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Dr. George Tiller

Violent Disagreement

Will we forever go to extremes over abortion?

On May 31, Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed while serving as an usher at his church in Witchita, Kan. The OB/GYN was one of only a few doctors nationwide who openly provided late-term abortions, which resultingly established Tiller as a target of radical anti-abortion groups. His clinic was the site of daily protests, and in 1993 he survived an assasination attempt. Anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder has been charged with first degree murder and aggravated assault in connection with the killing.

Tiller’s death has thrust the 36-years-long debate surrounding abortion rights provided under Roe v. Wade back into the political forefront. The following two pieces offer perspectives on the clandestine support network for anti-abortion violence, and the nature of the abortion debate and how the author thinks it could be transformed for the better.


Scott Roeder

They Are Not Alone

Contrary to media characterizations of “lone nuts,” evidence shows that people who commit anti-abortion violence typically are backed by an underground support network

By Frederick Clarkson

It’s been more than a decade since I’ve covered a murder of an abortion provider. But I can’t say I was surprised by the horrifying news of Dr. George Tiller’s May 31 killing. The threat has been ever-present, sometimes quietly, sometimes dramatically. Abortion providers and abortion rights organizations remember well how Clayton Waagner spent nine months threatening to shoot clinic workers and mailing anthrax threats to hundreds of clinics and abortion rights organizations in 2001 and 2002.

Now, newsgathering on Tiller’s murder is intense, and there is much that can’t be known about the circumstances. But, as the coverage unfolds, those searching for clear-cut justice at the end of this ghastly murder shouldn’t hold their breath.

Political crimes like the assassination of Tiller are messy affairs. That has certainly been true in the case of the 30-year history of anti-abortion bombings, arsons and assassinations. Media coverage of these crimes over the years has tended to be partial and not particularly well-informed. But times have changed, and we are already experiencing a deluge of mainstream press and blog coverage.

Here are a few things to help a reader sort through the likely frustrations of an investigation of a political crime in a white-hot media environment.

Few major anti-abortion crimes are carried out by lone nuts. In fact, the known perpetrators have historically been neither nuts nor alone. The crimes are generally well-planned and involve a number of people who provide varying degrees of support before and after the fact, witting or unwitting.

Tiller was the victim of a previous assassination attempt in which he was wounded in both arms. His assailant was the then-Oregon-based Rachelle “Shelly” Shannon, a longtime anti-abortion militant who had previously protested at Tiller’s clinic and knew the layout. In the wake of her arrest, the feds dug up from her backyard the first real evidence of the existence of the underground Army of God in the form of the Army of God Manual, which detailed how to engage in attacks on clinics and staff. Shannon had traveled the west in a remarkable crime spree, squirting butyric acid into clinics (which produces a horrifying, unbearable stench) and committing a series of arsons. Among her unindicted co-conspirators was a couple who provided a safe house on her journeys, as well as gas cans later used in the arson.

Prosecutors do not always have enough evidence to prove that such people are witting participants in the crimes. But this is no surprise. We are familiar with such underground networks from real and fictional stories of criminal gangs and covert intelligence operations. People understand that information is often on a need-to-know basis and, often, the less one knows, the better for everyone.

[On April 10, 2003, Darryl McGrath reported in Metroland on the conviction of James Kopp for the 1998 murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian in Buffalo. McGrath’s story also reported that a New York city couple, Loretta Claire Marra and Dennis Malvasi, had been accused by federal authorities of harboring Kopp in their home and helping him flee the country. Several months after the Metroland story, Marra and Malvasi pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy, were sentenced to time served, and were released.]

Tiller’s death will be ruled, legally speaking, as a homicide or murder, and the criminal case will necessarily be based on a set of forensic evidence. Such findings may or may not determine whether the suspect, Scott Roeder, acted alone and why. But premature conclusions that the alleged shooter acted alone are just that, premature.

This was no ordinary high-profile murder. This one was politically charged, and may fairly be called an assassination. Tiller, after all, has been a prime strategic target of the full range of the anti-abortion movement for a generation. His clinic has been bombed, burned and vandalized (as recently as early May) in addition to the previous attempt on Tiller’s life. Unsurprisingly, the Army of God is celebrating; stating at the top of its Web site: “The lives of innocent babies scheduled to be murdered by George Tiller are spared by the action of American hero Scott Roeder. George Tiller the Babykiller reaped what he sowed and is now in eternal hell.”

Political statements of pro-choice and anti-abortion groups also demonstrate the political context of this crime. Pro-choice groups immediately denounced the inflammatory rhetoric against abortion providers in general and Tiller in particular. Anti-abortion leaders are worried that the murder will reflect poorly on their movement.

“George Tiller was a mass murderer and we cannot stop saying that,” Randall Terry, the former head of Operation Rescue told the Associated Press. Terry said he was now concerned that the Obama administration “will use Tiller’s killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions.” (Operation Rescue was the premiere militant direct-action group of the 1980s, conducting massive and often violent protests. It has since fractured and consists of smaller, but no-less-dedicated groups around the country.)

Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition told the AP, “I’d hope they wouldn’t try to broad-brush the entire pro-life movement as some sort of extremist movement because of what happened in Wichita.”

Anniversaries are important to those engaged in long-term revolutionary struggles, including those on the American far right. Tim McVeigh, for example, blew up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 on the anniversary of the federal assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.

It may be no coincidence that Tiller’s assassination occurred on the sixth anniversary of the capture of Eric Rudolph, who was convicted of pipe bombings at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, a gay bar, and two abortion clinics. Rudolph’s bombing of the clinic in Birmingham, Ala., resulted in the death of an off-duty police officer and the horrible maiming of a nurse. (The pipe bombs were packed with nails, which functioned as shrapnel.)

This context becomes significant because Roeder, the suspect in Tiller’s killing, was, according to a McClatchey newspapers report, affiliated with the “Freemen,” a far-right movement that does not recognize the legitimacy of the government of the United States and whose members declare themselves “sovereign citizens.” These people, in turn, provided the hard core of the militia movement in the 1990s.

In 1996, Roeder was arrested while driving a car without a license plate (sovereign citizens don’t believe in such things as driver’s and marriage licenses). Officers found bomb-making materials in the trunk.

Many of the proponents and practitioners of anti-abortion violence, such as those affiliated with the antiabortion Army of God, have emerged from this stew of extreme far-right movements. As the legal case against Scott Roeder gets pressed in the days and weeks ahead, all of this will be in the air; but only so much of it will make its way into court evidence.

Fredrick Clarkson is the author of Eternal Hostility: the Struggle between Theocracy and Democracy and, most recently, editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: the Future of Faith and Politics in America. This article first appeared on

Stop the Madness

Thirty-six years of trench warfare on the abortion issue has solved nothing—what if both sides decided to show some empathy and seek some common ground?

By Keith Ammann

Between Jan. 22, 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared by a 7–2 vote in Roe v. Wade that state laws banning abortion violated citizens’ rights to privacy and due process of law, and May 31, 2009, when an anti-abortion extremist murdered OB/GYN and abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in the foyer of his church, America has endured 36 years of argument over the abortion issue, which has sunk to the level of a Punch-and-Judy show more often than it’s risen to the level of sober debate. Two dogmas—each spurning the other’s most basic premise—have fought a trench war over abortion in America’s statehouses. In consequence, abortion rights are neither wholeheartedly maintained nor abolished outright: Access to abortion is freighted with onerous, sometimes outrageous conditions (such as requiring a girl molested by her father to gain his consent, as in Mississippi and North Dakota), and clinics and hospitals that offer abortion services are scarce where teen and out-of-wedlock pregnancy is greatest. Nobody is satisfied. Nobody wins.

Meanwhile, over these 36 years, the terms of the argument haven’t changed a bit, except to become more polarized, emotive and extreme. It’s insane to expect that any progress will come from the all-or-nothing thinking that both sides in this argument display. We need to reframe and renew the debate in terms that address the interests of everyone involved.

There are two chief obstacles that we need to overcome. The first is the demonization of those who hold opposing views. Each side’s belief that the other is impossible to reason with is a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that we can choose to back away from—but both sides have to make that choice. Extremism thrives when moderate points of view are suppressed; we can’t let the assassination of Dr. Tiller scare us into our foxholes.

In Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries, the author Naomi Wolf, a steadfast supporter of abortion rights, describes being invited by the conflict-resolution organization Search for Common Ground ( to participate in its Project for Life and Choice, “a weekend of discussion and deliberation” among writers and activists both for and against abortion rights. Wolf recounts that she saw anti-abortion activists “as motivated primarily by the desire to repress women for religious reasons . . . wishing to ensure that women suffer through pregnancies they do not want and bear children they cannot support,” while noting that the anti-abortion participants saw abortion rights supporters as “antagonistic to the nuclear family, sexually promiscuous, or anti-mother ideologues . . . callous about the suffering or death of innocents [and] actively hostile to all religious faith.”

Yet by the end of the weekend, both groups had acknowledged a shared interest in solving “the problem of millions of unwanted pregnancies in America” and had proposed meaningful concessions: making contraception more available, and providing information at abortion clinics about adoption possibilities and organizations that help support mothers and newborns. Just one weekend of sincere talk and mutual respect was enough to produce a foundation that could be built upon.

The second obstacle is resistance to hearing the opposing message. The “pro-choice” side, which argues for preserving women’s liberty, rejects the possibility that a fetus is a living human being. The “pro-life” side, which argues for preserving the life of fetuses, denies that a pregnant woman has any right that might be more important. Neither side is willing to acknowledge the other’s basic premise out of the fear of losing hard-fought political gains and the hope of eventually achieving total victory. This denial that the other side might have a point prevents the “debate” from ever being more than a shouting match.

I’ve believed for some time that the best way to make headway on abortion is a dialectical approach. Originating with Socrates and refined by Hegel, this approach proposes that a thesis, or idea, gives rise to an antithesis, or contradictory idea, and that the tension between them is resolved by a synthesis that reconciles their essential truths. In America, we’ve never achieved—or even seriously sought—a synthesis between “pro-choice” and “pro-life” views. What if both sides are right in the positive and wrong in the negative? What would it mean for us to recognize both a woman’s right to liberty and a fetus’ right to life?

An abortion rights advocate might object to characterizing a fetus as a human being, arguing that an early-term fetus is nothing but an insensate “blob of tissue” (a loaded description). But a human fetus, with the right nourishment and in the right environment, will grow on its own, whether its mother wills it or not, into a fully formed infant and, eventually, an adult. The argument that early-term fetuses lack consciousness or physical features that would distinguish them as human is a nonstarter; the truth is in the DNA.

An abortion opponent willing to grant that a woman doesn’t forfeit her human rights and become a walking incubator upon becoming pregnant might nevertheless argue that life trumps liberty in every circumstance. But clearly, we do hold one person’s liberty dearer than another person’s life under certain circumstances. Suppose I’m holding you captive, for no reason, in an empty room. Most people would agree that, if your only way to escape was to kill me, you’d be justified in doing so—your right to liberty supersedes my right to life. A more visceral example is that of a person defending herself to the death against a rapist. Is there any violation of human liberty more absolute than rape? What about the American Revolutionary War, in which 52,000 were killed to gain the freedom of 2.8 million? The phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is a creation of literary rhythm, not a statement of precedence.

The question is whether abortion constitutes one of those circumstances where one’s right to liberty trumps another’s right to life. This is another instance where clear thinking is foiled by loaded language, in this case the anti-abortion characterization of a fetus as a “baby.” A fetus is not a baby, any more than a toddler is a teenager; it’s an earlier developmental stage. This is relevant, because we acknowledge certain limitations on children’s legal rights based on their developmental stage, so it stands to reason that fetal rights should be limited further.

Suppose that a developing fetus accumulates the full rights of a newborn gradually, starting from zero at the point of implantation; at some point along the way, we might say, the fetus’ accrued right to life comes to outweigh its mother’s right to liberty, while before that point, the mother’s right to liberty prevails. Both rights being acknowledged, the essential question then becomes how to find that point. If we can get this far, then we can treat the issue matter-of-factly, as a conflict between the rights of two parties, and pursue the outcome that promises the greatest overall security, health and happiness. This is, in fact, fairly close to the position taken by the majority in Roe, but this historical fact gets lost in the black-and-white terms of the abortion debate today.

As Americans, we should look for ways to construe human rights more broadly and generously rather than excuses to deny them. The Declaration of the Rights of the Child states, “The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity.” While a fetus is not a child, the justification for granting these rights to children (“Whereas the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth”) does apply to fetuses as well. At the same time, it’s absurd and unconscionable to categorically deny a pregnant woman’s entitlement to equal protection under the law, her right to determine the course of her own life, and in some cases her own life or health for the sake of some sacrosanct status granted to the fetus she carries. Pregnancy and parenthood demand substantial sacrifices, and these should never be made unwillingly.

The absence of empathy in our discussion of abortion leads us to deadlock. “Both sides offer positions without nuance,” Wolf writes. “The pro-choice lobby crafts policies that go further on the abortion-on-demand spectrum than most citizens wish to go; the pro-life lobby crafts policies that go further on the no-abortion-for-any-reason spectrum than most citizens wish to go. Why should the national debate not more closely reflect the ambiguities about the issue that most thinking Americans actually feel?”

In place of “ambiguities,” I’d say recognition of complexity, understanding that the party with whom we identify more closely is not the only one with vital interests at stake. A reconciliation of respect for liberty and respect for life is the only thing that will let us move forward as a nation on the issue of abortion. If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep getting what we’ve always gotten: unnecessary abortions in some places, unwanted pregnancies in others, and the occasional licensed medical practitioner being shot in the head. Should we look forward to another 36 years of this?

Keith Ammann is a former Metroland editorial staffer. He lives in Freeport, Ill.

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