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Commentary Violence

The Escalation of Anti-Abortion Violence Ten Years After Dr. George Tiller’s Murder

Jill Heaviside & Rosann Mariappuram

Violence is not just in the anti-abortion movement’s past.

As we mark the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. George Tiller, it is incredible to think that, just over a month ago, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse was really asking how “the pro-life position is in any way violent.”

Violence has been a central tenet of the anti-abortion movement since before the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade. As activists have sought control over the reproductive freedom of millions of people—particularly women of color, low-income women and families, and queer, gender-nonconforming, and transgender communities—they have used violence as a tactic of control, abuse, and fear across the United States.

Dr. Tiller was Wichita’s only abortion provider for 40 years and was known for his deep commitment to trusting women and their families’ reproductive health decisions. Because of his work, Dr. Tiller was a target of many anti-abortion groups; before he was killed, he survived a clinic bombing and a prior shooting.

Dr. Tiller’s murder wasn’t an isolated incident. Anti-abortion extremists have killed at least 11 people since the 1990s. Their violent history includes the first recorded murder of an abortion provider, Dr. David Gunn, in 1993, and the 2015 shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, which claimed three lives and injured nine people.

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For every reported murder, there have been countless credible threats of violence against abortion providers and instances of arson, burglary, and vandalism against health clinics. Some are isolated events but others are part of highly organized and premeditated showings of force that seek to intimidate providers and deter people from seeking care.

Violence is not just in the anti-abortion movement’s past. The National Abortion Federation (NAF), which tracks these incidents, found in its latest report record numbers of violent and disruptive incidents at clinics in 2018. NAF recorded the greatest number of trespassing incidents since the organization began tracking in 1999, and the incidents of obstruction of health-care facilities doubled from 2017 to 2018.

In addition to violence against abortion providers and incursions onto physical clinic property, staff and volunteers are subject to violence. In 2015, Calla Hales, director of A Preferred Women’s Health Center (APWHC) in North Carolina, was sexually assaulted by a person who targeted her because of her work. And earlier this year, Helmi Henkin, chair of the West Alabama Clinic Defenders, saw an increase in protester aggression, culminating with an anti-abortion activist backing into a clinic escort with his car.

This recent escalation in violence mirrors the increasingly extreme restrictions on abortion seen in statehouses across the country. Twenty-eight states introduced bills that would ban abortion in some way in the first few months of 2019. Alabama passed a total abortion ban—without exception for rape or incest—that carries a penalty of up to 99 years in prison for doctors who provide an abortion. In Texas, legislators introduced a restriction that could subject people to the death penalty for having an abortion. And today, on the anniversary of Dr. Tiller’s assassination, the fate of Missouri’s last remaining abortion provider is still unknown. While the clinic will not be forced to stop providing abortion services tonight, if its license is not renewed, Missouri will become the first state to not offer safe, legal abortion services since the right to abortion was established in 1973.

While reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates are relentlessly challenging these bills in court, this administration has stacked the judicial branch with anti-abortion judges, many of whom prioritize politics over precedent. Just this week, the Supreme Court upheld an Indiana law—signed by then-Gov. Mike Pence—requiring fetal remains to be buried or cremated. In a 20-page concurrence, Justice Clarence Thomas compared abortion and certain forms of birth control to racial eugenics and stated that the Court will need to consider the constitutionality of abortion laws soon.

It’s not surprising to see that policies once considered too severe by opponents to abortion rights are now woven into the mainstream anti-abortion framework, especially considering that these activists, legislators, and judges have been emboldened by our current president. In March 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump said that there had to be “some form of punishment” for people seeking abortion. Since then, he has continued to perpetuate dangerous myths about abortion, claiming that “babies are ripped from their mother’s womb moments before birth” during the 2019 State of the Union and that parents and doctors conspire to commit infanticide shortly after birth. None of these statements are grounded in fact but they serve to drive anti-abortion fervor and incite violence across the country.

Despite legislators’ frequent claims that abortion restrictions do not target patients, people like Kasey Dischman, Kenlissa Jones, and Purvi Patel have been charged or imprisoned for their pregnancy outcomes and, just this month, conservative writers called the failure to prosecute women who end their pregnancies “a miscarriage of justice.” Some prosecutors have gone further and have made their intentions known. In Georgia, after a group of district attorneys pledged to not prosecute women under the state’s new six-week abortion ban, another doubled down, stating, “Women need to be made aware. The only way to be 100 percent sure you’re not prosecuted is not to have an abortion.”

It makes sense. The movement to ban abortion has always been about the control and punishment of pregnant people, but until recently, most anti-abortion lobby groups, politicians, and activists have been reluctant to admit the obvious: That outlawing abortion necessitates the policing of pregnancy and the investigation and prosecution of pregnant people.

The anti-abortion movement does not promote life; it promotes lies. It does not show compassion; it shows contempt. But their hate is no match for this powerful truth, originally stated by reproductive justice activist Renee Bracey Sherman: “Everyone loves someone who has had an abortion.”

Abortion providers like Dr. Tiller dedicate their lives to trusting pregnant people to make their own decisions: The Trust Women Foundation was founded in his honor and continues to carry out his mission.

It’s past time to call the anti-abortion movement what it is: an angry, dangerous minority that seeks to maintain power at the expense of the health and safety of millions of people in the United States. We should all reject it as such—for Dr. Tiller’s memory and for our future.