“The Assassination of George Tiller:” What It Got Right, What It Left Out

Carole Joffe

Rachel Maddow does more than any other contemporary media figure to address abortion. But her otherwise excellent special on Dr. Tiller left out what actually occurred inside that clinic.

Originally published at www.ansirh.org.

Like virtually every other abortion rights supporter I know, I am deeply grateful to Rachel Maddow of MSNBC for her excellent coverage of abortion. It is fair to say that no other contemporary media figure does a better job of addressing this controversial issue, and Maddow particularly excels in her reporting on the violence and harassment that plague abortion providers in the United States. Not surprisingly, she has devoted much attention to the savage murder of Dr. George Tiller of Wichita in May 2009, including an hour-long special “The Assassination of George Tiller,” (which received an encore presentation this past Thanksgiving weekend).

This special, narrated by Maddow, did some things very well. In particular, the program recreated the atmosphere of hate that surrounded Dr. Tiller for years before his murder. Tiller drew the wrath of antiabortion extremists because he was one of only a handful of doctors who openly performed later abortions (post-24 weeks of pregnancy) for women carrying fetuses with lethal or serious anomalies, or who had medical issues of their own that were incompatible with pregnancy.

Using old footage, the show methodologically revisited the unending assaults on Dr. Tiller: the early firebombing of his clinic; the so-called “Summer of Mercy” in Wichita in 1991, which saw hundreds of protestors arrested for laying siege to Tiller’s clinic (as well as his home and the homes of his staff); the shooting of the doctor in both arms by an antiabortion zealot in 1993; and, most consequentially, the moving of the group Operation Rescue’s headquarters to Wichita with the express purpose of shutting his clinic down. Maddow’s reporting makes a powerful case that Scott Roeder, Tiller’s murderer, was not “a lone wolf” acting alone, as some initially thought. The U.S. Justice Department is now investigating whether a conspiracy existed in this case.

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Though some in the abortion rights community were upset that the program gave air time to leading extremist anti-abortion figures such as Randall Terry, Operation Rescue’s founder, and Troy Newman, its current head, I think this was an excellent move on the part of Maddow and her collaborators. Terry’s undisguised glee at Tiller’s death and Newman’s crocodile tears and expressions of shock that anyone could even think that Operation Rescue had anything to do with Tiller’s killing speak volumes. For the record, the special showed footage of Roeder sitting alongside Newman at Tiller’s trial in March 2009, several months before the shooting, and the phone number of an Operation Rescue official was found in the assassin’s car when he was apprehended by police several hours after the murder.

But, speaking as one who was fortunate enough to know Dr. Tiller personally, and who was acquainted with the remarkable staff at his Wichita clinic, the Maddow special disappointed me somewhat because of its lack of attention to what actually occurred inside that clinic. The three patients interviewed (two of whom chose to keep their faces hidden from the camera) spoke eloquently of their gratitude to Tiller and his staff for helping them through the horrendous difficulty of terminating much wanted pregnancies because of fetal anomalies, but there was not enough context given for the general viewer to understand the full complexity of women in such situations.

Simply put, women in need of later abortions (less than 1% of all abortion recipients) because of fetal indications not only face considerable challenges in finding such services, these women have different needs—emotional as well as medical—than those whose procedures occur earlier in pregnancy. The fetal indication patients typically stayed in Wichita for 4 to 5 days, during which their abortions were performed by the induction method (that is, over a period of days, the women delivered a stillborn fetus).

Beyond the specialized medical attention this method required, the staff, including Dr. Tiller and other physician associates, worked tirelessly to attend to the emotional well-being of these patients. In interviews I have conducted with some former staff members, they told me of the lengths the clinic would go to help grieving women and their family members deal with such a devastating loss. Tiller, deeply religious himself, established a spiritual sanctuary in the clinic—the “Quiet Room”—and hired a staff chaplain who would perform baptisms and various funeral rituals for those patients wishing a religious element. For non-Christian patients, the staff called upon the services of a local rabbi and a Muslim imam. All fetal indication patients were offered the opportunity to privately view and hold their blanketed stillborns for as long as they wished.

Vigil held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Boston, Massachusetts, June 1, 2009, to mourn the death of Dr. George Tiller. Photo courtesy Tim Pierce from Berlin, MA, USA (CC-BY-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Staff also informed me that Dr. Tiller firmly believed that the greatest comfort many of his fetal indication patients could receive would come from others in a similar situation, and he facilitated group meetings of those who came to the clinic at the same time. As staff recounted to me, typically these patients would deeply bond during the course of their stays, having meals together, and spending long hours of waiting together.

In short, while outside the walls of Women’s Health Care Services, there were screeching protestors, carrying grotesque signs and trying to prevent cars from entering the parking lot, inside the staff did everything humanly possible to make the clinic a tranquil place of comfort and healing. While recognizing that there is only so much that can be done in an hour of television, it is this aspect of  the George Tiller story that I wish had been acknowledged.

Watch “The Assassination of George Tiller.

Read patients’ reports of their experience at WHCS.

Read more on later abortions.

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