Fall 2009, Vol. 12, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Family Ties

Sanford and Wife

Who Killed George Tiller?

Obama in Cairo

When Push Comes to Twitter

Airing the Syrian Laundry

Our Crowd

The Irish Map of Hell

The Baptists Shrink

The Episcopalian Split

Claiming The King's Soul


New books

Who Killed George Tiller?
by Andrew Walsh

George Tiller’s May 31 homicide would have attracted attention beyond Wichita, Kansas, under any circumstances. He was murdered while serving as an usher in the lobby of a crowded Lutheran church just as Sunday morning service was beginning.

But this was not a simple act of mayhem in a sacred place. It was a political assassination.

“George R. Tiller, the nation’s most prominent provider of controversial late-term abortions, was shot and killed yesterday,” the Washington Post’s Robert Barnes reported on page one on June 1. “Tiller, 67, had performed abortions since the 1970s. He ran the Women’s Health Care Services clinic, one of three in the nation to perform abortions after the point where a fetus is considered able to survive outside the womb.”

Other news organizations gave the killing similar prominence, and for good reason. Tiller’s clinic had been frequently besieged by protestors, was bombed in 1985, and was often vandalized. In 1993, Tiller himself was shot in both arms by an abortion protester.

Within three hours, police had arrested 51 year-old Scott Roeder of suburban Kansas City, driving a minivan on I-35 that witnesses of the shooting had described to police. Soon he was charged with first-degree murder.

Since there was little question about the identity of the alleged shooter, coverage and discussion quickly turned to the question of the significance of the shooting. What followed was a donnybrook.

For the next few weeks, newspapers, web sites, radio, and TV were filled with impassioned debate about the Tiller shooting and the permissible limits of legal dissent. Writing in late July, David Usborne, the U.S. editor of the London Independent, observed that the Tiller case, in which “one of the last doctors in the country to continue to practice late terminations in defiance of anti-abortionists” was assassinated, “reveals how polarized and how fiercely, sometimes homicidally emotional the struggle has become.”

Writing in Time on June 15, Nancy Gibbs captured that polarization: When Tiller was shot, “both sides of the abortion debate braced for battle. Supporters called him a martyr; critics called him a murderer. Both groups deplored his killing: abortion rights activists warned that it could signal a fresh wave of clinic violence; abortion opponents warned that it would lead to the demonizing of their movement.”

In the immediate wake of the murder, however, the first question was: Who is Scott Roeder? In the scramble for an answer, it became clear that the Kansas City Star still had the boots on the ground to cover police news vigorously. Over the summer, Star reporter Judy L. Thomas and her colleagues consistently led the pack in uncovering information about the alleged assassin.

On June 2, the Star reported that Roeder “was a member of an anti-government group in the 1990s and a staunch opponent of abortion.” He had, the paper reported, become deeply involved in the radical anti-government, anti-tax “Freeman” movement in Kansas. In 1996, he was arrested after posting comments on a variety of anti-abortion websites when police discovered the ingredients for pipe bombs in his car.

“Those who know Roeder said he believed that killing abortion doctors was an act of justifiable homicide,” Thomas wrote, quoting Kansas City anti-abortion activist Regina Dinwiddie as saying. “I know he very strongly believed that abortion was murder and that you ought to defend the little ones, both born and unborn.”

Dinwiddie said she had met Roeder while picketing outside a Planned Parenthood Clinic in 1995. He had asked to see Dr. Robert Crist, the director of the clinic. “Robert Crist came out and [Roeder] stared at him for approximately 45 seconds,” she recalled. “[Roeder] said, ‘I’ve seen you now,” and walked away, and they were scared to death.”

  In the wake of this story, interviews with Roeder’s ex-wife and other family members began telling the media that Roeder had serious mental health problems. “The man I married disappeared into this other person years ago,” Lindsey Roeder told the New York Times on June 2. “He wanted a scapegoat for his own serious financial problems. First it was taxes, he stopped paying, then he turned to the church and got involved in anti-abortion.”

Thomas and other Star reporters excavated Roeder’s religious background in a series of stories in late July and August. During a prison interview, he told Thomas that he had converted to a “messianic” form of Christianity in 1992. She reported that he was involved for a while with a Messianic (Jews for Jesus) Jewish congregation in suburban Overland Park, Kansas.

Rabbi Shmuel Wolkenfeld of Or HaOlam congregation told the Star that Roeder had participated in study groups at the congregation, but that he hadn’t seen him for several years. “With Scott, we had a bunch of discussions, then he just disappeared,” Wolkenfeld said. “I wish we could have helped him, but he had his own opinions.”

Wolkenfeld said Roeder was unhappy that the congregation was registered as a tax-exempt religious body and was eager to delve into conspiracy theories about Freemasonry and his contention that Prince Charles was the Antichrist.

As the picture emerged of Roeder as mentally unbalanced, isolated, devoted to fringe political and religious movements, and confrontational, the disputation about responsibility for the murder began in earnest. Taking place mostly on editorial pages and among the talking heads, it was extraordinarily vigorous, mostly because views about Tiller and his work diverged so sharply.

“Bombings. Butyric acid attacks. Sniper shootings. Letters filled with fake anthrax. These are some of the tactics used over the years by antiabortion extremists,” Richard Fausset of the Los Angeles Times wrote on June 1. Tiller’s killing, he noted, was the fourth of a doctor and the eighth of an abortion clinic worker since the early 1970s. Altogether, the National Abortion Federation had tallied 6,100 “acts of violence” against abortion providers.

Abortion opponents, especially the “mainstream” pro-life groups, moved rapidly to condemn the killing. “Our bishops’ conference and all its members have repeated and publicly denounced all forms of violence, including abortion as well as misguided resort to violence by anyone opposed to abortion,” Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia said, speaking on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“We are stunned at today’s news,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “As Christians we pray and look toward the end of all violence and for the saving of souls, not the taking of human life. George Tiller was a man who we publicly sought to stop through legal and peaceful ways.”

Not everyone, however, was so controlled. Randall Terry, the famous anti-abortion hardliner who was exiled from Operation Rescue for his extremism, minced no words. “George Tiller was a mass murderer,” he said in a statement that wound up just about everywhere. “We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God. I am more concerned that the Obama Administration will use Tiller’s killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions.”

It was this insistence that abortion is murder and that aggressive confrontation with doctors in their clinics, homes, and churches is a “most effective” action that proved to be the key ground of contention in following weeks.

Journalists heard a lot from individuals who shared Terry’s point of view. The Philadelphia Inquirer opened an editorial on June 2 by reporting a “chilling” email from an Olathe, Kansas women who apparently “e-blasted” many journalists: “Cry for this man? Are you kidding? If you believe in evil, this man’s middle name was George ‘Satan’ Tiller. That he was shot and killed in church tells me that God was OK with his demise.”

“The overwhelming bulk of anti-abortion activity, of course, has nothing to do with violence or intimidation,” Portland Oregonian columnist David Sarasohn wrote on June 3. “But when political trends run against them, parts of the fringe tend to turn to bloody reprisal.”

“Lone gunman?” ran the headline over an Ellen Goodman column in the June 5 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Dr. Tiller’s assassin was the soloist in chorus of vitriol.” Like many writers that week, Goodman had Fox TV’s Bill O’Reilly in her sights: “Consider the verbal targeting of `Tiller the Baby Killer’ What do you say, for example, about Bill O’Reilly, who attacked Dr. Tiller repeatedly as someone who would `kill a baby a half-hour before the baby is supposed to be born for no reason whatsoever other than the mother has a pain in her foot’?”

“O’Reilly is being incredibly disingenuous when he claims that he bears no responsibility for other’s action in the killing of Dr. George Tiller on Sunday,” Mary Alice Carr, vice president of communications for the National Abortion Rights Action League, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed piece on June 4. “When you tell an audience of millions over and over again that someone is an executioner, you cannot feign surprise when someone executes that person. You cannot claim to hold no responsibility for what other people do when you call for people to besiege Tiller’s clinic, as O’Reilly did in January 2008.”

Eyal Press joined the attack in the June 7 edition of the Nation: “Before he was murdered, Dr. George Tiller was a popular topic on Fox’s ‘O’Reilly Factor,’ with the host referring to him as ‘Tiller the Baby Killer,’ a man guilty of ‘Nazi stuff.’ These are not innocent words as doctors targeted by anti-abortion protesters have pointed out in the past.

“In a letter to his hometown newspaper some years ago, one such physician wrote: ‘The members of the local non-violent, pro-life community may continue to picket my home. They may continue to scream that I am a murderer and a killer when I enter the clinics at which they ‘peacefully’ exercise their First Amendment Right of freedom of speech. They may do all of the above to me and other abortion providers of this community. But please don’t feign surprise, dismay and certainly not innocence when a more volatile and less restrained member of the groups decides to react to their inflammatory rhetoric by shooting an abortion provider.”

The words, Press wrote, appeared in the Buffalo News in 1994 and were written by Dr. Barnett Slepian, who was killed by an anti-abortion sniper in his home in October 1998.

O’Reilly took these attacks stoically, writing them off as personal and political animus. On the June 15 edition of “The O’Reilly Factor,” he sparred vigorously with Joan Walsh of, asking her repeatedly whether late-term fetuses had any legal rights and asserting repeatedly that Tiller routinely performed abortions on viable fetuses for “casual” reasons.

When Walsh criticized O’Reilly for crusading intensely against Tiller, he demurred.


WALSH: And look, Bill, you crusaded against him.

O'REILLY: You bet.

WALSH: You crusaded against him. He had been shot twice already.

O'REILLY: And I'm sorry about that.

WALSH: His clinic had been exploded.

O'REILLY: I'm sorry about that.

WALSH: His clinic had been attacked, bombed, vandalized.

O'REILLY: But my constitutional right says I can say what I say. You say what you say, as vile as you say it, you can say it. And I would never condemn you for saying it. You are misguided. You have blood on your hands because you portray this man as a hero when he killed late-term babies for casual reasons.


By mid June, pro-life commentators were trying hard to knock down the charge that their tactics made them culpable for the crimes of extremists.

“I didn’t kill George Tiller,” Christine M. Flowers, a Philadelphia lawyer and writer, complained in an op-ed in the Philadephia Daily News on June 12. “Neither did Bill O’Reilly, Randall Terry, Pope Benedict or the little old lady praying the rosary outside Planned Parenthood. So to all the pro-choice advocates and their sympathizers in the media, drop the collective guilt trip.

“Just because I abhorred Tiller’s chosen medical specially, which resulted in the termination of close to 60,000 pregnancies over his three-decade career, doesn’t mean I sought his demise in any way. Of course, you’d never know that from the way the press and assorted interest groups have reacted.”

 On June 13, syndicated columnist Terry Mattingly complained in the Knoxville News-Sentinel that the media was underplaying the historic efforts of pro-life leaders to criticize or rein in the violent. He cited interventions in 1994 by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

At Mattingly’s media watch dog web site, a series of pieces appeared in June to express concern that stories were unfairly tarring pro-life groups. “I’m raising my eyebrows right now at mainstream coverage that seems to make alleged gunman Scott Roeder part of a movement that includes the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference, the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Right to Life Committee,” Mattingly posted on June 2.

GetReligion’s Mollie Ziegler followed with posts on June 8 and 9 complaining about reporters’ failure to follow up on Tiller’s religious past—most notably, his “excommunication” from a Missouri Synod Lutheran congregation before he moved to Resurrection Lutheran Church, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation. And why, she asked, did they pass over the judgment of Johns Hopkins University psychiatrist Paul McHugh that Tiller performed thousands of late-term abortions in cases where the fetus was healthy or suffered from conditions like Down Syndrome?

Although Mattingly, et.  al. scored some points about journalistic pro-choice fellow-traveling, like most others rising to defend the pro-life establishment, they declined to engage the most potent charge against the pro-lifers: that because of their rhetoric of abortion as murder and tactics of aggressive confrontation, they bore some responsibility for Tiller’s death.

The day after the shooting, Slate columnist William Saletan put the charge this way: “If you don’t accept what he did, then maybe it’s time to ask yourself what you really believe. Is abortion murder? Or is it something less, a tragedy that would be better avoided? Most of us think it’s the latter. We’re looking for ways to prevent abortions—not just a few this month, but millions down the line—without killing or prosecuting people.”

In a web discussion on Reason magazine’s site on June 12, libertarian columnist Jacob Sullum suggested that the pro-life contention that abortion is murder but shouldn’t be opposed by force wasn’t coherent. “If you honestly believe that abortion is the murder of helpless children, it’s hard to see why using deadly force against those who carry it out is immoral.”

The closest anyone in the pro-life camp came to acknowledging responsibility for Tiller’s death was a June 6 statement from Catholic Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg Florida—though it extended the blame to the other side, as well:

“Tiller’s death is indefensible under any rule of law, civil or moral. To many people, myself included, abortion is indefensible under the moral law but is legally permissible. Calls from within both camps for aggressive advocacy for or against the law runs the risk of encouraging people such as the perpetrator in Tiller’s death to take the issue into their own hands.”

Just how the anti-abortion movement ran the risk of encouraging Roeder became clear in David Barstow’s 5,793-word story on the Tiller saga that appeared in the New York Times on July 26. In it, Barstow painted a complex picture of the lengthy, bitter struggle between Tiller and his opponents.

“For more than 30 years, the anti-abortion movement threw everything they had into driving Dr. Tiller out of business, certain that his defeat would be a devastating blow to the ‘abortion industry’ that has terminated roughly 50 million pregnancies since Roe v. Wade in 1973.

“They blockaded his clinic; campaigned to have him prosecuted, boycotted his suppliers, tailed him with hidden cameras; branded him `Tiller the Baby Killer;’ hit him with lawsuits, legislation and regulatory complaints; and protested relentlessly, even at his church. Some sent flowers pleading for him to quit. One bombed his clinic. Another tried to kill him in 1993, firing five shots, wounding both arms,” Barstow wrote.

Barstow laid out the relentlessness of the campaign to thwart Tiller:

“Dozens of anti-abortion groups of varying sizes and philosophies were out to shut down his clinic, Women’s Health Care Services. While their tactics constantly changed, they shared the same basic goal. ‘We wanted it to get to the point where it was no longer feasible to stay open,” Mark S. Gietzen of the Kansas Coalition for Life said.

“Every vendor who showed up at the clinic was warned that if they continued to do business with Dr. Tiller, they would be boycotted. Those who ignored the threat were listed on anti-abortion web sites. ‘We have nobody in town who would deliver pizza,’ said an employee, Linda Joslin. “Protestors confronted his employees, demanding that they quit. If they refused, activists passed out fliers in their neighborhood of working for a baby killer. Patients would encounter a gauntlet of protestors.”

Barstow’s account did not fail to address the concerns of the protesters, especially their contention that many or most of the late term abortions performed at the clinic did not involve catastrophic deformities. Of the 4,800 late-term abortions performed at the clinic since 1998, he wrote, probably 2,800 did not involve fetuses that could not have survived outside the womb. Some involved fetuses with Down’s syndrome but “many were perfectly healthy.”

No one argued that Cardinal Rigali or Richard Land or even Randall Terry ordered a hit on Tiller, but it’s clear that the unceasing confrontational campaign in Wichita did involve a large number of “mainstream” pro-life groups over a lengthy period. Reporting by Barstow, Judy Thomas, and others showed that Scott Roeder—although by no means a major figure in pro-life activities in Kansas and Missouri— participated over a long period in anti-abortion activities and was quite well known. He picketed, he did “street counseling,” he campaigned on the Internet, and he attended the Kansas trial that ended in March when Tiller was acquitted of 19 misdemeanor charges that he broke Kansas law in performing late-term abortions.

Barstow’s story wasn’t popular over at GetReligion. Calling it “deeply researched but unbalanced,” Douglas LeBlanc posted a re-edited version that struck out most of the “positive” adjectives about Tiller. “Barstow’s report implies that anti-Tiller violence was simply one of many tactics used by a broadly defined anti-abortion movement,” LeBlanc wrote. “Barstow’s many details are sometimes obscured by unclear writing, or language that appears to depict Tiller in heroic terms while describing his opponents more critically.”

Actually, Barstow’s reporting provided evidence that there was a high degree of collaboration, over the course of decades, within a broad range of anti-abortion groups opposed to Tiller and fiercely dedicated to shutting him down. Many of them were extremely confrontational and sought actively to shame and humiliate women going to the clinic, clinic staff, and vendors. Many of them, not including Roeder, who did post suggestions on the web on this topic, persistently disrupted Sunday services at Resurrection Lutheran Church to demand Tiller’s expulsion and used the church’s membership list to mail postcards with photos of aborted fetuses to the homes of parishioners.

“Roeder was not one of us,” Philadelphia Daily News columnist Christine Flowers insisted on June 12. “He was a psychopath, a man whose demented mind led him to commit a crime that is, essentially, the antithesis of what the pro-life movement represents.”

It is hard, at this point, to take such self-exoneration seriously. Roeder was one of them, and not the first to take the movement’s violent words and confrontational deeds one step further.


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