Larry Smith/AP
Dr. George Tiller in 2002.

Was Dr. George Tiller’s Murder an Isolated Incident, or Latest Example of Long History of Anti-Abortion Violence?

June 01, 2009 07:30 PM
by Anne Szustek
This is the first slaying of an abortion provider since 1998, but clinics and doctors have experienced numerous violent incidents and threats over the years.

Tiller a Long-Time Target of Extremists

Dr. George Tiller, head of Women’s Health Care Services, a Kansas abortion clinic, was gunned down Sunday while he was serving as an usher at Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kan.

Tiller’s lawyer and confidant Lee Thompson told ABC news program “Good Morning America” that Tiller saw himself as a “servant” towards women in need, and that “he fell in love with the doctor-patient relationship.”

Nonetheless, Tiller knew he was a target; he wore a bulletproof vest and drove an armored car. His alleged killer, Scott Roeder, was such a fervent anti-abortionist that it destroyed his marriage, his ex-wife, Lindsey Roeder, told ABC News.

Authorities are trying to determine whether Roeder has any connection to formal anti-abortion organizations, many of which have publicly deplored Tiller’s murder and called it damaging to their cause. “As Christians we pray and look toward the end of all violence and for the savings of souls, not the taking of human life,” Family Research Council president Tony Perkins was quoted as saying by The Washington Post.

Background: Previous attacks, legal trouble

As the Wichita Eagle reported in an article running in the Kansas City Star, Tiller had several run-ins with armed anti-abortion protesters as well as the law over the years.

In June 1986, Tiller’s clinic, Women’s Health Services, was hit by a pipe bomb, causing some $700,000 in damages. Five years later, during what pro-life campaigners called “the Summer of Mercy,” more than 2,500 protesters were arrested in connection with blocking entry to Tiller’s clinic. The 10-year anniversary of the protests was dubbed the “Summer of Mercy Renewal” in 2001, and two arrests were made in connection with associated demonstrations.

Tiller was specifically targeted on Aug. 19, 1993; Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon shot him in both arms as he was driving out of the parking lot of his Wichita clinic. Shannon was sentenced to 11 years in prison for the shooting, in addition to another 20 years of jail time for other attacks against abortion clinics. In 1998, Tiller’s clinic was one of six around the country that received letters threatening to contaminate their offices with anthrax; the threats proved to be false.

Four days before he was killed, Tiller was acquitted of charges that he provided 19 illegal late-term abortions.

Historical Context: More than 30 years of anti-abortion aggression

Tiller’s murder makes him the eighth abortion clinic worker to be killed in the United States since 1993. According to a Jan. 1 report by the NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation, Tiller’s death is the latest in the more than 5,800 reported violent acts against abortion providers since 1977 that include bombings, arson and assaults. NARAL’s report notes that such threats dwindled somewhat following the 1994 promulgation of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which explicitly forbade violence against abortion clinics and doctors. Since 1977, there have also been 143,000 incidents that NARAL terms “acts of disruption” against providers of abortion, such as intimidating phone calls and bomb threats.

Prior to Tiller’s death, the last high-profile murder of an abortion provider was 11 years ago. Like Tiller, Barnett Slepian of Amherst, N.Y.,  had long been a target of anti-abortion protest that sometimes became violent. One Friday night in October 1998, Slepian was killed by a sniper as he and his family were driving home from synagogue services.

At the time, New York Gov. George Pataki was quoted as saying by CNN, “It’s beyond a tragedy. It’s really an act of terrorism and, in my mind, a cold-blooded assassination.”

It turned out that James Kopp had been plotting Slepian’s murder for a year, singling him out because the doctor’s home was in a wooded area, leaving him “vulnerable.” Kopp was found in France in 2001 after having been placed on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted List.” Two years later, he received 25 years to life in prison in connection with killing Slepian.

Most activists in the anti-abortion movement decry such acts of violence. However, those on the extremist fringe claim to find biblical justification for the murder of doctors who perform abortions, The Oregonian reported in 1999. “Their thinking is along the same lines as those who take things into their own hands and go with it,” Feminists for Life and anti-violence activist Cathryn Passmore told the paper. “It’s anarchy, using whatever means are at their disposal.”

Among the more famous acts of anti-abortion extremism was the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombings, orchestrated by Eric Rudolph, who stated his intention “to confound, anger and embarrass the Washington government in the eyes of the world for its abominable sanctioning of abortion on demand.”

Related Topic: Late-Term abortions safeguarded in Virginia, Britain

In May 2008, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the state of Virginia’s 2003 law forbidding late-term abortions was unconstitutional. The court decision came a day after the U.K. parliament voted against dropping the legal cutoff on abortion from 24 to 22 weeks into pregnancy.

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