Starting with the president, people expressed profound sadness and outrage over the murder of Dr. George Tiller in his Wichita, Kan., church. Tiller, one of the few American physicians who performed late-term abortions, was gunned down while attending church services May 31.
The suspect was arrested three hours later 170 miles away near Kansas City.
Tiller had been a victim of reproductive rights opponents before. In 1993, he was shot in both arms by an abortion protester as he drove away from his clinic. In 1986, his Women’s Health Care Services clinic was severely damaged in a bomb blast. In 1991, the clinic was blockaded for six weeks by anti-abortion protesters.
And this month, Tiller’s attorneys told the Associated Press, the doctor had asked the FBI to investigate an incident where vandals cut wires to security cameras, cut holes in the roof and plugged downspouts, resulting in thousands of dollars in damage to the clinic.
In addition to fending off abortion protesters for years, Tiller had been pursued by public officials opposed to abortion.
In March, he was acquitted of charges that he broke a Kansas law requiring a second doctor to affirm that a late-term abortion was necessary to preserve the health of the woman. That second doctor must be financially and legally independent from the first physician.
In a trial that lasted five days — and in which the jury took less than an hour to return its verdict — Tiller was cleared of charges that he had improper ties to Dr. Ann Kristin Neuhaus.
President Barack Obama issued a statement, “I am shocked and outraged by the murder of Dr. George Tiller as he attended church services this morning. However profound our differences as Americans over difficult issues such as abortion, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence.”
Obama has been a target for his stance on giving women – not the government — the right to choose whether to carry or terminate a pregnancy. Last month, anti-abortion protestors demonstrated at Notre Dame when he gave the commencement speech and had tried to get the university to rescind the invitation. However, Obama’s overwhelming support from the students and faculty at the campus along with Notre Dame’s tradition of inviting sitting presidents overcame the anti-abortion protests.
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, issued a statement mourning the murder and extolling Tiller’s commitment to his patients and medicine.
Calling him the “epitome of high quality medical care,” Richards said, ‘Dr. Tiller provided critical reproductive health care services, including abortion services, to women facing some of the most difficult medical circumstances,” showing “courage against unbelievable adversity.”
During his trial, when his attorney asked why he stayed in practice despite years of harassment, Tiller told the jury, ‘ ‘Quit’ is not something I like to do.’
Those who knew Tiller and worked with him also referred to his strength and courage.
‘Dr. Tiller really was a warrior. He was a quiet, persistent, capable visionary, a true leader. Even if he had known it was going to end up this way, he wouldn’t have been deterred,’ Dr. Neuhaus said.
Tiller’s attorneys released a statement from Tiller’s wife, Jeanne, his four children and 10 grandchildren.
‘Today we mourn the loss of our husband, father and grandfather,’ it said. ‘Today’s event is an unspeakable tragedy for all of us and for George’s friends and patients. This is particularly heart wrenching because George was shot down in his house of worship, a place of peace. Our loss is also a loss for the city of Wichita and women across America. George dedicated his life to providing women with high-quality healthcare despite frequent threats and violence. We ask that he be remembered as a good husband, father and grandfather and a dedicated servant on behalf of the rights of women everywhere.’
The murder brought the nation back to the 1990s when violence at women’s clinics was at a high.
Carole Joffe, a sociology professor at UC Davis, said that the worst period of violence against abortion providers was during President Clinton’s tenure and that attacks dwindled under President George W. Bush, when the movement believed it had an ally in the White House. But with a president that supports abortion rights and a Democratic Congress, she said, some abortion foes may be feeling desperate.
‘When social movements feel they’re not getting anywhere they get desperate,’ said Joffe, adding that the vast majority of antiabortion rights activists reject violence. ‘This is deeply tragic but unsurprising.’
Some commenters on antiabortion websites hailed Tiller’s death, but media reports quoted some other antiabortion leaders as dismayed.
But, Warren Hern, a Colorado physician and close friend of Tiller’s who said he is now ‘the only doctor in the world’ who performs very late-term abortions, said Tiller’s death was predictable.
‘I think it’s the inevitable consequence of more than 35 years of constant anti-abortion terrorism, harassment and violence. George is the fifth American doctor to be assassinated. I get messages from these people saying, ‘Don’t bother wearing a bulletproof vest, we’re going for a head shot.’ ‘
Tiller, who was born and raised in Wichita, was the son of a physician. He took over his father’s practice when he died in a 1970 airplane crash that also claimed the lives of his mother, sister and brother-in-law. At the time, Tiller was finishing medical school and had an internship at Camp Pendleton. He had planned to become a dermatologist, but when he returned to Kansas to close up his father’s practice, patients pleaded with him to stay.
Eventually, his clinic evolved from family practice to abortions, and in the late 1980s and 1990s, protests became increasingly violent and intrusive. Tiller testified that he was the subject of frequent death threats, that he was harassed at his church and that members of his staff were picketed at their homes.
‘The heroes in our practice,’ he testified, ‘are the courageous men and women who come to work every day in spite of threats and harassment.’
Teresa Albano compiled this report using various news sources.