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Dr. Tiller Saved Women's Lives
A past president of Catholics for Free Choice writes about the work of a doctor killed in Kansas.
By Frances Kissling
George Tiller was shot to death as he walked into Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas; 10 a.m. Sunday, May 31, 2009.
Dr. Tiller has been performing abortions since 1973, often for women carrying fetuses so badly damaged that, if carried to term, had no possibility of survival. Some were young adolescents who did not know they were pregnant or had been so ashamed they felt they could tell no one. He was one of a few doctors in the country that women in need of abortions after 20 weeks could go to when their lives and pregnancies were on the line.
Just two short months ago, Tiller could breathe a sigh of relief when he was acquitted of 19 misdemeanor counts stemming from abortions he performed in 2003. Tiller had escaped death in 1993 when he was shot in both arms by anti-abortion extremist Rachelle Shannon (who was sentenced to eleven years in prison for attempted murder). Shannon insisted at her trial that she had done no wrong and, since Dr. Tiller went back to work performing abortions the next day, she would have gone back to the clinic to do whatever she could to stop the murder of the babies.
We do not yet know whether Dr. Tiller’s shooter was an anti-abortion extremist, but it is pretty likely. Five abortion providers have been shot to death—all of them by anti-abortion extremists. The last time a provider of abortion services was murdered was in October 1998, when Barnett Slepian was shot and killed in his home near Buffalo, New York. Other murdered providers include two young clinic staff at Preterm in Boston, Shannon Lowney and Leanne Nichols, in 1994; Dr. John Britton in Pensacola, Florida in the same year; and Dr. David Gunn in 1993.
The National Abortion Federation lists other physicians who have been shot and injured either at home or near their clinics between 1994 and 1997. These murders and shootings (as well as hundreds of incidences of fire bombings and violence at abortion clinics) took place in the aftermath of a long campaign by Operation Rescue and its founder Randall Terry, who challenged anti-abortion activists with the rallying cry: “If you believe abortion is murder, act like it.” Terry claimed that he wanted to build a “Christian nation.” He’s jumped from conservative denominations several times, either leaving or being thrown out; in 2005 he converted to Catholicism, and met with Pope John Paul II and more recently with Cardinal Burke in Rome.
Now, Terry never killed an abortion provider, but his anti-abortion frame—which includes hypotheticals such as “wouldn’t it have been okay to kill Hitler if you knew you could save millions of Jews?”—has certainly been cited as inspiration by others who have. Paul Hill, who murdered Dr. Britton, was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church of America (he was excommunicated for his calls to violence on abortion in 1993). Shortly before Michael Griffin shot Dr. Gunn, he attended services at Whitfield Assembly of God church in Pensacola, a congregation that regularly picketed local abortion clinics and was supportive of Terry’s admonition to act as you would if you really believed abortion were murder. He asked the congregation to join him in praying for David Gunn’s soul, then went out and shot him.
In most cases, after these murders and calls by pro-choice leaders that mainstream anti-abortion leaders stand up and unequivocally condemn such violence, both secular groups and religious bodies issued weak criticism. Helen Alvare, the Catholic Bishops' spokesperson on abortion at the time of Gunn’s killing went on ABC’s Nightline and defended the Bishops’ statement on the killing. The statement compared the violence of murder with the violence of abortion. The only other guest was Paul Hill, who later shot Dr. Britton. Ted Koppel described Paul Hill’s advocacy of murdering doctors as raising a “very, very difficult moral question.”
Perhaps the domination of religious discourse in the ’80s and ’90s by anti-abortion groups like the Christian Coalition, Moral Majority, and US Catholic Bishops has contributed to commentators like Koppel losing their minds and moral compasses.
And many said at the time (this writer included), that when people are treated to an unrelenting barrage of religious claims that abortion is murder, that doctors who perform abortion should be charged with crimes and sent to prison, and when pickets outside clinics pray the rosary and display mangled fetuses on crosses as if they were Jesus Christ himself, some nuts are going to do what Terry suggested and kill the “baby killers.” Perhaps nuts are just nuts and will do what they do whether or not some religious leaders provide a moral frame for immoral acts and others remain silent. Frustration at not getting your way leads people to do and say terrible things.
To a considerable extent, groups like Operation Rescue have become marginal over the last ten years, but in some quarters, murder and abortion are still equated, and in the case of Dr. Tiller (whose name provided an unfortunate rhyming quality), no insult was out of bounds. When Dr. Tiller went on trial in March, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council headlined his blog “Court Decides fate of Serial Tiller.” And, as control of abortion discourse moves to the moderate center with the President’s combined message in favor of women’s moral agency and reducing the need for abortion, the far right feels it has lost the moral high ground. In a column on Obama’s commencement speech at Notre Dame, Ann Coulter quipped: “How about having the president throw out the ceremonial first fetus like on opening day in baseball.”
With the anti-abortion and anti-family planning administration of George Bush history, and an Obama administration clearly taking an approach that undercuts any effort to talk about abortion itself (focusing instead on preventing unintended pregnancy), we may well see frustrated anti-abortionists take to the streets. The National Abortion Federation has reported that violence at clinics is on the rise.
It is now eleven years since a doctor, clinic escort, or 22-year-old bright-eyed clinic receptionist has been shot and killed. For Dr. Tiller, the violence never subsided. His clinic was regularly picketed; he was harassed with lawsuits organized by anti-abortion groups. It is absolutely amazing that he continued to do his work, to help very desperate and frightened women. Now he is dead, gunned down on his way to church.
Let us hope that no one compares his murder to abortion. In fact, if there is one thing those in the religious community must do to prevent a return to the days when such comparisons were discussable in polite company, it is to make clear that the world’s religions do not consider abortion murder.
Dr. Tiller saved women’s lives; this is not a debatable point.
Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and former president of Catholics for a Free Choice. This article appeared in Religion Dispatches.
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