A doctor's life vs. God's will

If even mainstream abortion opponents see George Tiller's murder as a prayer answered, where is the common ground?

By Kate Harding
July 27, 2009 7:28PM (UTC)
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This week, a preliminary hearing is scheduled for Scott Roeder, the man accused of killing abortion provider George Tiller in May. Although he has not confessed to the murder, when asked by the Associated Press if he believes it was justifiable, Roeder, a longtime antiabortion activist, replied, "Well, yeah. The thing is, how could it not be?"

In Sunday's New York Times, David Barstow examines how Dr. Tiller's clinic became "the nation's most visible abortion battleground, a magnet for activists from all corners of the country," including people like Scott Roeder.


[F]or more than 30 years the anti-abortion movement threw everything into driving Dr. Tiller out of business, certain that his defeat would deal a devastating blow to the 'abortion industry' that has terminated roughly 50 million pregnancies since Roe v. Wade in 1973. They blockaded his clinic; campaigned to have him prosecuted; boycotted his suppliers; tailed him with hidden cameras; branded him 'Tiller the baby killer'; hit him with lawsuits, legislation and regulatory complaints; and protested relentlessly, even at his church. Some sent flowers pleading for him to quit. Some sent death threats. One bombed his clinic. Another tried to kill him in 1993, firing five shots, wounding both arms.

Now, Barstow writes, some in the so-called pro-life movement are concerned that "after years of persuading supporters to work within the law ... they have already lost credibility among the most ardent abortion opponents who cannot help pointing out that one gunman achieved what all their protests and prayers could not."

I cannot help pointing out that unauthorized surveillance, death threats, a clinic bombing and a non-fatal shooting do not, in fact, fall under the rubric of "working within the law," yet I don't recall any national outcry from the antiabortion community over those violations. Tiller, writes Barstow, responded to the endless harassment and violence by "pouring his considerable profits into expanding his clinic and installing security cameras, bulletproof glass, metal detectors, fencing and floodlights. He hired armed guards, bought a bulletproof vest and drove an armored S.U.V." Is it just me, or does that seem like overkill if your primary concern is countering "protests and prayers"? What Barstow makes abundantly clear in his exhaustive, moving article is that abortion opponents had quite openly declared war on Dr. Tiller -- specifically, a holy war. So what's surprising is not that he was eventually killed in battle, but that his determination and defiance kept him fighting back for as long as he did.

Mark S. Gietzen, chairman of the Kansas Coalition for Life -- and one who expressed concern about his movement's credibility in the wake of Dr. Tiller's assassination -- admitted to Barstow that "Many years ago ... he had wrestled with the question of whether it would be moral to kill Dr. Tiller. Only after months of reading and praying, he said, did he conclude that violence could never be justified." Months. It took months for him to conclude that killing a man for doing his job could never be justified. And this is not a fringe lunatic the mainstream movement disowns -- this is the guy doing the disowning.


Reasonable people, we're told, should be looking for common ground between both sides of the abortion debate. But where can that be when one side truly believes millions of children are being slaughtered, and the government doesn't care? When one side believes that the assassination of a beloved doctor represents prayers answered, as Gietzen put it to a volunteer who called him shortly after hearing the news of Tiller's murder? When a man lawfully doing his job has to spend untold thousands of dollars on security equipment to protect himself from protesters who routinely stretch the law as thin as possible, if not break it -- and despite it all, is shot dead in his own church? And when the man who allegedly did it calls reporters from prison to warn that this will keep happening as long as abortion remains legal?

Meanwhile, a hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., is in danger of losing its federal funding because a nurse there claims she was coerced into assisting with an abortion, in violation of her religious beliefs. Meanwhile, as Frances Kissling writes in Salon today, healthcare reform legislation is being delayed by arguments over funding abortion, and "[p]art of the problem is the president's insistence on seeking common ground. Moderate evangelicals like David Gushee, who supported Obama's election based on the candidate's commitment to reducing the need for abortion, say they will be 'very unhappy if healthcare reform ends up becoming a vehicle for government subsidized or even mandatory coverage of abortion.' And then there's the religious right, which has launched a 'Stop the Mandate' campaign aimed at gaining a specific exclusion of abortion coverage in any healthcare reform plan." 

Barstow reports that Tiller defined his work as "saving women’s lives and giving them freedom to determine their futures." In a speech, the doctor described it thusly: "We have made higher education possible. We have helped correct some of the results of rape and incest. We have helped battered women escape to a safer life. We have made recovery from chemical dependency possible. We have helped women and families struggle to save their unwell, unborn child a lifetime of pain." Where is the common ground with people who believe that a man's murder was their God's will?  

Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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