The Assassination of Dr. Tiller

Watch the full documentary

Reviewed by Lina Thorne

The day after he was shot in both arms by an anti-abortion activist in 1993, Dr. George Tiller went back to work and announced, "Women need abortions and I'm going to do them." This remarkably brave man had already endured years of harassment and threats: his clinic suffered $100,000 worth of damage after being bombed, weeks of blockades by glassy-eyed anti-abortion fanatics... he and his staff were stalked by these so-called "activists" who followed him home, yelled at him and everyone attending his church, and flyered his neighbors with "Wanted" posters. His staff, women like Drs. Susan Robinson and Shelly Sella, his office administrator and nurse, were similarly targeted with these posters: which often featured their photos, home addresses and other personal information.

"For some, the culture war is literally a war." - Rachel Maddow on the anti-abortion movement

Watching "The Assassination of Dr. Tiller" - an hour long documentary created by Rachel Maddow of MSNBC - provides a lot of insight into the climate that built support for his eventual murder on May 29, 2009. Interviews with the wife of Dr. Tiller's murderer, one of his "Sovereign Citizen Movement" buddies (who declares that it wasn't time YET to "snuff out doctors"), and other anti-abortion movement leaders provide a window into the warped and twisted worldview that prizes fetal existence above actual human beings' lives. The campaign of terror that this movement launched is palpable - and quite clearly not just a creation of a few mentally unstable individuals - it stretched all the way to the most popular show on Fox News, as Bill O'Reilly vilified Dr. Tiller on 28 separate occasions.

"Justifiable homicide" was the legal argument made by Scott Roeder in defense of shooting Dr. Tiller in the head a year and a half ago - and while not every anti-abortion organization embraces that term (openly) they all embrace those who do openly advocate the murder of doctors, and add their voices to the hysterical climate which enables these horrible acts. For instance, the Army of God worked with Operation Rescue (both anti-abortion organizations) to mobilize against Dr. Tiller's colleague, Dr. LeRoy Carhart of Nebraska in August last year. Army of God spokespeople openly advocate the murder of doctors and even told press while there "we've only killed 5 doctors." Maddow's documentary alludes to the actual evidence of relationships between people like Scott Roeder and one of Operation Rescue's leaders, Cheryl Sullenger (herself a convicted clinic arsonist) - but even without completely uncovering these ties the larger and more important point is the political climate that all these organizations contribute to in various ways.

Why did this happen?

Jodi Jacobson praises Maddow for producing this documentary but writes on RH Reality Check:

"In the end, I did not feel it adequately challenged the "lone wolf" theory and put the issue of murdering doctors in the context it belongs.  The Taliban murders doctors, the anti-choice movement in the U.S. murders doctors... these threads need to be connected."

What are the ties that bind women-hating fundamentalists across the globe? These same ties also drive them apart. The anti-abortion movement, part of the larger fascist movement that is on the rise in the US, wants to restrict women's rights and role in society as part of cohering the American empire under what they consider the tried-and-true ideology of just about everything rotten and oppressive about human history: patriarchy, blind obedience to authority, hate-filled jingoism, and vengeful bloodlust towards those who stand in their way. It is extremely dangerous, not in small part due to the disproportionate influence of these forces within the US military. This agenda cannot be reconciled with: there is no common ground between those who seek the total submission of women to men and those of us who seek a better world than that. We must reckon with the amount of damage pursuing this approach has done and start telling the truth about what these people represent.

"If we don't start saying, "No actually, the science of the matter is that fetuses are not babies, that's the truth ‐ and the question is really are you for the subjugation of women or are you for women being   fully human?" If we don't reveal what this battle is all about, we will be demobilizing the people who need to be fighting for this."  - Sunsara Taylor in Abortion, Morality and the Liberation of Women

What would cause a human being to endure the years of abuse, violence and harassment that Dr. Tiller did? He could have given up his practice in Wichita - or just switched to a different field of medicine. His personal life and the lives of his family would have been tremendously easier. He could have been wealthy and comfortable living anonymously as a dermatologist, for instance. Why did he carry on? Why did his staff carry on? As the number of new abortion doctors entering the field shrink, why do others continue to provide women with this service?

The answer has everything to do with why the anti-abortion movement so violently lashes out against those who provide abortions. Women need control over our reproduction if we are to have lives as full human beings - the antis certainly get that. Dr. Tiller said he was a "woman educated physician" and that "abortion is a matter of survival for women."  It's that fundamental. It is because providers recognize how important this is that they carry on - and many more of us need to recognize this also and come to their defense.

Right now, as we speak, Operation Rescue is hounding doctors in Albuquerque, NM - including several colleagues of Dr. Tiller's. In Charlotte, NC, "Wanted" posters similar to those that were used in Wichita have appeared - whipping up hatred and revealing personal information about providers there. It is on all of us to see to it that the anti-abortion movement is stopped.