“The Assassination of Dr. Tiller” begins with a shot of a pool of Dr. Tiller’s blood on the floor of Wichita, Kansas’s Reformation Lutheran Church, and recording of a frantic 911 in which a woman cries to the operator, “Somebody just came in and shot somebody in our church. Dr. George Tiller was just shot!”
On May 31st, 2009, ex-militaman and anti-abortion advocate Scott Roeder shot Dr. George Tiller in the head at point-blank range while the doctor served as an usher at his church. Roeder was quickly apprehended, and admitted to the crime. According to former associates, Roeder had long believed killing abortion providers was justifiable homicide. At his trial he testified that he’d shot Dr. Tiller in defense of fetuses — to him, babies — whose lives were in imminent danger. Dr. Tiller was one of the only doctors in the country who specialized in late-term abortions. While the majority of the abortions performed in his clinic were first-trimester pregnancies, in cases of severe fetal health problems or a serious threat to the wellbeing of the mother (which had to be verified by a second doctor) Dr. Tiller would terminate pregnancies in the second or third trimester. The jury rejected Roeder’s defense, and deliberated only 37 minutes before finding him guilty of first-degree murder. Roeder was sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole for fifty years.
Dr. Tiller’s assassination was the most recent attack in a long string of violence against abortion providers, ranging from vandalism to bombings, arson, kidnapping, and murder. Dr. Tiller and his clinic had been the target of violence on several occassions, including a bombing and a 1993 assassination attempt in which Dr. Tiller was shot in both arms. The Wichita clinic had also been the site of long-running nonviolent protests headed by anti-abortion advocacy group Operation Rescue. These protests ranged from sit-ins outside the clinic to screaming entreaties and abuse at arriving patients to sending gruesome postcards to everyone who lived near anyone who worked at the clinic, “outing” their neighbor as an abortion provider and “baby killer.”
Tiller’s death unleased torrents of both grief and celebration. Pro-choice advocates wept, held vigils, and made donations to reproductive rights organizations in Tiller’s honor. Some shared their stories through websites like “A Heartbreaking Choice,” for parents who have faced or are facing a poor prenatal diagnosis, or “I Am Dr. Tiller,” for abortion providers to talk about why they chose their work. While most pro-life or anti-abortion organizations and individuals condemned of the assassination, a few of the “condemnations” seemed to be expressions of satisfaction or barely concealed glee. A few organizations, especially the Army of God, openly rejoiced in his death.
MSNBC Revisits A Nation-Rocking Crime
Well over a year after his death, Rachel Maddow has turned the focus of America’s “culture wars” back to Dr. Tiller. On Monday night, during a special edition of The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, Maddow aired a forty-three minute MSNBC TV documentary on Tiller’s assassination, which can be viewed online here. The documentary begins by describing the day of the shooting, then explores the history and motivations of two men on two very different missions — a doctor performing abortions for women who needed them, and the shooter trying to stop him forever. “The Assassination of Dr. Tiller” weaves together some limited re-enactments with footage of Roeder’s trial, an old interview with Dr. Tiller, videos of anti-abortion protests at Tiller’s clinic, and other primary source material. The documentary also includes first-person interviews done specifically for the film, with extensive commentary and exposition by doctors, nurses, and administrators who worked in Dr. Tiller’s clinic, the D.A. who successfully prosecuted Roeder, the leaders of anti-abortion groups Operation Rescue and Kansas Coalition for Life, Roeder’s ex-wife, three of Dr. Tiller’s patients, and others who knew Tiller or Roeder.
If the film had a thesis, it would be something along the lines of “the propagation of hate leads inevitably to violence.” During the film, the argument is both implied through editing and made explicit several times by those who are being interviewed. “They gather all these people up, they fill them with hate, and then they stand back when the least imbalanced [sic] among them does something then they stand back and say they didn’t have anything to do with it,” says Joan Armentrout, an officer administrator at Tiller’s clinic.
“They” are extreme anti-abortion activists like Randall Terry, Operation Rescue’s former president, and the crowds of protestors he assembled to beseige Dr. Tiller’s clinic. Anti-abortion leaders are fingered as the main culprits in creating a miasma of hate, but Bill O’Reilly’s constant mentions of “Tiller the Baby Killer” are also brought up as a major factor in inciting hatred for the abortion doctor. Roeder also belonged to the anti-government militia group the Montana Freemen, where according to his fellow milita men he expressed his intention to kill Dr. Tiller. He even managed to arrange a face-to-face meeting with Shelley Shannon, the woman who shot George Tiller in 1993. These myriad influences may not have forced Roeder to commit murder, but Dr. Shelly Sella, an OB/GYN who worked with Tiller, believes they made all the difference. Roeder was “just a tool,” she says in the documentary, and her colleague Dr. Susan Robinson agrees that “he was reacting to an atmosphere of hatred.”
The film also draws connections between Scott Roeder and anti-abortion activists, highlighting a video of him sitting beside Operation Rescue president Troy Newman at Dr. Tiller’s trial (the trial was based on a complaint lodged by Operation Rescue; Tiller was quickly acquitted of all charges). Though they don’t make the point explicitly, the documentary also makes it clear that though Scott Roeder was not a member of Operation Rescue, he was “sidewalk counseling” at Tiller’s clinic during the same time period Operation Rescue was holding their protests and “sidewalk counseling.” In addition, they mention that a phone number of an Operation Rescue staff member was found in Roeder’s car, but allow Newman to explain it as an informational number easily available on the internet.
After almost an hour of toggling between Roeder’s violent actions and the ferocious anti-abortion protests surrounding Tiller’s clinic, the final shot of the film hits home. Troy Newman, with a spokesman’s polish, has just finished declaring that not only did Operation Rescue have nothing to do with Tiller’s death, they were as “shocked and horrified by it just like everybody else.” The film then cuts to Randall Terry saying, “Wichita’s chapter is closing in the history books. Summer of Mercy happened, all the abortion mills are closed, Tiller’s dead. We move on to the next battle. We move on to the next villian.”
The documentary’s release so close to the midterm elections leads me to believe Maddow intends it as a kick in the pants to enthusiasm-gap lagging Democrats and liberals. On her show, Maddow has been cajoling Democrats to make anti-abortion extremism more of an issue in this election. She has highlighted, again and again, the record number of candidates who publicly endorse an “abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape or incest” position. She has congratulated Democrats who do make advertisements attacking their opponents as extremists. This documentary says nothing about voting or about politicians, but it makes the point that Scott Roeder was fueled by an atmosphere of hatred and extremism. It may be intended to be a goad and tool for Democrats and pro-choice advocates, a sharp reminder of how public figures calling abortion doctors war criminals can feed into the vigilantism of men and women like Roeder and Shannon. Maddow is trying to make anti-abortion extremism part of the conversation about abortion, allowing pro-choice voters to go on the offensive instead of desperately avoiding the topic as pro-life voters score point after point.
A Personal Reaction
I thought this documentary was well-done and informative, and I was pleased Maddow didn’t choose to discuss politicians or focus solely on the role of national media. I would have liked to hear more from all those being interviewed, with a little less splicing and jumping between interviewees, but the heavy editing could be due to the length of the film.
After watching the documentary twice, once last night and once this morning, a few moments I haven’t talked about yet have stayed with me.
1. Though the documentary is grim, Dr. Tiller’s cheerful, determined and compassionate approach to his work is a bright thread throughout the film. In a 2000 inverview with Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, he describes how “horrified” he was when he discovered that his father had been performing abortions at his family practice (abortion was illegal when Dr. Tiller senior was practicing), then continues, “But the women in my father’s practice for whom he did abortions educated me and taught me that abortion is a matter of survival for women.” His obvious willingness to listen to women about their needs, and his open-mindedness, brought tears to my eyes.
Dr. Tiller was known for wearing a button that said “Trust Women,” and perhaps his attitude can be summed up in the pragmatic, straightforward sign he posted outside his clinic after the first time he was shot: “Women need abortions and I’m going to do them. — George Tiller, MD.”
2. Three of Dr. Tiller’s patients participated in the documentary, and one identified herself. Coming to the clinic for a late-term abortion after learning that her child would have severe birth defects if carried to term, Irina says the picketers got so bad she wanted to “have them face me, and see me, and tell them — they can never possibly understand the pain and the sorrow and the anguish that I was going through.”
As the film continued, I grew increasingly aware that Irena wasn’t just right because each person’s pain is unique and unknowable — she was right because the major leaders of the anti-abortion rallies couldn’t ever be in her position. It struck me, viscerally, as time and again the camera cut from a female doctor or nurse to a male anti-abortion activist. I firmly believe men can be part of the abortion debate, but the contrast between women compassionately describing the desperation of their patients and men chortling over how well screaming “Mommy, Mommy, don’t kill me!” could “haunt” a patient was sharp — and showed again how important it is for men in the abortion debate to be as “woman-educated” as Dr. Tiller proudly declared himself to be.
3. In footage from the “Summer of Mercy,” the summer of 1991 when Operation Rescue organized near-continual demonstrations around the clinic, there are a few moments when of video showing a young boy, probably around seven, crawling under an already-stopped car before some adult — presumably a policeman — hoists him away. Seeing such a small boy climbing under wheels in order to prevent a woman from reaching a medical facility, and knowing that he has likely been brought up to believe, heart and soul, that he’s shutting down the practice of a Nazi war criminal equivalent, makes my skin crawl. That child is probably in his late twenties now. Children can and do sometimes break away from their parents beliefs, and for all we now he could be an abortion provider himself now. I know nothing about this particular boy. But his image painfully reminded me how many children are being raised steeped in hatred.
The documentary is short, but there may need to be a part two: as Care2′s Jessica Pieklo wrote, it was recently reported that Roeder’s case in being investigated by a grand jury. Sources say that the jury is hearing testimony to determine whether Roeder was part of a broader conspiracy to kill Dr. Tiller.
I know not all Care2 members are pro-choice, and I know that even many members and non-members who are pro-choice are uncomfortable with late-term abortions. Honestly, I understand the importance of having late-term abortions available and I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of terminating a near-viable fetus. I do believe that Dr. Tiller was performing a necessary, legal medical service that almost no one else in America would provide, and I am inspired by his courage, compassion, sense of humor, and dedication to women’s rights and women’s health. However, I don’t think this has to be a “with us or against us” scenario — you don’t have to think Tiller was a hero to think Operation Rescue is too extreme, and you don’t have to advocate for late-term abortion access in order to speak out against violence directed at doctors.
If you do want to support the work Dr. Tiller was devoted to and honor his memory, consider making a donation to the George Tiller Memorial Abortion Fund, which provides funds to women who need abortions and cannot afford them.
Photo is two of NOW's "Keep Abortion Legal" signs altered to read "Keep Abortion Providers Safe." The picture was taken by Priya Deonarain on June 1, 2009 in Washington D.C. at a vigil for Dr. Tiller.
The photo is via pdeonarain's flickr, used by under Creative Commons Attribution License, with thanks.