On May 31, Dr. George Tiller, an obstetrician/gynecologist and abortion provider, was shot and killed while at his church in Wichita, Kansas. Long a target of anti-abortion protesters, his murder came more than 15 years after he was first shot in a similar attempt on his life. Scott Roeder, an anti-abortion activist, has been charged with first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated assault in state court.[i] A federal investigation into potential violations of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, a federal law that prohibits the use of "force, threat of force or physical obstruction" to prevent someone from providing or receiving reproductive health services, is also underway.[ii]
Dr. Tiller ran the Women’s Health Care Service Clinic in Wichita and was one of the few doctors in the U.S. who performed late-term abortions. Tiller’s family has since decided to close the clinic—causing advocates to fear that access to abortions in Kansas and access to late-term abortions nationally will be stifled. In a press release the Center for Reproductive Rights notes that, “not only have we lost a fearless defender of women’s fundamental health and rights in Dr. Tiller’s murder, but the closing of his clinic leaves an immediate and immense void in the availability of abortion.”[iii] Nationally, 35 percent of women live in counties without an abortion provider—but broken down by region that number jumps to 47 percent in the South and 50 percent in the Midwest where Tiller practiced.[iv]
Beside geographic challenges, some note that current medical students are not being trained to perform the abortion procedures. In a survey of medical school curricula, a third of schools in the study did not cover any abortion-related topics, only 40 percent of schools included any preclinical instruction on first-trimester abortions, while less than a quarter of students were taught anything about second-term abortions.[v]
Dr. Tiller’s death leaves few physicians in the United States willing to perform abortions later in pregnancy. These procedures are rare (abortions after 21 weeks are estimated to make up only 1 percent of all abortions) and are mostly due to extreme circumstances like fetal abnormalities or a pregnancy that endangers the life of the mother.[vi] In a recent interview, two remaining late-term abortion providers, Dr. LeRoy Carhart and Dr. Warren Hern, spoke about how they and their families are considered “targets” and “under siege,” but have vowed to keep the procedure available for women in need.[vii] “It’s all about women and it is about a very underserved medical need in this country,” said Carhart. “I think this is my mission and this is what I have to do,” Carhart continued.[viii]
This violent act—deemed “domestic terrorism” by some—is but one in a long line of terror directed at abortion providers and facilities. [ix] Dr. Tiller’s clinic was bombed in 1985 and he was shot in both arms by an abortion protestor in 1993. Since abortion was made legal through the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973, eight doctors and clinic staff members have been murdered and 17 have been the victims of an attempted murder.[x] According to the National Abortion Federation, in 2008 alone, there were 237 incidents of clinic violence, including assault and battery, burglary, vandalism, stalking, arson attempts, and death threats against abortion clinic doctors, staff, or patients.[xi]
In a statement from his jail cell, Roeder has warned that similar events are planned around the country, “as long as abortion remains legal,” prompting federal authorities to look into the matter.[xii]
“For decades, Dr. Tiller provided needed healthcare and services to women despite great personal risk to himself. His bravery and dedication over the years went far beyond the call of duty,” said Joseph DiNorcia, Jr., President and CEO of SIECUS. This is a “terrible and shameful act” and it “has no place at all in our society and we join all other rational and feeling people in condemning the use of violence in any way,” added DiNorcia.
[i] Karen Ann Cullotta, “Killing of Kansas Doctor Becomes a Federal Case, Too,” New York Times, 6 June 2009, accessed 15 June 2009, <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/06/us/06tiller.html?_r=1&fta=y>.
[ii]Ibid; “Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act,” National Abortion Federation, (2009), accessed 30 June 2009, <http://www.prochoice.org/about_abortion/violence/FACE_act.html>.
[iii] Center for Reproductive Rights, “Center for Reproductive Rights Statement on Tiller Clinic Closing,” Press Release published 9 June 2009, accessed 15 June 2009, <http://reproductiverights.org/en/press-room/center-for-reproductive-rights-statement-on-tiller-clinic-closing>.
[iv] Rachel K. Jones et al., “Abortion in the United States: Incidence and Access to Services,” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 40.1 (March 2008): 6-16.
[v] Jody Steinauer et al., “First Impressions: What are Preclinical Medical Students in the US and Canada Learning about sexual and reproductive health?” Contraception 80 (2009): 74-80.
[vi]“Facts on Induced Abortion in the United States,” Guttmacher Institute, July 2008, accessed 15 June 2009, <http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_induced_abortion.html>.
[vii] “Transcript: Are Some Anti-Abortion Attacks Domestic Terrorism?” PBS, (12 June 2009), accessed 15 June 2009, <http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/524/transcript.html>.
[ix] National Organization for Women, “NOW Mourns Loss of Dr. Tiller and Kansas Clinic,” Press Release published 9 June 2009, accessed 15 June 2009, <http://www.now.org/press/06-09/06-09.html>.
[x] “Anti-Choice Violence and Intimidation” NARAL Pro Choice America Foundation, 1 June 2009, accessed 15 June 2009, <http://www.prochoiceamerica.org/assets/files/Abortion-Access-to-Abortion-Violence.pdf>.
[xi] “NAF Violence and Disruption Statistics,” National Abortion Federation, June 2009, accessed 15 June 2009, <http://www.prochoice.org/pubs_research/publications/downloads/about_abortion/violence_statistics.pdf>.
[xii] Associated Press, “Suspect in Death of Physician George Tiller Warns of More Violence,” Washington Post, 8 June 2009 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/07/AR2009060702565.html>.