[On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court released the Roe v. Wade decision. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that case and a handful of other histories and stories of abortion in the U.S., leading up to a weekend post on the current laws and debates.]
On two important broader takeaways from a horrific act of domestic terrorist violence.
On May 31st, 2009, the physician and abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was murdered in his Wichita Lutheran church (where Tiller was working as an usher at the time of the shooting) by anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder. (This was not the first time such an extremist had shot and attempted to kill Dr. Tiller, a fact to which I will return in my third paragraph.) Perhaps in our current moment of frustratingly and terrifyingly frequent mass shootings and other acts of gun violence this murder would have been less nationally noteworthy (I hope not, but I live in our world like all the rest of y’all), but in 2009 it most definitely dominated the headlines for quite some time after, and occasioned vigils and protests around the country. Roeder was apprehended in Kansas City a few hours later, brought to trial later in the year, and convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated assault in January 2010; he is currently serving a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole before 25 years (meaning he will become eligible for parole in 2035, when he will be 77 years old).
Both that horrific crime and the life and work of Dr. Tiller deserve attention on their own terms. But for the final post in this week’s series, I wanted to highlight two broader takeaways that represent key elements in the histories of and ongoing debates over abortion in America. One is just how fully myths, misrepresentations, and outright lies have tended to overwhelm basic facts, with always disastrous and sometimes (in cases like Tiller’s) tragic results. Tiller was one of a handful of physicians providing late-term abortions (there are even fewer now, for understandable reasons), a medical procedure performed extremely rarely and always in cases in which the fetus is unviable and/or the life of the mother is significantly at risk. Such procedures require extensive testing before they are even considered, as well as agreement between multiple physicians, and are inevitably hugely fraught and traumatic for the women and families that have to undergo them. But the narratives around this particular form of abortion have consistently used inaccurate terms such as “partial-birth abortion,” have described events that never take place like the murder of living babies, and have characterized physicians like Tiller as blatant and cavalier murderers. Those mythic narratives didn’t pull the trigger, but they sure as hell contributed to the mindset of Scott Roeder.
Roeder and Roeder alone pulled the trigger in that Wichita church on May 31st, but I nonetheless would argue that he did not act alone. Police found on a post-it on Roeder’s car dashboard the name and cell phone number of Cheryl Sullenger, the vice president of the anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue West; at first Sullenger denied any contact with Roeder, but she eventually admitted to having talked with him frequently and even giving him detailed information about Roeder’s schedule. I would thus say the same about Roeder that I did about Timothy McVeigh in this post—seeing him as a “lone wolf” domestic terrorist requires eliding the broader networks and communities of which he was part and which facilitated his radicalization and terrorism alike. The same could be said of Shelley Shannon, the woman who shot Tiller five times in August 1993 (and who was released from prison and presumably right back into the anti-abortion movement a few years ago). Not all anti-abortion activists are domestic terrorists, to be clear; but there is, and has been for decades, a large and powerful network of such terrorists, and we can’t talk about this issue and its histories (nor its current debates) without engaging that difficult but crucial reality.
Contemporary reflections this weekend,
PS. What do you think?