Six Ways the Internet Has Shaped the Discourse Around Dr. Tiller’s Murder

The last time a doctor was
murdered in cold blood for providing abortion care to women, we were
not in the digital age. While the pro-choice community in the 90s reacted
to Dr. Bernard Slepian’s murder with the same outrage and hurt as
it has this week to Dr. George Tiller’s, the Internet has provided
us with tools that have enabled us to more effectively shape the discourse.  

Yes, many TV shows and mainstream
pundits (ahem! Chris Matthews and Will Saletan, popular offenders) have
trotted out the expected all-male panels and high-minded philosophical
musings in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy. But a strong counter
movement calling the incident "terrorism" and pointing out the the
far-right "pro-life" movement’s rampant hypocrisy has emerged
online. We owe this to an engaged, savvy and active blogosphere and twittersphere of feminists that have been able to
launch accurate, appropriate language into circulation and gather evidence
that this assassination was part of a larger pattern of purposeful hate
and intimidation. 

Here are six ways that the
Internet has shaped the discourse that followed Tiller’s murder: 

6. Exposing the opposition
for what it is

In the afternoon after Tiller’s
murder, chatter from the Internet’s anti-choice faction was relatively
quiet, and many condemned the actions of the killer. But in the days
since the killing, comments and tweets of the most extreme "he deserved
it" variety have begun to surface all over the web, revealing the
callousness of some (though certainly not all) in the opposition camp
and exposing those who were in pain to a renewed sense of being under

A number of comments on blogs
have shown an obtuse unwillingness to directly respond to previous comments
or posts-such as the fact that many of the abortions performed by
Tiller were therapeutic and performed in heartbreaking circumstances.
Sickening and cruel though such comments may be, they reveal the limits
of the "common ground" mantra, which assumes that both sides are
acting in good faith.The reality is that although many so-called "pro-lifers"
have embraced the common ground idea, there is a hard-core group that
sees it as treasonous and are perhaps willing to back up their beliefs
with violence. They also reveal the myopic vision that led to this incident
in the first place, and remind more casual observers – some of whom
may have little patience for pro-choicers’ ongoing struggle to secure
women’s reproductive rights – that extremists on the right do pose
an imminent and immediate threat to the lives of women and doctors. 

5. Twittering the hypocrisy
of the "pro-life" moniker

"Pro-life" was a trending
topic on twitter in the hours after Dr. Tiller’s death. But 9 out
of 10 tweets in the torrent (by my reckoning) came not from so-called
pro-lifers, but rather from pro-choice folks calling out the hypocrisy
of the killer: "How can you murder someone and call yourself pro-life?"
Tweeters also pointed out how many in the "pro-life" camp espouse
contradictory positions, such as being pro-war or pro-death penalty. 

The tweeters exposed a movement
that has manipulated language and facts to gain a perceived moral high
ground.  For a few hours, term "pro-life" was taken back by
people of all stripes who reject violence. The groundswell of angry
tweets proved that it’s still possible to win the linguistic battle,
and that people recognize the double standard of a movement that espouses
using sadistic means to a supposedly idealistic end.

4. Amassing Evidence 

The kind of quick footage-culling
that has been a staple of the blogs and shows like The Daily Show proved
brutally effective this week, producing
several reels of footage of mainstream figures delivering fiery, reckless
jeremiads against Dr. Tiller
Outlets like ThinkProgress and Salon documented Bill O’Reilly’s relentless
campaign against Tiller. These clips clearly illustrated the climate
of fury and demonization that influenced and fostered this desperate
act of violence.  

Even though the New York Times
raised the question of culpability in a typically dry way, by saying
pundits like Bill O’Reilly weren’t
legally responsible

(which they are certainly not-moral responsibility is the issue),
the fact that the paper of record responded directly to the idea of
O’Reilly’s role in the murder at all is a victory for pro-choice
forces on the internet. 

Bloggers also engaged in evidence
gathering from the web, trawling through right wing sites to spread
knowledge of the words and images that were staples of the killer’s
virtual community. Within minutes of the announcement of the suspect’s
name, some diligent Kossacks
had started Googling, and they quickly figured out his ties to far right
groups like Operation Rescue, the Freemen, and more
. This effectively provided a counterweight 
heading off the expected mainstream narrative that Tiller’s murder
was the act of a lone psycho and not the product of the outermost edges
of the right wing. 

3. Launching
"domestic terrorism" into the popular consciousness

Over the course of the past
few years, the liberal blogosphere has been in the forefront of challenging
conventional narratives surrounding terrorism. One of the ideas that surfaced is that intimidation
by right-wing groups, from anti-government militias to violence specifically
targeting abortion clinics, qualifies as terrorism in many instances:
violence committed with the aim of frightening people towards a political
end. The theory gained prominence when a series of ugly incidents took
place during the end of the 2008 presidential campaign at Palin and
McCain rallies, which recalled the 90s, a decade that saw a spate of
both anti-government and anti-choice bloodshed. 

As soon as this tragedy occurred,
therefore, dozens blogged and tweeted about classifying the killer as
a "terrorist." The word was repeated with astounding frequency and Matt Yglesias’s concise explanation circulated widely. Rachel Maddow and
Keith Olbermann labeled the killing "terrorism" and The New York
editorialized to that effect as well.

2. Rachel Maddow on TV 

Rachel Maddow, heroine of the
blogosphere, devoted a large portion of her Monday night show not only
to the senseless assassination of Dr. Tiller, but also to many of the
issues that have since arisen. She detailed the entire history of anti-abortion
violence. She discussed with a lawyer how to approach the rhetoric that
might have contributed to the killing. She hosted acompelling segment
with Frank
, a former
member of the religious right who argued that that movement’s rhetoric
and strategizing were partly responsible for such violence. Finally,
she talked with heroine of the feminist internet Dr. Susan Wicklund,
in a segment that wrenchingly described
the dwindling access to abortion

and targeting of providers. 

The following night, Maddow
again devoted much of her show to the issue, interviewing abortion provider
Dr. Warren Hern

as well as Vicki
Saporta, president of National Abortion Federation
who talked about the safety of clinic

Maddow has a symbiotic relationship
with the blogosphere-she picks up ideas that are circulated during
the day and then her ability to gather expert commentators and footage
and her own thoughtful take provides fodder for blogs the following
day. Without that relationship, the kind of nuance and depth that she
applied to the issue would never have showed up on cable television. 

1. Women’s stories at the

Lastly and by far most importantly,
the Internet has permitted the wide circulation of real-life
chronicled by patients at Tiller’s clinic, many of whom
previously identified as pro-life or were terminating badly-wanted pregnancies
because of horrible medical circumstances. They have circulated everywhere:
on blogs, on this
, in comments.
To a one, they described the kindness and compassion they received at
the clinic, and they thoroughly undid the "baby killer" meme so
often circulated next to Tiller’s name. Stories surfaced from Tiller’s
friends and others who had been through tragic late-term abortion procedures
elsewhere. Even big-shot writers like Steven
and Andrew Sullivan have (to a certain extent) ceded their
voices to those of women who have actually undergone the procedure.  

The inherently democratic quality
of the internet has allowed more than one narrative to take shape. Rather
than viewing a single mainstream media take on the killing, Americans
are seeing a number of counter-threads: about the hypocrisy of "pro-life"
violence, the primacy of women’s stories, the terrorizing effect of
stalking clinic workers. As horrifying as the tragedy is, we’re lucky
to have this medium helping us set the story straight and get justice
for Dr. Tiller, the women he served, and those who need him whom he
never had the chance to help.

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  • invalid-0

    You forgot one more beauty of the Internet. It has allowed web sites like RH Reality Check to launch vicious personal attacks on pro-life people by slandering and libeling them and falsely accusing them of supporting, allowing or creating some sort of miasma cline fostering the killing. You also forgot how it is allowing pro-abortion activists to create the same climate that could eventually result in the killing of pro-life advocates. That’s the real hypocrisy Sarah, not your made up kind where you find some anonymous person on a Twitter and make some wild-eyed claims that they represent millions of Americans.

  • invalid-0

    12 – Oh please, your argument trying to make the right the equivalent of the left is sad and hollow. Name ONE figure assassinated by NARAL or any other pro-choice organization? I can name several assassinated by anti-choice terrorists off the top of my head….

  • on-the-issues-magazine

    It’s interesting to see you make sense of the ways the Internet works in terms of spreading a message. While in many ways the Internet is a great tool for organizing and memorializing, it’s also, as you say, a difficult tool to manage. The conversation surrounding a topic can easily be veered in one direction or another.

  • invalid-0

    In point #4, did you mean the Daily Show, or Daily Kos has been “brutally effective” in amassing footage of Bill O’Reilly? Because I don’t think the Daily Show has mentioned Dr. Tiller’s murder, to my great sadness.

  • sarah-seltzer

    Yuki, you make an excellent point. My point was really that the Daily Show pioneered that whole “digging through footage to expose hypocrisy” technique which has spread throughout the internet and news world as well. Jon Stewart, though, has totally fallen down on the job in terms of reporting on this. It’s been hugely disappointing and may be worth a future post.

  • invalid-0

    Name one that your side has killed (Pro-Choice)…Um there are millions!! That is the entire point of being pro-life! Whoever killed Dr. Tiller, by definition, was not pro-life. Oh, and if you would like to twist the common terminology and call pro-lifers anti-choice, maybe we should start calling you pro-death. Nice tactics…

  • invalid-0


    no one has ever advocated violence in the pro-choice ranks that i’ve heard of.

  • invalid-0

    I’m aware of a half dozen pro-life groups who have received death threats since the Tiller shooting.

  • amanda-marcotte

    That you would fantasize about receiving the treatment that pro-choicers get.  I promise you, it’s not pleasurable.  It’s horrible.

  • amanda-marcotte

    If you can’t see that the people who live and breath and think and feel are real, actual human beings, well….  I’m just disturbed, that’s all.  I’ve been working in this field for years, and thought I’d grown accustomed to this inability to see people that comes from the poorly named "pro-lifers", but this assassination of a truly righteous person with a real life has opened up all the wounds.

  • invalid-0

    I find it interesting how pro-choicers (I’ll respectfully call you by what you call yourselves) attempt to take the higher moral ground. You ignore the millions of people that your side has killed, but then you almost revel in the fact that some hateful person killed someone who’s an abortionist.

    Nobody who is reveling in Tiller’s death is part of the true pro-life movement. Killing somebody in cold blood is contradictory to the movement. More pro-choicers seem to be in some sick way elated about Tiller’s death than any true-to-form pro-lifer. Why? Because then pro-choicers can go on a rant about how hateful pro-lifers are.

    But who is really hateful?

    I’ve read through these comments and others on the other pages, and it appears to me that the hateful ones are you, the pro-choicers.

    Any time someone challenges you with facts, you become unglued. If all of us simply are looking out for what’s best for humanity, then why the fight? Here are some of the facts:

    * Between 18 and 25 days, the baby’s heart begins to beat.

    * EEGs are able to detect electrical brainwaves as early as 43 days. If the lack of brainwaves indicates death, what does their presence mean?

    * By eight weeks, all of the baby’s body systems, including the brain, are present. They are all functioning one month later.

    * Also at 8 weeks, the baby becomes alert and has a need for sleep. He/she is able to move his hands and arms and make a fist or suck his thumb. The baby can even hiccup!

    * The baby has his own unique finger prints by the end of 9 weeks.

    * The baby is sensitive to heat, touch, light, noise — not to mention pain — by the 11th or 12th week. All body systems are working, and he weighs about 28g and is 6-7.5 cm long. Before the mother even notices she’s pregnant (except for obvious indicators like missed periods, etc.), the baby is fully developed.

    You know, most pro-choicers don’t argue the fact that the zygote/embryo is alive. They simply argue whether or not it’s a baby. Pro-choicers will argue that it’s not a baby until it can survive on its own. (I’ve even heard some argue that an abortion is preferred over an unwanted baby.)Perhaps we can drop the semantics and get to the core issue.

    Since when do we define the value of life as the ability to sustain itself? If this is how we define life or its value, than children aren’t human until quite a few years after they’re born!

    Since when is someone’s existence determined by someone else’s wishes (except in situations where someone is holding a gun to someone else’s head)? If we decide as a society that we can determine when life for someone begins (or ends), then it is over for the entire human race. We will have truly lost the value of men AND women.

    Just to set the record straight about the pro-life movement …

    The pro-life movement is a loving movement that believes in the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death. Just as God’s Word and all civilized societies say murder is wrong, we to believe that murder is wrong. However, we also believe in patiently telling the truth to those who have been given erroneous information about their pregnancies. We also believe in forgiveness. We do not condone taking the law into your own hands. What happened to Tiller was wrong. However, just as those who abort their children need forgiveness, so does the man who killed Tiller. The idea of forgiveness often runs contrary to the way people think, but it is the way the pro-life movement thinks, and fortunately for all of us, it is the way God thinks.

  • invalid-0


    “A climate that could eventually result in the killing of pro-life advocates.”

    Yup. That seems pretty likely to happen. I’ll just pass the time grooming my unicorn and collecting its gold droppings.

  • sarah-seltzer

    I respect your consistency, but I’d give your movement a lot more credit if you were handing out condoms and the morning after pill–which would save lives by your logic– rather than harassing/targeting women (even in "loving" prayer vigils outside clinics, which is still harassing) who are already in unhappy situations.

  • invalid-0

    Don’t equate all younger pro-lifers with the older generation’s tactics. I for one do not have a problem with teaching sex education, and I am pro-life. Activists always tend to focus on their experience and the people they have fought, rather than steping back and taking a look at the issue. If that behavior would endear more of your respect, why aren’t you fighting for an end to elective abortions with increases in sex education? Maybe that would endear mutual respect. Thanks.

  • invalid-0

    Timothy, even people who work directly on increasing access to abortion would like to reduce the number of abortions. No one makes money off of helping low-income women travel and find places to stay when they have to travel, as many do, to distant clinics like Dr Tiller’s, and there’s much more demand for help and funds from groups like that than money available to help them. Funds that help cover the cost for low-income women who can’t afford the several hundred dollars, at least, for an abortion don’t make much money for the fund administrators. They can’t make much money for anyone — they depend on dollars and time put in usually by volunteers who believe in the work they’re doing.

    The problem with looking at any seemingly easy solution like sex education is that whatever you think of it’s morality, abortion will remain an option for women whose contraception fails, or who find themselves with health conditions or fetal abnormalities and — for whatever reasons in the end — want to have an abortion. Think of the relationship between supply and demand, a simple relationship taught in economics classes. All of the protest, violence, restrictive legislation, all efforts otherwise to restrict access (supply-side restrictions, on that half of the supply – and – demand equation) does not stop abortion, it only makes it more difficult and expensive to get.

    You mentioned sex education, and said pro-choice activists should support that more to reduce the number of abortions. I suppose you think sex education is going to reduce the need (or demand, on that side of supply-and-demand) for abortion. Of course many people do support sex education in the schools. Unfortunately, sex education is in the news a lot more than issues related to access to clinical services, maybe in part because that’s less controversial (and less expensive) than arguing for increased funding and regulations reducing cost of providing reproductive health care services. It’s easier to get a bunch of parents (and textbook publishers) debating whether or not (or how) high school sex ed classes should talk about condoms, for example, than it is to get a similar population talking about increasing funding (and paying more in taxes) to fund health care services out in the community, services that would help provide care for the low-income and young people who need it most.

    Access to preventative health care and social services in a clinical setting can help reduce the number of abortions by increasing use of contraceptives for women who choose to be sexually active and want to avoid pregnancy, and also those same health care and social services can help women who become pregnant (and hopefully want to be pregnant) and who want to carry their pregnancies to term to have healthy pregnancies and deliver healthy babies. If for some unfortunate reason serious health problems or fetal abnormalities are detected, with better access to health care women can find out about those issues earlier, maybe deal with them better so they don’t need to have an abortion at all, and if they do decide to have one they have it earlier in pregnancy which most would agree is better for many reasons than later.

    Please keep that in mind when you hear controversy about health care reform and funding public health services — money spent on that goes to provide just the kind of preventative services that sex education talks about (but doesn’t actually provide), services that obviously would reduce the need and number of abortions.

    If you don’t mind us asking, Timothy, since you support sex education and, one supposes, public funds being used for that — would you support also public funds being used to provide preventative health care services like contraception?