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.”