Medical Drama


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On Sunday, May 31, a man walked into a Wichita Lutheran church and shot Dr. George Tiller to death in front of his wife. The man accused, Scott Roeder, had been following Dr. Tiller, attempting to vandalize his clinic and appearing at Tiller’s misdemeanor trial earlier in the year.

  • Wrath of Angels: The American Aborition War by Jim Risen and Judy Thomas. 416 pages. Basic Books.

George Tiller had long been a favorite target of extremist pro-life groups such as Operation Rescue, as he was one of the only doctors in the United States who would perform late-term abortions. Most of his clients were women whose fetuses had severe birth defects, but he was labeled one of the worst offenders of the war on the unborn by groups including Operation Rescue and the Army of God.

Recently there had been glimmers of a resurgence of violence in the pro-life community, but nothing quite like this. A bomb was left outside a clinic in Austin, Texas in 2007, but it was disarmed before it could explode, and the man arrested did not appear to have any ties to extremist groups.  Earlier this year, a man was arrested for intentionally driving his SUV into a St. Paul Planned Parenthood clinic before opening hours.

The last abortion doctor to be assassinated was Dr. Barnett Slepian in 1998, and it has been almost 10 years since the last organized attack on abortion clinics. At the time when the letters with anthrax were killing postal workers and showing up at senators’ offices, more than 100 letters filled with mysterious white powder were mailed to abortion clinics around the country. I happened to be working for Planned Parenthood at the time, and I dreaded the anthrax drills. Despite knowing that the white-powder letters were not testing positive for anthrax, Planned Parenthood was taking no chances and required offices that received the letters to be evacuated, their employees hosed down in the parking lot by hazmat crews.

The man behind the anthrax attacks, Clayton Lee Waagner, had escaped from jail and told the radical pro-life community that he was on a mission to blow up clinics and assassinate doctors, yet still no one in my office or in the city’s abortion clinics was cowering in fear. We were angry, yes. Annoyed, of course. But in the days after September 11, we were actually all breathing a little easier. James Kopp, the at-large assassin of Slepian, was finally found and brought to justice, as was at-large clinic bomber Eric Rudolph. Most importantly, domestic terrorism was suddenly not quite so cool, and the extremists started distancing themselves from those who wanted to take up guns and blow up buildings. Perhaps the most terrifying thing about Tiller’s murder, for me, is that Roeder has links to the radical pro-life and militia communities. If the uptick in violence is not just a coincidence, it means I have to start worrying again about my friends who still work in clinics.

Tiller had survived attacks and assassination attempts before. James Risen and Judy L. Thomas, authors of Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War — considered by most to be the definitive account of the rise of the pro-life movement in the United States — described Rachelle Ranae Shannon’s attempt in August 1993:

Tiller finally left the clinic shortly after 7 p.m., driving out of the parking lot in his 1989 Chevy Suburban. As Shannon moved toward him, Tiller thought she was going to hand him some anti-abortion literature, and he “gave her the finger,” Tiller recalls. “Then I remember hearing six shots…” Tiller was stunned. “I looked down and there’s glass and blood every place, and I said, ‘She shot me. She can’t do that.’”

Tiller suffered gunshot wounds in both arms, and yet returned to work the next day. The morning after his clinic was bombed in 1986, Tiller re-opened, hanging a banner that read, “Hell No We Won’t Go.”

It’s an interesting slogan choice for Tiller, as it was so prominently used during the Vietnam War protests, which were the inspiration for the radical pro-life community. As Risen and Thomas tell it, John O’Keefe became radicalized against the war after the death of his older brother, medic Sgt. Roy O’Keefe. O’Keefe considered becoming a priest after his brother’s death, but instead went to Harvard, where he witnessed the tumultuous campus protests. After a discussion with a coworker who had had an abortion, O’Keefe was introduced to the controversy of abortion. His religious study led him to view abortion as murder, and he decided he wanted to help these women both realize they were mothers whose children were dead and then grieve their loss. He wanted to get involved.

This was just after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in all 50 states. The protest movement was not well organized at this point — there were small groups like Massachusetts’s Value of Life committee, but O’Keefe found them insufficiently committed to the cause. They were mostly funded by, as Wrath of Angels puts it, “Irish Catholic housewives of suburban Boston.” They primarily lobbied legislators and wrote letters. O’Keefe, however, took his cues from the Vietnam War protests, in which masses of people would take over buildings, block entry, disrupt business, and chain themselves to doors and gates. He founded the Pro-Life Non-Violent Action Project in 1977, and copied these exact techniques. Risen and Thomas write, “[H]is cause would… cure blindness, the blindness of the men and women who did not agree with him that abortion was the killing of unborn children.” He preached nonviolence, and he practiced it. He was interested in rescuing the “unborn children,” yes, but also the pregnant women he believed to be misguided and about to commit grievous sins.

One of O’Keefe’s followers was Michael Bray. They shared much of the same background – religious conversion, Vietnam War protesting, East Coast upbringing. But Bray believed in violent protest, and in the 1980s began to practice it. In 1984, he and two associates threw Molotov cocktails through the windows of a Delaware clinic and burned it to the ground. He moved on to pipe bombs and began using the name Army of God as the signature on the attacks. His associate Thomas Spinks also began bombing clinics, including those that O’Keefe’s organization was nonviolently protesting. Both Spinks and Bray were caught and served jail time, but their actions had already inspired others who were dissatisfied with pacifism. Decades of violence followed.

Men like Joseph Scheidler, the founder of the Pro-Life Action League, became the leaders of the new pro-life movement, declaring that abortions had to be disrupted at any cost. He visited those convicted of violence against clinics and doctors in jail and took care of their families. He cried loudly for action. Between January 1983 and March 1985, 319 acts of violence were committed against abortion clinics in the United States. In the ’90s, the targets changed from clinics themselves to the doctors and workers. Dr. David Gunn was the first to be murdered, in 1993. Several followed, including a double murder perpetrated by a former minister. The violence cooled after Waagner’s arrest, and the pro-life community returned their focus to legislative reform and peaceful protest (as peaceful as a mob of people yelling “baby killer” through bullhorns and waving pictures of mangled fetuses can be).

One would expect that as simple and safe a procedure as abortion would have been easily and cheaply available. And yet clinics started closing, OB/GYNs refused to learn how to perform abortions, and in many rural areas it remains nearly impossible to obtain one. As of 2005, despite the fact that one-third of all women will have an abortion at some point in their lives, the Guttmacher Institute reports that 87 percent of all U.S. counties lack an abortion provider. Who knows if someone will step up to take Tiller’s place, or if his assassination will further cool doctors’ interest in becoming active. When Tiller was asked by the press and colleagues why he continued to work under continual threats and harassment, he would simply say, “I know the women need me.” He was one of the few doctors in the country women could turn to when they discovered in the beginnings of their third trimester that their fetus would not survive outside the womb.

First published in 1998, Wrath of Angels remains the best document of the men and women (although mostly men) willing to risk their lives and futures to, as a letter I received in my Planned Parenthood days charmingly put it, stop the holocaust of the unborn. When I read The Wrath of Angels for the first time five years ago, I had hoped it was a look back on a troubled time. The conversation around abortion then was had been no less heated than that of the book, but at least it was less bloody. Now I’m beginning to fear it simply documents the first chapter in a long story. • 9 June 2009