The Abortion Wars, 10 Years After George Tiller’s Assassination

Dr. George Tiller coping with anti-abortion protesters in 1992. Photo: Richard Hernandez/MCT via Getty Images

Ten years ago today, Dr. George Tiller, a man famously devoted to offering women a safe and affordable place for medically necessary late-term abortions, was assassinated in the vestibule of Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas, where he was serving as an usher before Sunday services. His murderer, anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder, publicly confessed his guilt a few months later, claiming he was simply trying to protect “unborn children.” His life sentence was reduced to 25 years imprisonment in 2016. Another anti-abortion activist, Rachelle Renae Shannon, who shot Tiller non-fatally in 1993, is already out of jail.

Tiller became a target, literally, for anti-abortion extremists because of his unapologetic determination to continue his work in a state and city that had become the central battleground of the political, legal, and cultural war over abortion. Kansan Joel Mathis remembers the apogee of protests against Tiller back in 1991:

My home state of Kansas has been a hotbed of abortion-related activism for more than a generation. Most memorable, perhaps, were the 1991 “Summer of Mercy” protests in Wichita, where thousands of protesters flooded the city to blockade an abortion clinic operated by Dr. George Tiller; over the course of six weeks and more than 2,600 people were arrested. Anti-abortion protests in Kansas have, on occasion, congealed into violence: Tiller’s clinic was firebombed in 1986; he was shot and injured by an abortion opponent in 1993; he was shot and killed by another abortion opponent in 2009.

It almost seemed inevitable. But as his onetime spokesperson and later director of a foundation created in his memory, Julie Burkhart, recalled in an interview with ABC, he went about his business unintimidated:

“He did have a sign that he put up at one point in the parking lot, that you could see from the street, that said ‘Women need abortions. I’m going to do them, George R. Tiller, M.D.,’” Burkhart recalled.

She said that while the protests and threats could be disturbing and distracting for some, she knew that Tiller believed his work was necessary.

“I know he expressed this to me personally at one time, that providing abortion care for him — and especially in the middle of the country — it was a matter of principle,” she said.

“He was one of the country’s abortion providers of last resort. If you were a person with a maternal health indication or if you were carrying a baby that had a fetal abnormality, he was one of the very few people that you could come to from across the country … and around the globe,” Burkhart said.

Indeed, Tiller was known as “St. George” in the reproductive-rights advocacy community and among the abortion providers who referred women to him.

His murder was but one inflection point in the anti-abortion movement’s long battle to chip away at reproductive rights by focusing on the tiny percentage of procedures conducted late in pregnancy, typically in cases involving dire medical circumstances or severe fetal abnormalities. In 2007 the Supreme Court upheld a federal ban on certain types of late-term abortions that advocates misleadingly called “partial-birth abortions.” Most recently, abortion foes focused on a provider of illegal late-term abortions, Kermit Gosnell (now in prison), as somehow typical of those following the law, and also promoted a highly distorted series of “exposés” by right-wing filmmaker James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas, alleging that Planned Parenthood sold fetal tissue from late-term abortions.

Earlier this very year, it appeared that a big part of the 2020 national Republican message — promoted by President Trump among many others — would be that Democrats were for “infanticide,” based on the passage of laws in New York and Virginia that codified the abortion rights protected in Roe v. Wade, including medically necessary late-term abortions. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg called Trump’s attacks on such abortions a deliberate incitement to violence:

Abortion providers are regular targets of domestic terrorism, and Trump’s lies serve as incitement. In 2016, a man fired an AR-15 inside a Washington pizzeria because he believed right-wing conspiracy theories that it was the epicenter of a child sex trafficking ring involving Hillary Clinton. Now the putative leader of the free world is spreading tales about unimaginable Democratic depravity toward innocent children.

But now it appears the anti-abortion movement and its GOP handmaidens have become distracted from their own message by excitement over the possibility that Trump’s Supreme Court appointments could lead to a sweeping rollback of reproductive rights and achievement of their real goal: a ban on most if not all early-term abortions. The shocking law recently passed by Alabama’s Republican-controlled legislature and signed by the state’s Republican governor, banning all abortions after conception other than those threatening the life of the pregnant woman involved, represents a rare honest moment for a movement that had been laser-focused on finding and demonizing providers like George Tiller.

Anti-abortion advocates, however, aren’t the only ones experiencing a rapid evolution in views. Reproductive rights supporters have stopped being defensive and apologetic about abortion; instead of calling for “safe, legal and rare” procedures (in the famous Clintonian formulation), they are insisting on the morality of abortion as a much-needed medical service and as a reflection of women’s autonomy. As New York’s Irin Carmon noted recently, there’s a new honesty and militancy being seen on the pro-choice side, in part thanks to new restrictive state laws:

I was talking this week with a pollster who’s done a lot of surveys and focus groups on the question, and she says that it’s striking the intensity that Democratic voters are bringing to the issue, and that they’re moving away from the “private decision between a woman and her doctor” and toward talking about it as control over your body. One Latina woman said to her in a focus group, “You have to ask the president now if you want to go to the bathroom.”

This new boldness very much represents the spirit of George Tiller, which lives on in former colleagues like Julie Burkhart, as the Guardian noted:

Burkhart bought the clinic from Tiller’s widow in 2012, had it renovated and secured at the cost of about $1m, and reopened it four years after his death. Even before it had opened its doors, anti-abortion protesters were back outside on the street hurling abuse at staff, intimidating women and bombarding the local authorities with complaints to have it shut down.

She named the foundation she set up to promote this vital work Trust Women, echoing Tiller’s most famous motto. He called himself a “woman-educated physician.” Perhaps a woman-educated nation can make violence against abortion providers, and efforts to shut them down by law as well, a distant and disturbing memory.

The Abortion Wars, 10 Years After Tiller’s Assassination