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Dr. Tiller’s death: A major loss for women

Published Jun 11, 2009 8:19 PM

On June 6, hundreds of mourners gathered in Wichita, Kan., to attend the funeral of Dr. George R. Tiller, the women’s health care provider who was brutally murdered May 31 by an anti-abortion assassin. Family members and friends, doctors and supporters filled the church, while hundreds of others watched the funeral via closed-circuit television in nearby rooms.

Activists wearing shirts bearing the National Organization for Women emblem lined the sidewalk in front of the church, assembling what they called a “Martyr Guard” to protect Dr. Tiller’s family from being confronted by any anti-abortion fanatics.

Inside the church, friends and colleagues remarked on the generous and caring nature of Dr. Tiller, who spent almost his entire career defending women’s right to have abortions and high-quality reproductive health care. His motto, displayed prominently in his clinic, was “Trust Women.”

When asked why he continued to provide midpregnancy abortions after decades of the most brutal attacks by the right wing, Dr. Tiller replied, “Where else can women go?” Indeed, the loss of Dr. Tiller means there are less than a half-dozen doctors left in the U.S. who specialize in the vital, life-saving services he provided. Dr. Tiller’s clinic is the only remaining reproductive health care clinic in Wichita.

Dr. Tiller, who started out as a dermatologist, began providing abortions after taking over his father’s medical practice after his death. After reading his medical files, Dr. Tiller discovered that his father had been providing illegal abortions for women. Reading these women’s stories, he felt a duty to continue to provide this vital service to women.

His decision to provide midpregnancy abortions made him a hero to women facing gut-wrenching, awful circumstances late in their pregnancies. But it also made him a primary target of right-wing, anti-choice terrorists. He endured violent attacks from these groups for decades on an almost daily basis. In 1986, his clinic was bombed. Dr. Tiller placed a sign on the rubble that read, “Hell no, we won’t go.” Then he rebuilt the facility as a military-style fortress and continued to carry on his work.

Dr. Tiller was shot in both arms in 1993. He wore a bullet-proof vest almost everywhere he went and travelled in an armored car. Anti-choice terrorists targeted his clinic and his home; even his family was constantly threatened and harassed. Operation Rescue, the group that is the primary organizer of most of the clinic violence and harassment directed against Dr. Tiller, moved its headquarters from California to Wichita specifically to target him. It put up a website called “Tiller Watch” and made him the personal target of hundreds of demonstrations and daily threats and harassment.

Collusion between the U.S. gov’t, right-wing

In addition to the constant barrage of attacks from groups like Operation Rescue, Dr. Tiller was the target of state officials who colluded with anti-choice forces to try to shut down his clinic. He was the target of a baseless grand jury investigation. This past March, he was tried and acquitted on all counts in a sham political trial orchestrated by the state of Kansas.

But the state’s relationship to these right-wing terrorist groups has become even clearer since Dr. Tiller’s death. Both the week before and the day before Dr. Tiller’s murder, his killer was caught vandalizing abortion clinics. A witness called the police and the FBI both times. The witness had the killer’s first name, his license plate number, and his image taken from video surveillance. When the witness contacted FBI agent Mark Colburn to report the incident, Colburn replied, “The Johnson County prosecutor won’t do anything until the grand jury convenes.” (Huffington Post, June 7) No arrest was made, or even attempted, and Dr. Tiller was murdered the next day.

The FBI’s lackadaisical approach to the arrest of anti-abortion terrorists, who are part of a movement with a decades-long track record of bombings and assassinations in this country, stands in stark contrast to their much publicized role in the so-called “war on terror.” In May the FBI arrested four Black men in Newburgh, N.Y., after what was described as a year-long undercover anti-terrorism investigation. The men, including a mentally ill Haitian immigrant, were arrested for “conspiring” to use “weapons of mass destruction,” such as a stinger missile, even though there is no evidence they ever came close to obtaining actual weapons.

But the long, high-profile investigation of these four Black men, who had no previous involvement with terrorism or terrorist organizations before meeting an undercover FBI agent begs the question for many women: Why isn’t the state protecting women from anti-abortion terrorists who frequently and publicly declare their intention to do harm to women, clinics and doctors?

Dr. Tiller’s killer has declared from his jail cell that more violence is already being planned against clinics and doctors. This type of home-grown terror has been allowed to reign freely for years, with barely a response from the government. Why haven’t there been serious, probing undercover investigations that could actually prevent these terrorist acts before they happen? The state’s protection of these terrorist organizations is, for many women, the true indicator of where the government really stands in the battle to protect women’s rights.

Fry is a National Women’s Fightback Network and Fight Imperialism, Stand Together (FIST) organizer.