A Culture War Casualty

A Culture War Casualty

Barnett Slepian was the last abortion provider to be gunned down in America, in 1998–until George Tiller.


In the summer of 1993, a housewife from Grants Pass, Oregon, named Rachelle “Shelley” Ranae Shannon traveled to Wichita, Kansas, with a Bible and a .25-caliber pistol and shot George Tiller, a 51-year-old doctor and abortion provider. Dr. Tiller was not the first physician so targeted–six months earlier, an abortion provider named David Gunn had been murdered outside his medical clinic in Pensacola, Florida. Despite sustaining wounds in both arms, Tiller managed to survive the attack. Sixteen years later, on May 31, while standing in the foyer of his church, where he was serving as an usher and distributing bulletins, Tiller was shot again. This time he wasn’t so lucky.

The election of Barack Obama, it was said, would put the culture wars behind us, and on May 17 in a commencement address at Notre Dame University, President Obama tried to inject a note of civility into the debate about abortion. In his speech Obama urged opponents and supporters of abortion rights to seek common ground by working to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies. He also told the story of an e-mail he’d received from a doctor who had voted for him in the Illinois primary but who’d taken offense at a passage on Obama’s website describing “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.” The doctor characterized himself as prolife and wrote, “I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.”

Obama wrote back to thank him and directed his staff to alter the wording, which in its original form was positively gracious next to the language on StopObamaNotreDame.com. This website features writings and video clips of Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, who showed up at Notre Dame to protest and who compared Obama to Herod. “Obama wants open ended child-killing,” declared Terry on the website, promising to “raze hell” in the “‘war'” to come. After the murder of Dr. Tiller, Terry came forward with more inflammatory words, calling Tiller “a mass murderer” and adding, “Those men and women who slaughter the unborn are murderers according to the Law of God. We must continue to expose them.”

It is too early to say whether the murder of Dr. Tiller will trigger a wave of violent terrorism targeting abortion providers similar to the one that took place during the mid-1990s. But it is not too early to be struck by the parallels. Then, as now, the violence came not in a moment of triumph for antiabortion activists but in the face of isolation and defeat. The year that Shelley Shannon shot Dr. Tiller was the year Bill Clinton assumed office. It was the year after the Supreme Court ruled, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, that the central holding of Roe v. Wade “should be affirmed.” It was the year that a small band of militant antiabortion activists began openly endorsing murder and that a blueprint for violence and sabotage called the Army of God Manual declared, “All of the options have expired. Our Most Dread Sovereign Lord God requires that whosoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”

Scott Roeder, the man accused of murdering George Tiller, was an unstable drifter who found a home on the extremist right, joining a militia group that refused to pay taxes and allegedly posting comments on antiabortion websites likening Dr. Tiller to the infamous Nazi Josef Mengele. The government seems aware that the current political climate could lead others to embark on similar journeys to the fringes of the paranoid right. In April, the Department of Homeland Security released a report on right-wing extremism that drew attention to the danger. The report was promptly dismissed by conservatives, who claimed it exaggerated the threat. In retrospect, though, it arguably understated the hazards facing abortion clinics and providers, who were scarcely mentioned despite being subjected to arson, bombing and forms of violence on a scale no other group has faced in recent decades.

After Dr. Tiller’s murder Obama expressed shock and outrage and offered US Marshal protection to other facilities and people who feel endangered. He ought to follow that up by reinvigorating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which was passed in 1994 to make violence aimed at abortion providers a federal crime but lacked strong direction during the Bush era.

“Fair-minded words” is what Barack Obama called for at Notre Dame. Yet his election has brought coarsened rhetoric from the right on more than just the abortion front. Sonia Sotomayor, the Puerto Rican woman Obama recently nominated to replace David Souter on the Supreme Court, has been denounced as a “racist” and compared to David Duke by Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, respectively. “Terrorist!” and “Kill him!” were among the shouts against Obama heard at right-wing rallies during last year’s presidential campaign. Bullets kill. Inflammatory words merely incite. But those who deploy hateful language can hardly profess shock when their words are taken seriously, particularly over emotionally fraught issues that have sparked violence. Before he was murdered, George Tiller was a popular topic on Fox’s O’Reilly Factor–the host referred to him as “Tiller the Baby Killer,” a man guilty of “Nazi stuff.” These are not innocent words, as doctors targeted by antiabortion protesters have pointed out in the past. In a letter to his hometown newspaper some years ago, one such physician wrote:

The members of the local non-violent, pro-life community may continue to picket my home. They may continue to scream that I am a murderer and a killer when I enter the clinics at which they ‘peacefully’ exercise their First Amendment Right of freedom of speech. They may do all of the above to me and other abortion providers of this community. But please don’t feign surprise, dismay and certainly not innocence when a more volatile and less restrained member of the group decides to react to their inflammatory rhetoric by shooting an abortion provider.

This letter appeared in the Buffalo News in 1994, one year after Shelley Shannon shot George Tiller. Its author, Barnett Slepian, an Ob-Gyn and abortion provider, was murdered four years later while standing in the kitchen of his home. He was the last abortion provider to be gunned down in America, until George Tiller.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy