Daily Kos: Wichita Doctor Killed After Years of Incendiary Rhetoric Against Him

This is an excerpt of a guest column in Daily Kos, originally published on April 20, 2020.

It was an ordinary Sunday at the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas. It was the last Sunday in May 2009. The 10:00 a.m. service had just begun. Just inside the church foyer a sixty-seven-year-old usher was handing out leaflets to latecomers about the day’s events at the church. A visitor approached, held a .22 caliber pistol to the side of the usher’s head, and shot him at point-blank range. The usher died instantly.

The shooter pointed his weapon at two others who tried to come to the usher’s aid, and then ran from the church and escaped in his car. He was later arrested.

The usher was Dr. George Tiller, the only provider of abortions in the Wichita area, and one of only three physicians in the country to perform late-term termination of pregnancy, a procedure that is legal.

Dr. Tiller was aware that he was in danger. He was wearing body armor, as he had been since the FBI first advised him to do so eleven years earlier. Dr. Tiller had been attacked before. In 1993, while in his car, he had been shot five times by an anti-abortion activist and had survived. The activist, Shelley Shannon, was later convicted of attempted murder. At her trial, Shannon said that there was nothing wrong with trying to kill Dr. Tiller, because of the work he did. She was sentenced to eleven years in prison. Dr. Tiller then started driving an armored SUV.

In 1986 Dr. Tiller’s clinic had been firebombed. As it was being rebuilt he put up a sign reading, “Hell no, we won’t go!”

But that Sunday in 2009, Dr. Tiller was assassinated. The killer was Scott Roeder, fifty-one years old, who lived in a Kansas City suburb more than 150 miles from the church. During his trial Roeder told the judge that he was protecting children so he was justified in killing Dr. Tiller. The judge disagreed, noting that abortion, including late-term abortion, is legal in Kansas. He also said, “There is no immediate danger in the back of a church.” Roeder said that he had been contemplating killing Dr. Tiller for at least sixteen years.

Roeder was convicted of first-degree murder and other charges and sentenced to life in prison without chance of parole for fifty years.

The assassination of Dr. Tiller was not a surprise. He had been the subject of a vigorous campaign to demonize him. Anti-abortion groups such as Operation Rescue had targeted his clinic for years, including blocking access to the clinic and acts of sabotage against it. After the killing, Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, who had led many of the protests, issued a statement via ChristianNewsWire:

“George Tiller was a mass-murderer. We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God. I am more concerned that the Obama Administration will use Tiller’s killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions. Abortion is still murder. And we still must call abortion by its proper name; murder. Those men and women who slaughter the unborn are murderers according to the Law of God. We must continue to expose them in our communities and peacefully protest them at their offices and homes, and yes, even their churches.”

That kind of language, that abortion is murder and that Dr. Tiller was a mass murderer, was part of a campaign by several anti-abortion groups to close abortion clinics in the United States. It was part of what Terry called his movement’s “most effective rhetoric and actions.”

Read the full column here.

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