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Tiller's Killers

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by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Ian Millhiser

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The issues of abortion and domestic extremism have been thrust back into the national spotlight with the brutal murder of Dr. George Tiller. The Kansas doctor had "long been the most prominent target of anti-abortion activists in this country due to the fact that he was one of the few physicians in the country willing to perform 'late-term' abortions." On May 31, a 51-year old man named Scott Roeder allegedly shot Tiller "as he stood in the foyer of his church." Tiller had already survived being shot in both arms by another radical in 1993. In 1986, his clinic was bombed, and in 1991, it was blockaded. Tiller had to be protected by federal marshals and his clinic was fortified by bulletproof glass and security guards. Unfortunately, Tiller is far from the only victim of extremist violence. There have been "more than 6,100 acts of violence against abortion providers in the United States and Canada since 1977," and four doctors have been killed. Many of the anti-choice groups that have spent years fomenting hatred against Tiller rushed out condemnations of Roeder's actions. But as Mike Hendricks of the Kansas City Star wrote, "His accomplices know they have blood on their hands, which might explain why they were quick to issue statements...expressing disapproval of Tiller's murder."

WOMEN'S LAST RESORT: First of all, it's important to understand that the abortions Tiller provided were legal. In fact, his murder came just two months after he was found not guilty of performing illegal late-term abortions. But his right-wing critics portrayed him as a killer, eager to "execute" babies. "Dr. George Tiller destroys fetuses for just about any reason, right up until the birth date," said Fox News host Bill O'Reilly. Last night, O'Reilly criticized the practice of late-term abortions -- which usually occur in the third trimester, at 24 weeks -- saying that women could choose the procedure if they simply had a "headache." Will Saletan of Slate has claimed that "there are cases where there's no real medical situation other than some teenager in denial." Women, however, do not choose this procedure willy-nilly. Just one percent of all abortions in the United States occur after 21 weeks, and very few doctors provide this service. Additionally, most states have strict restrictions on when a woman is allowed to undergo the procedure. As Jessica Arons, Director of the Center for American Progress's Women's Health and Rights Program, has stated, "Although his [Tiller's] chosen profession of providing mid- and late-term abortions was one some found distasteful, he remained committed to his calling to serve women in their greatest hour of need." Indeed, testimonials from Tiller's patients have shown that he was often a woman's last -- and only -- resort when she had to make the excruciating decision to terminate a pregnancy for reasons such as her health or congenital defects.

HATEFUL EXTREMISM: Many anti-choice groups quickly denounced Roeder's actions. The group 40 Days of Life said that it was "shocked and dismayed" and Troy Newman, President of Operation Rescue, issued a statement saying, "We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act." But as Hendricks wrote, Operation Rescue couldn't have been "shocked" by Tiller's death. After all, it was that group that coined the name "Tiller the Killer" and "spent decades fomenting hate toward a man who simply believed that he was serving a purpose by being one of the few doctors in the country performing late-term abortions." In fact, veteran anti-abortion activist Randall Terry -- who founded Operation Rescue -- issued a statement calling Tiller a "mass murderer," adding that he was an "evil man" whose "hands were covered with blood." Roeder, in fact, had been an active member of the Operation Rescue community and used the group as a platform for his vigilantism. (Authorities found a Post-It note with the group's phone number in his car after the shooting.) In May 2007, Operation Rescue organized a "77-hour round the clock prayer vigil" in Wichita, KS, Tiller's hometown. On May 19, Roeder commented on an online forum for the event, chillingly urging Operation Rescue members to take the fight inside Tiller's church. On Sept. 3, 2007, Roeder stepped up his rhetoric on another Operation Rescue site, writing, "Tiller is the concentration camp 'Mengele' of our day and needs to be stopped before he and those who protect him bring judgement [sic] upon our nation." Newman later issued another statement stressing that "Scott Roeder has never been a member, contributor, or volunteer with Operation Rescue."

O'REILLY'S 'FACTS': One of the most prominent media voices attacking Tiller has been O'Reilly. According to Salon, O'Reilly first discussed Tiller on Feb. 25, 2005, and followed it up with 28 more episodes that mentioned the doctor. In the past four years, O'Reilly has frequently described the doctor as "Tiller the Baby Killer" and "a moral equivalent to NAMBLA and al-Qaida." "And if the state of Kansas doesn't stop this man, then anybody who prevents that from happening has blood on their hands as the governor does right now, Governor Sebelius," said O'Reilly on one of his shows. On Monday, O'Reilly made his first public comments on Tiller's murder. Although he briefly said that "Americans should condemn the murder of Dr. George Tiller," O'Reilly then segued into more attacks on Tiller. He also used the opportunity to attack his critics, saying they were trying to "exploit" the incident to attack Fox News. "No backpedaling here. ... Unlike you, I report honestly," said O'Reilly. "Every single thing we said about Tiller was true, and my analysis was based on those facts." Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz criticized O'Reilly for his segment, saying that he was "surprised that, along with his reminder that Tiller had been called a baby killer, O'Reilly didn't issue a ringing denunciation of the shooting and anyone who thought it was justified. The occasion, in my view, called for it; he chose a different approach."