Today marks the anniversary of the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, who was gunned down in his church ten years ago by an anti-abortion extremist associated with the group Operation Rescue. At the time, Tiller was one of the only providers in the country to offer abortion care later in pregnancy.
Tiller had been the subject of severe threats and violence for decades. In 1986, his clinic in Wichita, Kansas was firebombed. In 1991, the clinic was the target of Operation Rescue’s “Summer of Mercy,” a siege during which nearly 2,700 protesters were arrested for blockading access to the clinic for over six weeks. Two years later, Tiller was shot in an assassination attempt.
In 2002, Operation Rescue leader Troy Newman moved its headquarters to Wichita, launching a seven-year campaign of systemic harassment, intimidation and terror against Tiller and his clinic staff. Newman targeted their homes, the clinic, and any other location they frequented including dry cleaners, restaurants, and even the church in which Tiller was later murdered. In 2004, Newman ran a full-page ad in a local paper threatening, “Wichita isn’t big enough for George Tiller and me. One of us has to go and it’s not going to be me.”
Operation Rescue even got the Kansas Attorney General to file criminal charges against Tiller, for which he was acquitted following a jury trial. Shortly thereafter, Tiller was murdered by Operation Rescue participant Scott Roeder. In 2010, Roeder was convicted of premeditated first-degree murder.
A few years after Tiller’s murder, his mentee, Julie Burkhart, reopened his Wichita clinic under the name Trust Women South Wind Women’s Center. In 2016, Trust Women opened a second clinic in Oklahoma City, the largest metropolitan area in the country previously without an abortion provider.
“There is not a day at our clinics that we don’t remember Dr. Tiller and his dedication to women,” Burkhart said several years ago. “Dr. Tiller’s assassination most certainly left a hole in the reproductive rights movement, but we remain committed to this critical work in his honor and memory.”
In 2016, Roeder had his prison sentence lightened from 50 years to 25 years served before becoming eligible for parole. This came after the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that only juries, not judges, could hand down increased punishments to convicted offenders.
According to the Feminist Majority Foundation’s 2018 National Clinic Violence Survey, nearly a quarter of clinics experienced the most severe types of threats and harassment in the first half of 2018, including death threats, stalking, and blocking clinic access. Nearly half of clinics experienced at least one incident of severe violence, threats of severe violence, and/or severe harassment, such as break-ins, robberies, or vandalism in the first half of 2018.
Threats and harassment against abortion providers remains high as states move to outlaw abortion and overturn Roe v. Wade. Two weeks ago, Jennifer McCoy, an associate of Roeder who herself was convicted of conspiring to bomb two abortion clinics in 1996, testified in support of a Louisiana bill that outlaws abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected around 6 weeks. The bill was successfully passed into law.