Doctor’s Death Deserves Outrage: Rule of Law Hangs in the Balance 1/28/09 Concord Monitor
There has been insufficient public outrage over the assassination of Dr. George Tiller.
Early this month an anti-abortion fanatic was charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Tiller, who was killed as he and his wife attended Sunday church services in Wichita, Kan. The murder was an unprovoked attack.
However much anti-abortion zealots may have disliked abortion providers like Tiller, his practice was constitutionally protected activity. Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land. Because the movement cannot legally prohibit women from exercising their rights, it has targeted physicians – to kill them or make it impossible for them to provide abortion services.
Political murder is a slippery slope. If such murders become commonplace, how long before the fabric of society starts to unravel and civil society begins to resemble a Mad Max movie? The rule of law hangs in the balance. Somalia, anyone?
Tiller’s murder is reminiscent of the 1998 murder of another physician, Dr. Barnett Slepian. Hiding in Slepian’s yard, another anti-abortion extremist shot the doctor in the back through a kitchen window. Slepian and his family had just returned from Friday night services at his synagogue.
You do not have to be religious to think premeditated murder at or near a church or synagogue is ghoulish. Nevertheless, it would not surprise me if the shooter believed he had a hotline to God. I expect he will argue justifiable homicide.
The late comedian George Carlin used to do a routine about the anti-abortion movement. As I recall, he mocked the label “pro-life.” Carlin said the movement killed doctors. Tiller is, in fact, the eighth abortion provider to be murdered in the United States since 1977. The victims include four doctors and four clinic workers. The National Abortion Federation says 17 other abortion providers have been targeted for murder.
Prior to his murder, Tiller and his medical clinic were subject to more than two decades of violent threats, incidents of violence and vandalism. In 1986, his medical clinic was bombed. Later, his clinic and patients faced years of picketing and harassment.
Protesters blocked access to the clinic. Eventually, federal marshals arrived because patients could not get in. In 1993, a gunman shot Tiller in both arms in an earlier assassination attempt.
More recently, the anti-abortion movement in Kansas ran a smear campaign against him. Activists created “most-wanted” posters resembling the posters used by the FBI to track down most-wanted criminals. Some of the posters offered a $1,000 reward for stopping physicians from performing abortions. Protesters called him “Dr. Satan.”
Since Tiller’s murder, the quality of self-criticism I have seen from the anti-abortion movement has been nothing short of pitiful. Beyond pro forma apologies and denials of responsibility, much of the commentary seems to be of the “he had it coming” variety. Apparently there is no need for the allegedly “pro-life” movement to look into its responsibility for violence. Condemn the violence, ignore your role, and move on. It is back to business as usual.
In his classic essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote that political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable. The political language of the anti-abortion movement created the context for Tiller’s murder. If the message you persistently drill is that Tiller is a monster, it is hard to be surprised when one of your crazies acts on the demonization.
On Fox News, Bill O’Reilly routinely referred to Tiller as “Tiller the Baby Killer,” as did much of the right-wing media. In June 2007, O’Reilly stated that Tiller killed thousands of late-term fetuses without explanation. He said Tiller performed such abortions when there was no danger to the mother’s life and when the fetus was viable outside the womb.
A big fantasy of the anti-abortion movement is the notion that there are not severely troubled pregnancies. In this fairy tale, all babies are born healthy and women are simply electing to abort fetuses for the sake of convenience.
In reality, the biggest reason for late-term abortions is the discovery of fetal anomalies incompatible with life. Sometimes these anomalies are not apparent until late in the pregnancy. The mother finds out the heartbreaking news that her baby has no brain. Such anencephalic babies are doomed. They will either die in childbirth or shortly after. Tiller’s clinic was one of only three in the country that assisted women who encountered this horrendous situation.
Blaming a physician who had the courage to help women in such difficulty reflects a profound misunderstanding of the underlying medical issues.
By all accounts, late-term abortions are exceedingly rare. They are also restricted by law. The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed states to restrict access to abortion in the third trimester except when necessary to preserve the life and health of the mother. Tiller always operated inside these lawful constraints.
Hate and ignorance propelled the portrayal of Tiller as a mass murderer. What is bizarre is the denial of women’s experience. Tiller described himself as a women-educated physician. He became the doctor he was because he listened to women and addressed their medical needs so compassionately.