied on a bodyguard outside of work.
Recently, Tiller had aired concerns about his safety to federal investigators. The Associated Press reports:
[Tiller's Attorney Dan] Monnat said Tiller had asked federal prosecutors to step up investigations of vandalism and other threats against the clinic out of fear that the incidents were increasing and that Tiller's safety was in jeopardy. [Wichita Deputy Police Chief Tom] Stolz, however, said police knew of no threats connected to the shooting.
In early May, Tiller had asked the FBI to investigate vandalism at his clinic, including cut wires to surveillance cameras and damage to the roof that sent rainwater pouring into the building.
Tiller had also long been the target of vicious attacks by conservative pundits like Bill O'Reilly, who often denounced Tiller on his show. Brad Reed writes on Brad Blog following Tiller's acquittal in March on charges that he had broken a Kansas abortion law:
O'Reilly had previously been highly critical of the state's Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, charging, during his "Talking Points" commentary in 2007, that she was "allowing [Tiller] to continue the slaughter."
Writing for Salon, Gabriel Winant argues that O'Reilly's vicious slander of Tiller may well have served as a provocation for the shooting. Although O'Reilly certainly did not instruct his listeners to commit violence:
... there's no other person who bears as much responsibility for the characterization of Tiller as a savage on the loose, killing babies willy-nilly thanks to the collusion of would-be sophisticated cultural elites, a bought-and-paid-for governor and scofflaw secular journalists. Tiller's name first appeared on The Factor on Feb. 25, 2005. Since then, O'Reilly and his guest hosts have brought up the doctor on 28 more episodes, including as recently as April 27 of this year. Almost invariably, Tiller is described as "Tiller the Baby Killer."Tiller, O'Reilly likes to say, "destroys fetuses for just about any reason right up until the birth date for $5,000." He's guilty of "Nazi stuff," said O'Reilly on June 8, 2005; a moral equivalent to NAMBLA and al-Qaida, he suggested on March 15, 2006. "This is the kind of stuff happened in Mao's China, Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union," said O'Reilly on Nov. 9, 2006.
O'Reilly has also frequently linked Tiller to his longtime obsession, child molestation and rape. Because a young teenager who received an abortion from Tiller could, by definition, have been a victim of statutory rape, O'Reilly frequently suggested that the clinic was covering up for child rapists (rather than teenage boyfriends) by refusing to release records on the abortions performed.
When Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline, an O'Reilly favorite who faced harsh criticism for seeking Tiller's records, was facing electoral defeat by challenger Paul Morrison, O'Reilly said, "Now we don't endorse candidates here, but obviously, that would be a colossal mistake. Society must afford some protection for viable babies and children who are raped." (Morrison ultimately unseated Kline.)
This is where O'Reilly's campaign against George Tiller becomes dangerous. While he never advocated anything violent or illegal, the Fox bully repeatedly portrayed the doctor as a murderer on the loose, allowed to do whatever he wanted by corrupt and decadent authorities. "Also, it looks like Dr. Tiller, who some call Tiller the Baby Killer, is spending a large amount of money in order to get Mr. Morrison elected. That opens up all kinds of questions," said O'Reilly on Nov. 6, 2006, in one of many suggestions that Tiller was improperly influencing the election.
Despite ongoing threats of violence and constant right-wing media attacks, Tiller continued running Tiller’s Women’s Health Care Service, one of just three facilities in the country providing access to abortion after the 21st week of pregnancy.
According to a statement issued by Planned Parenthood, Tiller bravely performed an invaluable service:
He provided critical reproductive health care services, including abortion services to women facing some of the most difficult medical circumstances. He was continually harassed by abortion opponents for much of his career -- his clinic was burned down, he was shot by a health center protester, and he was recently targeted for investigation, only to be acquitted by a jury just a few months ago. None of this stopped George Tiller from his commitment to providing women and their families with compassionate care that others were unwilling to offer.
Tiller's slaying has also brought forth personal testimonials from the women he helped, not just in his role as abortion provider but as an OB-GYN. A diarist writes on the Daily Kos:
In 1980, I was pregnant with my first child. I had no insurance and couldn't afford a doctor's appointment until I was approved for a medical card. ... Mom told Dr. Tiller, and he brought me into his office where he examined me, free of charge. I can credit him with the very first picture taken of my son.The last story I have to share is about my friends who could not have children. Dr. Tiller’s office worked with several attorneys in the Wichita area to provide adoption services for his patients who wanted this option. My friends have a 10-year-old boy now, who is loved and adored.
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America aired her concerns about the chilling effect Tiller’s killing would have on women’s health providers throughout the country:
Dr. Tiller's murder will send a chill down the spines of the brave and courageous providers and other professionals who are part of reproductive-health centers that serve women across this country. We want them to know that they have our support as they move forward in providing these essential services in the aftermath of the shocking news from Wichita.
President Barack Obama also issued a statement denouncing the slaying: "I am shocked and outraged by the murder of Dr. George Tiller as he attended church services this morning. However profound our differences as Americans over difficult issues such as abortion, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence."
Some anti-choice groups were quick to distance themselves from Tiller’s killing, while reiterating their opposition to Tiller's work. The president of Operation Rescue, the group best known for organizing sometimes-violent protests outside abortion clinics in the 1980s, said the following, according to the New York Times:
"Our prayers go out to his family and the thousands of people this will impact," [Troy] Newman said in a telephone interview from his home in Wichita.
"Operation Rescue has worked tirelessly on peaceful, nonviolent measures to bring him to justice through the legal system, the legislative system," Mr. Newman said. "I'm a tireless advocate and spokesman for the pre-born children who are dying in clinics every day. Mr. Tiller was an abortionist. But this wasn’t personal. We are pro life, and this act was antithetical to what we believe."
But statements by other extremist abortion opponents went so far as to blame Tiller for his own killing, including one by Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue. Randall stated:
George Tiller was a mass murderer. We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God. 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. Abortion is still murder. And we still must call abortion by its proper name; murder.
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.
Meanwhile, Father Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life, issued a statement questioning the link between Tiller’s slaying and abortion opponents:
I am saddened to hear of the killing of George Tiller this morning. At this point, we do not know the motives of this act, or who is behind it, whether an angry post-abortive man or woman, or a misguided activist, or an enemy within the abortion industry, or a political enemy frustrated with the way Tiller has escaped prosecution ...
Tiller leaves behind a wife, four children and 10 grandchildren. In a statement issued several hours after the shooting, Tiller’s family said:
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.