Winnowing Abortion Access, and the Legacy of Dr. Tiller’s Murder


This weekend will mark five years since the brutal murder of Dr. George Tiller by anti-choice activist Scott Roeder, and I’m trying hard to be somber—I’m trying hard to reflect. But in truth I’m angry and not really looking for perspective. I’m angry that in the five years since Dr. Tiller was gunned down while attending church, this country has witnessed an explosion of anti-choice legislation and a ratcheting up of violent, misogynist rhetoric that has many of us wondering when the next act of targeted clinic and provider violence will happen. I’m angry that anti-woman, pro-gun ideologies continue to get a pass from a media establishment whose job it is to question, push, prod those beliefs. And I’m angry that our legal system is only making this environment worse.

Even before Dr. Tiller’s murder, our legal system was woefully inadequate at dealing with anti-choice violence. According to the National Abortion Federation, since 1977 there have been eight murders, 17 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 181 incidents of arson, and thousands of incidents involving other criminal activities. In 1993, after the murder of Dr. David Gunn and a year of targeted anti-abortion violence that included 12 incidents of arson, one bombing, and 66 blockades of clinics, Congress passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. The law is designed to protect providers and clinics by forbidding the use of “force, threat of force or physician obstruction,” to prevent someone from providing or receiving reproductive health services.

The FACE Act addressed the worst of the clinic blockades, but its limitations that were apparent then have become glaringly obvious today. Anti-choice activists have not stopped targeting providers with threats of violence, but have instead floated the legal theory that those threats are protected forms of free speech. Instead of limiting their harassment to providers and their patients, anti-choice activists have started to target journalists and clinic escorts as well, individuals who are not protected under the FACE Act.

And as the murder of Dr. Tiller drove home, anti-choice activists are not content to limit their violence to outside of clinics either.

Just as anti-choice activists have expanded who they target for intimidation and violence, conservative politicians have expanded their attacks on reproductive autonomy, proudly declaring their intentions to make states “abortion free.” In Alabama, at least two sitting state supreme court justices have gone out of their way to lay the legal groundwork for prosecuting women who have had legal abortions under a framework of “natural rights,” and have called on more states to do the same. Meanwhile, we’re still waiting to see if the Roberts Court will grant anti-choice activists a constitutional right to harass patients in the name of free speech, and to deny women reproductive health care in the name of corporate religious rights.

These constant legislative assaults are not designed just to marginalize abortion providers in public and political discourse in some intellectual way. They are designed to do so in a very real way—to make it too difficult to do their job and to drive them out of providing health care to patients in need. These legislative attacks also fuel the stigma surrounding reproductive health care and autonomy, reinforcing in the political debate the false dichotomy between “health care” and “reproductive health care.” No politician will ever admit on a live mic that their rhetoric feeds and fuels anti-choice violence let alone that their legislation does. But as more and more clinics are forced to close thanks to TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws like the admitting privileges requirement in Texas, which has created a human rights crisis in the Rio Grande Valley that threatens to spread to most of the deep South and up through the Great Plains, it is harder for conservatives to escape that reality. Which in turn means it’s harder to see the possibility of more anti-abortion violence receding.

Our clinics, our providers, our patients, and our advocates and allies live under constant threat. And as their numbers shrink and clinics become more geographically concentrated, those targets become easier for anti-choice activists to identify. And that’s the point.

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  • purrtriarchy

    Pro lifers love the violence, they just pretend to not support it to appear less horrible than they really are.

    Secular pro life perspectives disowns the violence in their blog posts, yet on their site abortionsafety.com they lisy the names and addresses of abortion doctors:

    http://thetruepooka.wordpress.com/tag/abortionsafety-com/

    • fiona64

      And the only reason they do that is to incite violence/terrorism — as all thinking people can see.

  • auntbec

    Having worked over the years in the world of reproductive rights and health care, each new spew from the anti-lifers makes my blood boil just a little bit hotter. I worked in the Rio Grande Valley, in San Antonio, and Austin. I “cut my teeth” in a Planned Parenthood in Albuquerque in the early 70s.
    Every single day when I look out to see what has happened in the past 24 hours, to once again, take away a woman’s right to any and all health care – yes, all, and a clinician’s right to be safe in the US of A, I cannot believe I am a 50 something living in the 21st century. I grieve every year over our loss of Dr. Tiller on the anniversary, but I also grieve every day over the loss of humanism in this country.

  • Suba gunawardana

    Anti-choice philosophy:
    Killing/violence is wrong as long as it’s done to non-sentient beings who live inside people. Violence against living breathing sentient individuals? Go for it! That’s how we achieve our goals. (Actually that’s what we live for…)