What the murder of a late-term abortion doctor does and does not say about the anti-choice movement.
The Wichita Divide: The Murder of Dr. George Tiller and the Battle Over Abortion
by Stephen Singular
St. Martin’s Press, 352 pp.
The late Dr. George Tiller was remarkable for his willingness to be one of a small and declining group of abortion providers who performed late-term abortions under the “health of the mother” exception protected by the U.S. Supreme Court. (This exemption was modified in 2007 by the Court, in a 5-4 ruling upholding a congressional ban on partial-birth abortion, an operation Tiller typically did not perform.)
Tiller came to his specialization through a family tragedy: the son of a physician and already trained as a doctor, he had made the decision to become a dermatologist when, in 1970, his father, mother, sister, and brother-in-law were all killed in an airplane crash. Feeling compelled to take over his father’s practice, Tiller discovered in the process that his father had long provided abortions to women who had few other options. Tiller chose to continue providing this service.
While drawing on a national clientele of women who had no access to such abortions where they lived, he also caught the early and persistent attention of protesters from the more radical elements of the anti-abortion movement. The outspoken Tiller became a symbol of the dispute over late-term abortions, a hero to abortion rights advocates, and a brazen mass murderer to their most vociferous opponents.
Shut down temporarily on several occasions—and shot once in each arm—Tiller was also regularly harassed by powerful conservative politicians in Kansas. His visibility helped make Wichita ground zero for anti-abortion street theater. Then, beginning in 2005, Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly lifted him to a new level of national notoriety with frequent features on the Wichita clinic, calling him “Tiller the baby killer.”
The denouement was inevitable, according to Stephen Singular, who tells Dr. Tiller’s story in his new book, The Wichita Divide: The Murder of Dr. George Tiller and the Battle Over Abortion. On May 31, 2009, sixty-seven-year-old George Tiller was shot dead in the foyer of the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas, where he was serving as an usher at a Sunday-morning service.
Tiller’s murderer, Scott Roeder, seemed to have come right out of central casting: a mentally unstable and financially improvident middle-aged Kansan who had lost his wife, son, and home in no small part because of his semiliterate fundamentalist religious ravings and his fixation on abortion. He was a regular among the protesters at Tiller’s (and other) clinics and an intimate of the most violent fringe personalities in the anti-abortion movement and its militia-oriented cousins. Indeed, Roeder, according to Singular, eventually came to see the murder of Tiller as his divinely appointed destiny.
Singular is the author of a number of other “true crime” books with cultural and political undertones, including Presumed Guilty: An Investigation Into the JonBenet Ramsey Case, the Media, and the Culture of Pornography and A Killing in the Family. He works well within this genre, and in The Wichita Divide he adeptly charts the trajectories of Tiller and Roeder as they head toward their violent confrontation. There’s little surprise when Tiller is killed; the only real mystery is the identity of the killer, and that problem is quickly solved when Roeder is tracked down a few hours after the murder. The trial is interesting mainly because the defense sought, unsuccessfully, to launch a legal argument that would have validated Roeder’s belief that he was acting justifiably in defending the unborn whom Tiller would have otherwise killed.
Where Singular lets the reader down is in failing to put the entire saga in the broader context of the actual battle over abortion in America. Roeder, his friends, and most of the anti-abortion activists profiled in this book are far-right fringe characters for whom legalized abortion is only the most paramount of countless grievances. Many of the activists are members of the tiny religious cults that form the foundation of the antiabortion movement. These small groups have little power other than the ability to command media attention with violent and outrageous acts, hoping to intimidate abortion providers and their patients. As Roeder learned when virtually every “respectable” anti-abortion group condemned his act and distanced itself from his defense, these extremists’ main political significance is the disrepute they happily share with their more mainstream allies.
Singular, however, seems more interested in the links between radical antiabortionists and other violence-prone right-wing groups and individuals— which is, in fact, his area of expertise. Much of the book suggests a long and ever-intensifying wave of reactionary extremism and violence, extending not just to the militia movement or radical racists but to incidents like the shootings at Columbine. Whether or not you buy that hypothesis, it leaves little room for a more nuanced examination of the battle over abortion specifically.
Such an examination might have begun with some consideration of why late-term abortions have become such a lightning rod in the first place. After all, according to orthodox life-begins-at-conception true believers, George Tiller was no more of a “mass murderer” than any other abortion provider, or, for that matter, a technician discarding frozen embryos at a fertility clinic or a pharmacist dispensing Plan B contraceptive pills (a practice dubbed “abortifacients” by virtually all right-to-lifers). Anti-abortion activists have seized on late-term abortions—particularly the so-called partial-birth abortions that were the object of the congressional ban and many state prohibitions—because of their impact on people who do not share their views on when life begins. Pointing fingers at George Tiller as a “baby killer” is a tactical exercise in agitprop, intended to make abortion rights advocates look like the extremists. Violent actions against providers like Tiller rather obviously defeat the very purpose of this exercise in persuasion.
So even if “mainstream” anti-choicers were insincere in their professions of horror at Roeder’s act, there is no question that they viewed it as a setback. Tiller’s murder hampered their efforts to convince those Americans who support some but not all abortion rights to consider themselves “pro-life,” and to eventually begin thinking that way systematically.
By conflating the anti-abortion movement with people like Roeder, Singular doesn’t simply slur the vast majority of nonviolent right-to-lifers. Just as crucially, he underestimates them. Throughout the book he treats all forms of right-wing violence—indeed, of right-wing politics—as symptoms of anxiety over cultural and economic change. This anxiety, he suggests, has reached a crisis point, but will subside once Americans regain their moorings. The reader is left with a vague sense of optimism that the abortion battle will end with the good guys winning, just as the good guys won earlier fights against segregationists and other reactionaries.
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