Fifteen years ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation discovered a “hit list” circulating among militant anti-abortion activists.
The top target for assassination on the list was Dr. George Tiller, a Kansas physician whose Women’s Health Care Services clinic in Wichita has been one of only three clinics in the United States that performs late-term abortions in order to end the pregnancies of women who doctors determine would suffer irreparable harm by giving birth.
On Sunday morning, in the lobby of the Reformation Lutheran church in Wichita, Dr. Tiller, an usher who was welcoming people to the house of worship, was shot by a gunman who then fled the scene.
The physician, who survived a shooting by a antiabortion protester in 1993 and whose clinic was bombed and seriously damaged in 1986, died at the scene of the crime.
A 51-year-old suspect was arrested later in the day, although it will take time for all the details of the incident to come out.
But the National Abortion Federation identified Dr. Tiller as the eighth US abortion provider to have been murdered since 1977. According to the group, seventeen others have been targeted with attempted murder.
Supporters of reproductive rights responded to the murder by mourning the loss of a doctor who “provided critical reproductive health care services, including abortion services to women facing some of the most difficult medical circumstances” and calling upon “the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security [to] root out and prosecute as domestic terrorists and violent racketeers the criminal enterprise that has organized and funded criminal acts for decades.”
“Dr. Tiller’s murder will send a chill down the spines of the brave and courageous providers and other professionals who are part of reproductive-health centers that serve women across this country,” said NARAL Pro-Choice America president Nancy Keenan. “We want them to know that they have our support as they move forward in providing these essential services in the aftermath of the shocking news from Wichita.”
Here’s the statement issued Sunday afternoon by Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America:
The entire Planned Parenthood family is deeply saddened by the murder of Dr. George Tiller. While he was not a Planned Parenthood provider, he was an integral part of our community and his loss is felt by all of us. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and those close to him who are suffering a personal tragedy.
“Dr. Tiller provided his patients with high quality medical care underscored by a deep compassion. He provided critical reproductive health care services, including abortion services to women facing some of the most difficult medical circumstances. He was continually harassed by abortion opponents for much of his career–his clinic was burned down, he was shot by a health center protestor, and he was recently targeted for investigation only to be acquitted by a jury just a few months ago. None of this stopped George Tiller from his commitment to providing women and their families with compassionate care that others were unwilling to offer.
His death is an enormous loss for the patients who relied on him, his dedicated staff, the medical community and for women and their families across America.
Here’s what Kim Gandy, the president of the National Organization for Women, had to say:
Women across the country have lost a champion today. The cold-blooded murder of Dr. George Tiller this morning in church is a stark reminder that women’s bodies are still a battleground, and health care professionals are on the frontlines.
This kind man and skilled doctor braved blockades, harassment, assault, and countless threats, including an attempted murder in 1993 when he was shot in both arms. He knew his life was in constant jeopardy, and that he would likely die at the hands of an anti-abortion terrorist–yet he continued to protect his patients and provide safe and legal abortions to women in often-desperate circumstances. Those who are behind this murder may believe that the killing of George Tiller will mean that these women will have nowhere else to turn, but they are wrong. On the contrary, I believe their depraved acts will inspire another doctor to take up the torch, and another, and another.
Dr. Tiller’s slaying is the most recent in a string of murders in the service of the anti-abortion cause, and hundreds of people have been injured or threatened because they provide legal abortion services. Bringing the killers to justice is not enough–the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security must root out and prosecute as domestic terrorists and violent racketeers the criminal enterprise that has organized and funded criminal acts for decades. We call on the new attorney general Eric Holder and head of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to treat these murders in the same way they would treat politically-motivated domestic terrorism of any other kind and put the full resources of their two departments behind that effort.
Tomorrow will be a Day of Mourning for Dr. Tiller as well as a National Day of Commitment for all who believe abortion must remain both safe and legal–who believe women have the right and indeed the moral obligation to make their own childbearing decisions. We urge individuals to wear white armbands all day tomorrow, Monday, June 1, in memory of Dr. Tiller and as a visible expression of determination to redouble our commitment to protecting the right to safe and legal birth control and abortion.
NOW identified the murder of Dr. Tiller as “domestic terrorism.”
Conservative activists this spring mounted an aggressive campaign to get Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to withdraw a report titled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment” from her department’s official website.
The report was withdrawn from the site, but Napolitano continued to take hits for standing by its basic premises.
Among the statements that drew the loudest objections from the conservative camp was an observation that domestic threats might be posed by “groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single-issue, such as opposition to abortion.”
Whether the report is seen in a new light by Napolitano’s critics following Dr. Tiller’s murder remains to be seen. But defenders of reproductive rights ended the day by calling on the federal government to renew and expand protections for abortion providers.
“Violence and murder will never end the need for abortion,” said Dr. Suzanne T. Poppema, board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, in response to Dr. Tiller’s murder. “With great sadness and discouragement we call on the government to reactivate its protection system for our nation’s abortion providers.”