Roe at 37: A Kansas Judge Sets A Dangerous Precedent

Janet Crepps

The judge presiding over the trial of Scott Roeder has opened the door to a dangerous legal defense for those who commit violent acts--even murder--against doctors who provide abortion.

This article is being published as part of a series by Rewire and our colleagues in observance of the 37th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade.

It’s
been thirty-seven years since the Supreme Court recognized a woman’s
constitutional right to abortion in Roe
v. Wade
, and in that time, without fail, a woman’s ability to obtain an
abortion has been under attack. Between stringent state laws, a lack of
funding, and a severe shortage of abortion providers, abortion is virtually
unattainable for significant numbers of women.

And
it gets worse. The promise of affordable healthcare
for all is quickly turning for women as federal lawmakers threaten to strip millions
of the abortion coverage that they already have.
And this past week, the judge presiding over the trial of the
man accused in the shooting death of Kansas provider Dr. George Tiller
essentially opened the door to a dangerously forgiving legal defense for those
who commit violent acts—including murder—against
doctors who provide abortion.

We
expect judges to uphold the rule of law and make sure that its protections apply
equally to everyone. But Judge Warren Wilbert has stepped over that line. Last
week, the judge indicated that he will allow the accused, Scott Roeder, to potentially
avoid conviction on first-degree murder charges on the grounds that he honestly,
albeit unreasonably, believed his actions – shooting Dr. Tiller at point blank
range while he was serving as an usher at his church – were justified to
prevent Dr. Tiller from performing abortions.  After considering this evidence, the jury may have the
option of convicting Roeder of voluntary manslaughter, a considerably less
serious crime which also carries a significantly smaller penalty.

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The
fallout from such a ruling cannot be understated. If anti-choice extremists can
justify murdering or physically harming abortion providers because they
personally believe that abortion is wrong, then they would be, in effect, above
the law. Take it from Reverend Don Spitz of Virginia, a member of the
notoriously anti-choice group Army of God himself. He predicts that the judge’s
decision “may increase the number of people who
may be willing to take
that risk.”  As a result, abortion providers will
fear for their lives even more than they already do because the laws that protect
other citizens from violence do not apply with equal force to them. 

Instead
of a straightforward murder trial, Roeder’s case will most certainly turn into
a debate on the legitimacy of violence against abortion providers.  Permitting this to occur in a judicial
forum provides a patina of credibility that the misguided and illegal ideology that
animates anti-abortion violence has not received before.  In U.S. history, no other court has
allowed these perpetrators to avoid a full conviction on the basis that their
acts were necessary or justified.

Even
more alarming then the potential miscarriage of justice that may occur if Dr.
Tiller’s assassin is acquitted of first degree murder while being convicted of only
voluntary manslaughter is the broader signal that this ruling sends to those
who might contemplate violent action against abortion providers – and to
doctors, who now must feel like they have a target painted on their backs.  Just because abortion is a divisive
issue in which people (on both sides) hold deep moral and spiritual beliefs
does not change the fact that violent acts intended to advance any cause are
illegal.  The law must not, and up
to now has not, created special protections for those who commit crimes based
on the sincerity of their beliefs.

As
our investigative report last summer found, anti-choice forces have targeted
abortion providers for decades – with appalling physical attacks, threats and
intimidation – far too often with impunity. Abortion is the most stigmatized
medical procedure in this country, while remaining legal and a core
constitutional right, as well as a fundamental part of health care for women.

The effect of this deliberate campaign to shut down providers by any means at
the disposal of organized anti-choice groups has been fewer doctors providing
abortion and fewer women across the country who have safe and meaningful access
to abortion services. It is incredibly important that this trial show that the full
force of the law will protect the lives of doctors who perform necessary, legal
services. No matter where you stand on abortion, the murder of doctors who
provide a safe and legal medical service sought by one out of three American
women is intolerable.

Allowing a voluntary manslaughter option negates the
Supreme Court’s constitutional protection of abortion rights and is an
invitation to grotesque and self-serving vigilantism. The promise of Roe is increasingly in jeopardy as the
numbers of abortion providers, under intolerable conditions of threats and
harassment, rapidly decline.
The government must aggressively protect these doctors
who are defending women’s rights, not expose them to further violence by
weakening criminal penalties for pre-meditated murder.

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