Ten Years Later, We’re Still Fighting Anti-Abortion Extremism

Ten years ago today, I received a frantic call early in the morning from a former field organizer for our National Clinic Defense Project. She had just been notified that Dr. George Tiller had been shot and killed as he attended church that Sunday morning in Wichita, Kansas. 

Activists at a vigil for Dr, George Tiller at San Francisco City Hall. (Steve Rhodes / Creative Commons)

Dr. Tiller had long been one the abortion providers most targeted by anti-abortion extremists. In 1991, Operation Rescue laid siege to his clinic, drawing hundreds of its followers from around the country, for weeks attempting to block access to the clinic. Each day, the Wichita Police would arrest and carry the protesters to a waiting police bus, clearing a path for Dr. Tiller, his staff and women patients to safely enter the clinic. Cited for misdemeanor trespassing and released, the protesters would quickly return to the clinic and join the ongoing blockade. Ultimately, a federal judge ordered U.S. Marshals to Wichita and the protests were ended. 

In 1993, Shelley Shannon, who had participated in Operation Rescue protests, would travel from Southern Oregon to Wichita with the intent of killing Dr. Tiller. She shot at his car as he was leaving the clinic on the afternoon of August 19, fortunately only wounding him in both arms. A bandaged but defiant Dr. Tiller was back at his clinic the following day. 

In 2002, a new leader of Operation Rescue, Troy Newman, moved the organization’s headquarters to Wichita, publishing a full page ad in the Catholic newspaper, The Wanderer, declaring: “Wichita isn’t big enough for George Tiller and me. One of us has to go and it’s not going to be me.” 

For seven years, Newman and his followers harassed and terrorized Dr. Tiller and his staff at their homes—even Dr. Tiller’s church. Working with former Kansas Attorney General Phil Kline, Operation Rescue pushed to get criminal misdemeanor charges against Dr. Tiller for “illegal abortions.” The charges could have resulted in a 20-year jail sentence, but the jury took less than a half-hour to acquit Dr. Tiller on all charges. Kline was forced to resign and ultimately disbarred in Kansas for lying to a judge in order to secure search warrants of Dr. Tiller’s patient records. 

Shortly thereafter, on May 31, 2009, Dr. Tiller was murdered in his church by anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder—a self-proclaimed adherent of the “Army of God” and a frequent participant in Operation Rescue protests, including at Dr. Tiller’s church. Roeder sat next to Troy Newman during the trial of Dr. Tiller on the criminal charges, yet Newman told Ms. he had “no recollection of ever meeting Scott Roeder.”

Today—10 years later—anti-abortion forces, emboldened by the wave of extreme abortion bans sweeping through state legislatures, have increased their targeted harassment and threats against abortion providers. The Feminist Majority Foundation’s most recent clinic violence survey found that nearly half of clinics nationwide (45 percent) in 2018 “experienced at least one incident of severe violence and/or severe harassment.” These are not isolated incidents, but a coordinated campaign of anti-abortion terror.

On this 10-year anniversary, we remember Dr. George Tiller, the 12 doctors, clinic staff, security guards and bystanders who have been brutally murdered by anti-abortion extremists, and the dozens more injured in bombings and attempted murders. We pledge that we will not allow these extremists to destroy access to abortion with their threats of violence and harassment.

How many times must we say it? Women will not go back.  


Katherine Spillar is the executive director of Feminist Majority Foundation and executive editor of Ms., where she oversees editorial content and the Ms. in the Classroom program.