When Words Pick Up Swords: Anti-Abortion Terrorism Ensues

"Women and families are intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and ethically competent to struggle with complex health issues — including abortion — and come to decisions that are appropriate for themselves." — George R. Tiller, M.D., DABFP, Medical Director, Women's Health Care Services, P.A.

In the immediate aftermath of the horrific news that Dr. George Tiller was slayed–in the foyer to his church–allegedly by Scott P Rodeur, an almost inevitable fallout occurred. First, foremost: there's shock that a man could be gunned down in this manner. Meanwhile, the very most extreme anti-abortion activists don't let up on their view that that this man "killed babies." Most won't go so far as to utter the eye for an eye line of reasoning, but some will–and that, of course, is in part why this tragedy occurred.

A story in the Wichita Eagle included this from Warren Hern, a Colorado physician and close friend of Tiller's — who described himself now as "the only doctor in the world" who performs very late-term abortions — said Tiller's death was predictable.

"I think it's the inevitable consequence of more than 35 years of constant anti-abortion terrorism, harassment and violence," he said.

When Obama was elected last fall, Hern predicted that anti-abortion violence would increase, he said. Because Obama supports legalized abortion, Hern said, its foes "have lost ground…. They want the doctors dead, and they invite people to assassinate us. No wonder that this happens.

"I am next on the list."

Tiller was regarded by many, especially those working in the field of reproductive health care–as in, abortion providers–as heroic. He was one of the few willing to risk his life–he'd already been shot in both arms at his clinic in 1993–to offer women late term abortions.

There is a list. Violence against abortion providers or clinics isn't new. An Associated Press story offered examples of the past decade and a half and incidents of anti-abortion related violence. On October 23, 1998, Dr. Barnett Slepian was fatally shot in his home in a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y. by militant abortion opponent James Kopp. On Jan. 29, 1998, Eric Rudolph set a bomb just outside a Birmingham, Ala., abortion clinic, killing a police officer and wounding several others. an. 16, 1997: Two bomb blasts an hour apart rock an Atlanta building containing an abortion clinic. Seven people are injured. Rudolph also pleaded guilty to the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics and was charged for another bomb blast in an Atlanta building in 1997 that injured seven people. On December 30, 1994, John Salvi killed two receptionists and injured five others inside two Boston-area abortion clinics, by shooting a rifle. In 1994, two other doctors were shot at (one killed) and a volunteer escort was killed as well. In 1993, the same year Tiller was first shot, Dr. David Gunn became the first U.S. doctor killed during an anti-abortion demonstration, shot to death by Michael Griffin outside a Pensacola, Fla., clinic.

Along with fatal or physically injurious acts of violence, there is a great deal of menacing harrasment at these clinics and others, along with imflammatory language about abortion that fans the flames of violence and acceptance of violence. Bill O'Reilly can serve as example of hearing this language in action, as Andrew Sullivan points out in the Atlantic: "Reilly calls Tiller the 'so-called baby killer.' He calls his outfit a 'death-mill, which is exactly what it is.'"

In his extremely sharp post on The Field, Al Giordano wrote yesterday: "The original assassination attempt on Dr. Tiller came eight months into the Clinton presidency. The parallel with today’s offense ought to be obvious: a pro-choice president takes office and the violent extremists go all crazy, whipped up by some of the same right wing radio talkers today as sixteen years ago." Giordano's assertion is that with a Democratic President in power (enjoying considerable popular support) yesterday's actions do not strengthen the anti-abortion movement; quite the contrary. I'll pull one other long quote here: "An assassin in Kansas has just inadvertently strengthened the hand and command of this head of State. A very similar dynamic will come into play as did on April 19, 1995, when a terrorist car-bombing of the Oklahoma Federal Building killed 168 people, and wounded 450 more, including children in a day care center there. That terrorist act – the man convicted for it, Timothy McVeigh, believed he was avenging an act of State terrorism two years prior in Waco, Texas – returned the upper hand to an already embattled President Clinton. His Democratic Party had lost the US House in the 1994 elections to what then-Speaker Newt Gingrich’s called his “revolution” of the right. The Oklahoma City bombing shook public opinion enough to considerably slow what had been, prior, a juggernaut's momentum by the Gingrich revolution, allowing Clinton to again claim the terrain of the political center." Indeed, Attorney General Eric Holder indeed stepped forward to assert a more forcible protection than his recent predecessors might have: "I have directed the United States Marshals Service to offer protection to other appropriate people and facilities around the nation. The Department of Justice will work to bring the perpetrator of this crime to justice. As a precautionary measure, we will also take appropriate steps to help prevent any related acts of violence from occurring."

Briefly for now, let's return to language. I believe the phrase "pro-life" did more to shape this issue over the past two decades than we recognize. It's offensive language–and not solely, for those of us who believe in women's equality, as in putrid offensive–this is an aggressive, even bullying term. When you claim the highest moral ground–"life"–everything else can be steamrolled. Ironically, the late term abortions Tiller–and just two other doctors in this country–provided were often provided for couples trying to become parents, cases in which there were extreme fetal abnormalities. The disconnect between claiming a reverence for life and utter lack of compassion for people trying to create families only begins to demonstrate what's occurred wrong here. "Choice" is optional; it's a consumer-driven idea. It does not assert nearly strongly enough that women's lives are "life." Dr. Hern, of the Boulder clinic, now one of two of these docs does not hide behind a euphemism for his Boulder Abortion clinic. The Colorado Independent included this quote by Hern from the website in its story about the slaying: "By its name and continued existence, Boulder Abortion Clinic makes a statement that women are free to make their own choices about their own lives, bodies, and family needs. I have been personally involved from the beginning of my medical career in advocacy of reproductive freedom, and I continue in this commitment."

Today, we can be horrified, sure, but tomorrow, we need to listen to these brave doctors' words and heed them; we need to assert that women's equality is absolutely an issue of justice.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

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