The assassination of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas, this week has sent waves of revulsion across the country, renewing fears of escalating violence at reproductive health care clinics across the nation. It has also prompted a fresh look at the network of anti-abortion activists who have long used violence in their efforts to make abortion, if not illegal, then at least effectively inaccessible to most American women.
After the shooting, President Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, immediately took the unprecedented step of offering federal marshal protection to targeted clinics, though at the time of this writing, it was unclear whether even clinics with a long history of violence were eligible for such protection.
Dr. Tiller was one of three doctors in the United States known to offer late-term abortions. His Wichita clinic has its own security regimen, and despite being the target of “Operation Rescue” actions in the past, and despite himself surviving previous armed assaults, Dr. Tiller refused to be intimidated. He was known for wearing a button that said “Attitude Is Everything.”
His assassin, 51-year-old Scott Roeder of Merriam, Kansas, was known to associate with Randall Terry’s Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group famous for its systematic targeting of clinics with mass sit-ins designed to deny access. His associations with the shadowy fringe beyond Operation Rescue, such as the Kansas City-based “Army of God,” who are known to advocate the assassination of reproductive healthcare workers, sometimes on internet “hit lists” that offer demographic information on clinic workers to potential assassins, is less well known so far. However, Roeder’s links to militia-type, hard right anti-government elements are already being reported.
Nevertheless, most of the corporate press has continued to propagate a “lone gunman” theory, choosing to ignore the well-known, bloody history of violence on the part of a network of violent anti-abortion activists, a network to which Roeder seems to have had connections.
Dr. Tiller’s assassination has further resonated in the public consciousness because America is several years into a “war on terror” that has seen us invade two countries with the ostensible goal of curbing religious fundamentalist-based terrorism against U.S. interests. The cognitive dissonance of locking up and torturing random Afghan Muslims in Guantanamo, and other more secretive prisons around the world, while simultaneously ignoring a long and deep history of such violence conducted by self-described “Christians” in the United States, has been difficult for the authorities to ignore for long. Progressive activists have called for a deeper investigation by the Obama Justice Department of possible terror networks and criminal conspiracies underlying repeated anti-clinic violence.
President Obama has been walking a political tightrope on the abortion issue. While he is clearly pro-choice, he has taken tentative steps to call for a de-escalation of rhetoric around the abortion polemic in American politics. His inclusive approach has made him hesitant to seem too partisan for choice, and an investigation of the hard-right anti-abortion terrorist network would almost surely uncover a whole wing of the reactionary movement in America that has long used violence and supremacist rhetoric to rally its forces and to try to intimidate progressive Americans. To prosecute and incarcerate such elements is to play with fire, since they are quietly tolerated by hard right forces in American society, as evidenced by the support such spokespeople as Bill O’Reilly publicly offer the likes of Scott Roeder.
Whether President Obama’s Department of Justice is willing or able to finally turn the tide against anti-abortion violence by bringing the full weight of federal law enforcement down on the network of “Christian” terrorists that have fought a low-level but very real war against American reproductive health care clinics remains to be seen. If it were to do so, though, it would transform the atmosphere of siege surrounding our clinics. Such enforcement would strike a powerful blow against the American hard right, in a place it is very vulnerable and in which it has a hard time defending itself from accurate accusations of being soft on terrorism, at best.
Not least, it might lend meaningful federal support to the right to access reproductive health care services, securing not only the right to abortion, but self-determination for all women in a way that perhaps no law, in itself, unenforced, ever might.
Daniel Frontino Elash has been active in the struggle for reproductive rights since the 1970s.