Reproductive Rights / TV / Women and Gender

Courage Under Fire: Documentary of Dr. Tiller’s Assassination Shows Violence Abortion Providers Must Face

What would you do if every day, going to work was maneuvering through a war zone?  How would you feel if just doing your job meant facing constant threats, harassment and violence?  For many doctors, nurses and staff who work at abortion clinics, that’s exactly the world they live in, contending with a daily barrage of verbal and physical attacks.  Dr. George Tiller was murdered last year in his church in Kansas for work he believed was necessary and right. On the “Rachel Maddow Show” Monday night, she aired the documentary “The Assassination of Dr. Tiller” to tell his story.

Rachel Maddow, political commentator and MSNBC host (aka one of the most kick-ass women around!), has been a staunch supporter of women’s rights, including LGBT rights and reproductive freedom.  She’s one of the few people covering national stories such as the five radically conservative GOP Senate candidates attempting to undermine women’s access to abortion.  So it’s no surprise that she aired it as well as provided the narration.  In an interview with Feministing, when asked what prompted Maddow to do this, she articulated,

“When we covered the Tiller murder when it happened, two things became clear. As soon as you heard last May that a doctor had been killed in Kansas, if you knew anything about the fight over reproductive rights and the radical anti-abortion movement, it was instantly clear that it was George Tiller who was killed, even before you heard the name. I had heard that a doctor was killed in Kansas that Sunday, and knew it was Tiller before I saw in the news that it was Tiller. There are not that many things in America, where you know who’s going to get killed, because there’s a campaign against them that includes people who think that violence up to murder is justified against people with whom they disagree or who they’ve vilified. It’s an unusual thing in America – there aren’t a lot of things like that, so that in itself was shocking enough…One of the things that we didn’t report on, or didn’t really follow up on because it wasn’t appropriate to report on in that day-to-day schedule was the fact that there was a ton of celebration online when Tiller was killed. And you don’t blame people for their blog comments, and you don’t make a news story out of anonymous commenters on the internet machine…It’s not really appropriate to cover that as news, that anecdotal reaction. But reading that reaction online, on Twitter and in blog comments, not just in the dark anti-abortion extremist corners of the internet, but actually in relatively mainstream places, I found very unsettling. It stuck with me and it made me want to do something longer form, more investigative and more in-depth about the murder.”

For those who don’t know, Dr. Tiller was a physician in Kansas who provided late-term abortions.  He was murdered last May in his church by anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder.  To anti-choice activists he was a murderer; he was called a “demonic barbarian.”  But to many others, Dr. Tiller was a savior.  He gave women an option when they felt they had no other.

Women from across the globe traveled to Kansas as they had nowhere else to turn.  But regardless of how people feel on the issue, this was an act of terrorism.  Yes, terrorism.  The very same person who claimed to care so much life had no problem exacting vigilante Hammurabi’s code justice by assassinating this man.  And make no mistake, the murder of Dr. Tiller was meticulously calculated.

Dr. Tiller took over his father’s practice.  Initially reluctant to perform abortions, through video footage he shares how women educated him to their necessity.  He said,

“Abortion is a matter of survival for women.”

What made Dr. Tiller so controversial wasn’t merely the fact that he performed abortions.  It was that he performed late-term abortions for women in their 2nd and 3rd trimesters.  For many women whose fetuses suffered congenital defects or whose own lives were in danger by giving birth, he was their last hope.  In Kansas, you must have two physicians sign off and approve an abortion.  So it wasn’t as if Dr. Tiller ran around killing babies.  And as one of his colleagues declared,

“Nobody plans to have an abortion.  Nobody wants to have an abortion.”

I mean do anti-choice supporters think that women choose this or somehow ask for this? [UPDATE: I was incredibly wrong for originally writing that. Some people do want an abortion. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Abortion is a normal, routine medical procedure.]

But anti-choice activists in Kansas didn’t just stop at protesting outside Dr. Tiller’s clinic.  They also sent flyers informing the neighbors of the clinic’s workers that they were killing babies.  But Dr. Tiller was the main target.  He drove a bulletproof truck and lived with federal marshals for approximately 2 years.  Bill O’Reilly fanned the flames by calling him the “baby killer doctor” repeatedly on his show, along with comparing him to Nazis and Stalin.  This dehumanized Dr. Tiller, fueling hate.  After he survived his first murder attempt, he put up a succinct sign at his clinic stating, “Women need abortions.  And I’m going to do them.” No mincing words here!

Dr. Tiller also stood trial for accusations of fraud, brought on by pro-life groups like Operation RescueScott Roeder, an anti-abortion extremist (not affiliated with Operation Rescue), knew of his work, hoping for a conviction as his clinic would be shut down.  When the jury swiftly acquitted Dr. Tiller of all charges, Roeder decided to take matters into his own hands.  He started appearing at Dr. Tiller’s church, plotting the murder.  In May last year, Roeder walked up to Dr. Tiller, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

After Roeder committed murder, he ran out of the church.  If he thought he was being heroic, why did he run from the cops like a coward?  During his trial, Roeder confessed to executing the assassination of Dr. Tiller.  Interestingly, his defense was,

“It is not man’s job to take life.”

He goes on to say that only god can take life.  Yet he had no qualms whatsoever interceding in the role of divinity as judge and jury.  What a fucking hypocrite.  He also admitted admiring Rochelle Shannon, the person who previously attempted to kill Dr. Tiller.  Watching the video of his trial, Roeder spoke calmly and rationally.  I’m not sure what’s more frightening…if he had behaved erratically, coming off like a wacko zealot or the cool demeanor he portrayed.  When interrogated as to why he committed this heinous crime, Roeder replied,

“The lives of those children were in imminent danger…the babies were going to die.”

But Dr. Tiller’s murder is not an isolated incident.  Anti-abortion extremists have tossed bombs into clinics and killed other doctors.  Maddow narrates that there’s been a long history of violence against doctors who provide abortions and clinic workers.  She then provides a few examples, one of which is Brookline, MA where two clinic workers were killed.  But wait a minute…this isn’t some small town in the Midwest or the South.  Brookline is a mere 10 minutes from my city of Boston!  It made me realize how fragile life can be, even in the liberal Northeast.

Maddow also recently reported on the disturbing “wanted” posters “anti-abortion extremists” distributed prior to their deaths, including Dr. Tiller.  While activists on both sides of the abortion debate have every right to espouse their views, that doesn’t give extremists carte blanche to assassinate those who do not share those beliefs.  Dr. Tiller said,

“What we’re doing is legal. What these people are doing, these terroristic tactics and this anarchy, is illegal.”

But what I want to know is why don’t they care about preventing abortions rather than harassing women in a desperate, dire state?  Why don’t they try to help by supporting sex education, poverty alleviation, LGBT rights or human rights??  No, they don’t give a fuck about anything else except their warped version of god and/or justice.

A video clip that is making headlines is Aaron Gouveia, a writer (and my new pro-choice hero!) for the Good Men’s Project (thank you, Judy for posting it on Facebook!).  He and his wife entered a clinic to have an abortion as their second child they were pregnant with suffered from extensive congenital defects.  Feeling helpless to ease his wife’s pain, Gouveia became enraged when the two of them faced a barrage of insults and verbal assaults from pro-life protesters.  He decided to confront them…and kicks ass in the process!

As I’ve written before, “whenever people are poised to point their finger and declare what is or isn’t morally just, I find it’s usually at those times when people have never felt what it’s like to be in that person’s situation.” We never know the private pain someone faces.  When you are experiencing the most horrific, depressing choice in your life, the last thing you need is some lunatic screaming at you, “Mommy, mommy, don’t kill me!”, a lovely little chant that one of the assholes condoned shouting in the Dr. Tiller documentary.  Yeah, you’re really going to “help” people by scaring the shit out of them.

While Dr. Tiller wasn’t the only late-term abortion provider (Dr. Warren Hern in Colorado performs them too), he was one of the last who made it public.  Sadly, Dr. Tiller’s clinic is now closed.  Yet his staff do not blame Roeder.  Dr. Tiller’s colleague Susan Robinson commented,

“He was reacting to an atmosphere of hate.”

On the bright side, and yes there is always one, this has brought together coalitions of activists.  Steph Harold started the website “I Am Dr. Tiller” to commemorate his work.  Julie Burkhart, one of Dr. Tiller’s colleagues, founded and is the director of the Trust Women Pac , a political action committee which provides research to legislators and lobbies for legislation to protect women’s access to abortion.  Dr. Tiller was a man who cared passionately about protecting women’s right to choose; his staff was equally committed.  While his death is tragic, Dr. Tiller leaves behind a legacy of compassion and hope.

Maddow told Feministing,

“And one of the things that I don’t think people have really grasped, which is in this documentary, is the story of George Tiller, who was resolute, cheerful, clever, holistically cognizant of what was going on as he was being attacked in this way… This is a painful story, but this is also an instructive story and a cathartic story for people who support reproductive rights.”

I started writing this piece immediately after watching the Dr. Tiller documentary.  I felt like I had just been punched in the gut…part of the reason it took me so long to post.  How can this happen in our society?  How can innocent people who live their lives trying to help others be gunned down for compassion, for what they believe is right?  Women’s reproductive health is no one’s business, no one’s but a woman and her doctor.

For those who know about the reproductive rights movement and for those who don’t, this documentary is an important film to watch.  Not only is it a remembrance and celebration of one brave man; it is a reminder of all the brave clinic workers whose lives are endangered each and every day fighting for choice and protecting women’s reproductive health.  While the war seems far from over, and sadly it IS a war, we cannot fight hate with hate.  We need to start trusting women and embracing the notion that every woman must decide for themselves what is right for them.

You can watch “The Assassination of Dr. Tiller” documentary online at “The Rachel Maddow Show” website on MSNBC.com.


“Trust Women” image by Tim Pierce via Flickr and the Creative Commons License

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10 thoughts on “Courage Under Fire: Documentary of Dr. Tiller’s Assassination Shows Violence Abortion Providers Must Face

  1. I’m very much pro-choice, however, i don’t view someone whom performs abortions as “heroic.”
    Unfortunately, it’s a procedure that often needs to be done, and would probablly be done less if individuals (women & men) were more responsible.
    Unwanted pregnancies sometimes are percieved, maybe too much, as one of life’s little inconvienences, but i don’t think we should gloss over the fact that this tiny form of life is going to be extinguished.

    What happened to Tiller was horrific, yet in the chaotic times we live in, almost expected.
    Personally, if i’m forced to travel in a bullet-proof vehicle, accompanied by a marshall, i would probablly start to reasses my life.
    Putting a sign on my door that states something to the effect of, “Abortions need to be done & i’m going to do them,” is the equivelent of putting a target on my temple.
    At some point, common sense has to kick in.

    I’m in no way justifying what happened to this doctor, it’s absolutely repulsive, but look around you, look at the times we are living in.
    People are out of their minds, brainwashed by religon & the media, roaming the streets.
    Nobody is going to protect anyone, so why try to reason or speak logically with these kinds of people?

  2. I had eagerly anticipated this program and I had the same reaction as The Opinioness. I felt so angry by the time the film ended but I was hopeful that it shed some light on what abortion providers go through in order to provide this legal service to women who seek their help.

    While it was not even close to what Dr. Tiller and his staff went through, when I work for Planned Parenthood, we dealt with crazy protestors and constant threats. The staff was advised not to park in the clinic parking lot (because protestors will copy your license plate number and run it) and the two physicians wore bullet proof vests. In the 3 years that I worked there, we had 2 bomb threats and the police were called more times than I can count, for everything ranging from protestors assaulting a phlebotomist to protestors to calling to report a patient who’d parked illegally. Keep in mind most of the services we provided were of the basic gynecological care variety, including 1st and 2nd trimester prenatal care.

    Dr. Tiller and the people he worked with were, unequivocally, heroes. They provided an invaluable public health service and they did it at great personal risk. Almost without exception the people who are decrying the work that Dr. Tiller did are not his patients, who universally loved him, but people who never met him because they were fortunate enough to never need his services.

    The fact that there are people who can make mushy, middle-of-the-road statements like Julian’s, points to the amount of misinformation that abounds about abortion and, more importantly, why women seek them.

    • Listen, just because i’m not perched atop my little soap box, preaching my endless tales of working at planned parenthood, does not make my opinion “mushy & middle of the road,” or any less valid than yours.

      I don’t think performing abortions is “heroic,” i think it’s a procedure that sometimes, unfortunately, has to be done.
      I’m glad Dr. Tiller’s patients loved him, i’m sad he was murdered, but there are these fundamental areas in between, that you convienently gloss over.

      Abortion is a complex topic, and you need to respect other views than that of the diehard feminist.

  3. Lol…yes, @Brian…Julians can have opinions too! However, I understand Sarah H.’s frustrations; no one glorifies abortion.

    @Sarah, I agree with you; I don’t think many people fully appreciate or understand women’s motivations in obtaining an abortion. It’s often not due to irresponsibility; sometimes it is the responsible choice to make. It angers me too that more people don’t have compassion for women in this situation. And I’m thrilled you shared your personal struggles working at a clinic. We need to hear more of those stories. But Julian is entitled to his opinion, which I’m glad he shared as this is an important dialogue.

    @Julian, anyone who risks their personal safety day in and day out, to help people in need…to me, that is the definition of heroic. Dr. Tiller and his staff, along with other doctors and clinic workers, faced harassment, death threats and terrorist actions, all to help women who have nowhere else to turn. They put the needs of those women before their own. If that’s not bravery, I don’t know what is.

  4. I apologize if my tone was harsh. My criticism was less for Julian than it was for the legions of anti-choice organizations who have spent the last 37 years convincing people that when women seek abortions it’s because they’re clueless, sloppy sluts who should’ve kept their legs shut. Those organizations, like Operation Rescue and Americans United for Life, have been extremely effective at reframing the debate rhetorically and legislatively. They’ve been the ones who’ve made it impossible for shades of gray to exist in this debate.

    Roe v. Wade was always about balancing the rights of the woman with the (gradually increasing) rights of the potential life she was carrying. It’s not a zero-sum game. I recognize that, even as a “die-hard feminist.” However, I think in the rhetorical boondoggle created by anti-choice zealots, even self-identified pro-choicers can sometimes fail to recognize the complexity of the individual choices surrounding abortion and the struggles therein. But that certainly doesn’t mean that they don’t have a right to an opinion.

  5. I think abortion is terrifying and tragic, as do most people, I believe. I’m pro-life myself, but don’t usually express this since I find that people immediately attack me with “Oh, so you don’t think women should have RIGHTS?!” I can’t see that killing a baby a couple of months before it’s born, or a couple of weeks, or a couple of hours before, is any different to killing it a couple of hours, weeks or months after. That’s my opinion. I don’t think it’s fair to say “No women plans to have an abortion”, that’s simply untrue. At my all-girl high school, I heard women (/girls), a couple of whom had experienced abortions already, express their relief that it was an option available to them, so they didn’t need to use contraception. I know that this is not the situation that most pro-choicers talk about when they talk about womens’ rights. If I were in a situation where my own life, or the life or health of my baby was in danger, perhaps my opinion would change. I’m just afraid that killing unwanted but healthy foetuses (babies) will become normal, abortions of convenience. One thing that won’t change, however: Dr. Tiller’s murder was an evil, tragic and hypocritical act.

    Opinioness, I like your blog :)

  6. I just wanted anyone’s opinion on if I was in the wrong here, and what any of you guys would have done in this situation. So my wife is quite liberal and I’m more on the conservative side, and she’s about 3 months pregnant. She can’t work right now, so I’ve been forced to support her as of late. The thing is that about a week ago she started asking me if she could borrow $400, and being pretty secretive about the reason why. I soon found out that $400 was the average cost of a back alley abortion, which is ridiculous considering that she knows how vehemently pro-life I am. After refusing to give her the money and the countless hours of arguing that ensued, I ended up making a comment about how if she wanted to do something liberal with $400, she should take advantage of Obummer’s “ ARRA,” so that “instead of murdering our kid, he can have satellite internet at a smashing price!” (I linked it so you can actually see it’s about $400 in taxpayer money that our President chose to waste on this s**t, aren’t I so funny hah). The messed up part is that she went and told her dad, who happens to be just as liberal as her, and who also happens to own the house that we’re renting. To make a long story short, my tenancy has been “suspended” from his house (I’m now staying at my buddy’s place until this thing blows over) and he gave her the money to get the abortion. I haven’t talked to her in almost a week, so it’s pretty safe to say that she has already gone through with it. So my question is, do you think I was being inappropriate for mocking my wife and father in law’s political ideologies, or do you think I’m being unfairly persecuted because of my relative conservatism, and the Obummer joke I made has little to nothing to do with this? I’m thinking the latter.

  7. Pingback: Under Siege: Two Years After Dr. Tiller’s Murder Reproductive Rights at the Federal & State Level Still Under Attack | The Opinioness of the World

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