Fifth abortion doctor assassinated in US

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Dr George Tiller, one of only three US doctors currently performing late-term abortions, was gunned down while acting as an usher at his church in Wichita, Kansas on May 31.

He was the fifth abortion doctor murdered in the US. Some abortion clinic staffers have also been killed and many wounded. Dr Tiller himself was shot in both arms in 1993.

The assassination of Dr Tiller was particularly shocking since federal legislation enacted after years of pro-choice mobilisation and lobbying by major women's reproductive rights groups was supposed to prevent such actions.

The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994 (FACE), was passed after a coalition of pro-choice organisations including the National Organisation for Women (NOW) demanded the federal government intervene to end the violence.

More than a decade of mobilisations against anti-abortion violence stirred the public's outrage, providing the necessary political support for the legislation.

According to the National Abortion Federation, 175 arson attacks, 41 bombings, and 659 anthrax threats were carried out against abortion clinics in the US and Canada from 1977 to 2009.

FACE prohibits the use of intimidation or physical force to prevent or discourage persons from (a) gaining access to a reproductive health care facility (which includes abortion clinics), or (b) exercising freedom to worship at a religious facility.

The law also creates specific penalties for the destruction of, or damage to, a reproductive health care facility or place of religious worship.

The pro-choice movement first started to mobilise in a big way against these attacks in the 1980s. Huge national demonstrations were held.

In the late 1980s, emboldened by legislative gains and the conservative Reagan and Bush administrations, anti-abortion extremists initiated terrorist acts, including arson, gas infusion, and other forms of physical damage to clinics. One clinic in Redwood City, California was burned three times.

The federal authorities responsible for terrorist activities either refused to act or focused their investigations on the clinic providers instead of the terrorists.

In 1986, the extremist anti-abortion group Operation Rescue formed and launched a series of clinic invasions. Women's organisations including NOW, the Feminist Majority and many locally formed groups launched their own clinic defence teams.

The clinic defence teams protected and escorted clients coming to the clinics, helped convince the clinic operators to not close on the advice of the police, and overwhelmed the anti-abortion activists in their determination and numbers.

Operation Rescue promoted themselves as followers of the civil rights movement — just regular working people trying to rescue fetuses from "murder". It tried to exploit the mainstream definition of women's organisations as an "elite". It backfired.

Thousands of women were involved across the country in mass pickets defending the clinics and escorting the patients into the clinics.

These massive clinic defence efforts couldn't continue forever week after week, year after year while authorities weren't upholding abortion rights legislation. Pro-choice supporters demanded and got hundreds of cities across the US and Canada to pass "bubble" laws.

These laws created a safe space at the entrance to abortion clinics in which anti-abortionists were not legally allowed.

Kansas is one of the very few US states that allow late-term abortions in the case of danger to the mother. Unfortunately, the US Supreme Court has upheld several types of laws that create barriers to women's access to abortion services.

Anti-choice campaigners and politicians have also prevented access to emergency contraception, RU486, and many other methods that would lower the rate of abortions. This shows their true agenda is not "pro-life" but is to deny women their reproductive rights.

Given 87% of the counties in the US lack abortion providers, the doctors who have dedicated themselves to this practice are extraordinary heroes.

Dr Tiller had planned to be a dermatologist. But when his father died he took over the practice where his father had performed some abortions.

After his clinic was bombed in 1986, he put up a sign saying "hell no, we won't go" and rebuilt his clinic as a fortress.

Operation Rescue moved its national headquarters to Wichita with the express purpose of closing down his clinic. They put up a website called "Tiller Watch" and made him and his family the target of hundreds of demonstrations and daily threats and harassment.

Dr Leroy Carhart, who sometimes did abortions at Tiller's clinic, has announced he will now offer late term abortions in Kansas.

In the days following Tiller's death, questions have arisen about the role of state and federal authorities. The FBI failed to act on reports of escalating threats against Tiller's life and his staff.

The FBI's refusal to act against anti-abortion extremists, who are part of a movement with a decades-long track record of bombings and assassinations, stands in stark contrast to their much publicised role in the so-called "war on terror."

The outrage that has followed Tiller's death has helped put the extremist anti-abortionists on the defensive. Some websites have removed personal information about abortion doctors and their families.

Randall Terry, a founder of Operation Rescue, said after Tiller's death: "George Tiller was a mass-murderer. We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God ... [his death] has the potential to propel us more quickly to our goal."

Operation Rescue's website now carries a repudiation of Terry's statement.

Tiller's death has the potential to reinvigorate support for women's rights and involve a new, younger generation in the campaign. The tragedy has broadened discussion about the right of women to control their own fertility.

A blogger associated with the New York Times said it well: "It is time that we recognise how important it is to have legal abortions be available to women facing gut-wrenching, awful circumstances late in their pregnancies."

NOW and other organisations focused on women's rights have seen a decline in activism in the last decade. But as the death of Tiller shows, women's reproductive rights are clearly far from won. Women must get active once again.

In the wake of Tiller's death, many pro-choice voices have responded through television, online blogs and some major media outlets.

NOW organised an honour guard at his funeral. NARAL Pro Choice America and Planned Parenthood are gathering tens of thousands of signatures honouring Tiller's work and protesting his death.

US President Barack Obama condemned Tiller's murder and told the media he was "shocked and outraged".

But more than words are needed. Women need the federal government to commit to enforcing laws that protect women's reproductive rights and their providers. All restrictions on women's control of their bodies must be removed.

It is also time for the pro-choice movement to also speak out against the government's double standard on terrorism. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented the relationship between extremist anti-abortion activists and a number of extreme right-wing and racist organisations.

It's time to demand a replacement of bogus "anti-terrorist" investigations where innocent people are targeted with the investigation of real anti-choice terrorists who have been acting freely for decades.

[To sign a statement honouring Dr Tiller's legacy of service to women visit www.remembertiller.com.]