The Murder of Dr. George Tiller

If you’ve been following the news, you already know that Dr. George Tiller, one of only a handful of doctors left in the United States who perform late-term abortions, was murdered this week. A suspect, Scott Roeder, is already in custody.

Since the election of Barack Obama, there’s been a noticeable upsurge in right-wing terrorism. This frightening trend tracks the evolution of the American right in general, which is becoming smaller, more insular, and more ideologically rigid, and its language more violent and more extreme. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that their recent string of political defeats have caused some among the fringes to believe that the only way to achieve their goals is through violence.

Late-term abortion is never performed on a whim. The only time such abortions are performed is when the fetus has severe abnormalities incompatible with life, or when the woman develops a life-threatening complication, such as preeclampsia, and terminating the pregnancy is the only way to save her. But even these limited exceptions are too much for anti-choice Christian terrorists. It was for these acts – for his compassion in saving the lives of women – that Dr. Tiller was murdered.

Although there’s no evidence that the alleged killer wasn’t acting alone, there’s abundant evidence that the crime was inspired by the hateful, poisonous, and inflammatory language that pours in a steady stream from the anti-choice religious right. Exhibit A is Bill O’Reilly, who repeatedly denounced Dr. Tiller on his show as “Tiller the Baby Killer” and said he “destroys fetuses for just about any reason right up until the birth date for $5,000″ (source). If this were true, Dr. Tiller would have been breaking the law in Kansas, which, like other states, bans abortion past the point of viability except in the case of severe fetal deformity or to save the life of the mother. In other words, O’Reilly was accusing Tiller of committing a crime, which meets the legal definition of defamation if he cannot prove his claim to be true.

Even if Dr. Tiller’s murderer acted alone, he isn’t the only one who’s been inspired to do so by right-wing rhetoric. In addition to those in the link on Christian terrorism cited earlier, there’s also Paul Evans, who was sentenced to forty years in prison for leaving a nail bomb in the parking lot of the Austin Women’s Health Center, and Cheryl Sullenger, who served two years in prison in the 1980s for planning to bomb a California clinic. Significantly, Sullenger is now Operation Rescue’s senior policy advisor, and her phone number was found in Roeder’s car – suggesting that the mainstream anti-choice movement, even if it does not openly call for violence, is quite willing to associate with and embrace those who have committed violent acts in the past.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this pattern, and it won’t be the last: right-wing pundits continually spew hate rhetoric against their political adversaries, and then piously wash their hands of blood when the inevitable occurs and some violent lunatic decides to take those words to their logical conclusion. It’s vital for atheists and progressives to realize that we are all potential targets of this bloodthirsty madness. If the murder of Dr. Tiller has any lesson, it’s that we must stand up to defend the human rights that are still under siege from fanatics. One way to begin is to make a donation to Planned Parenthood today in Dr. Tiller’s memory.

New on the Guardian: Atheists Fighting for Choice
The Stingless Sting: The Absurd Attack on Planned Parenthood
The Graying of the Priesthood, Continued
Sam Harris' Indefensible Views on Racial Profiling
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.