What does Dr. Tiller’s murder say about the state of reproductive rights in the US?

Posted June 18, 2009

The cold-blooded murder of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller on May 31st sent shockwaves across the United States. Tiller was one of about a dozen doctors in the country who specialize in third trimester abortions. He received referrals from hospitals and doctors across the region and was known to be particularly skilled at the technical and psychological aspects of his practice.

His murder provoked an outpouring of sentiment and press coverage. President Obama immediately issued a statement decrying the murder, calling it an outrage and a heinous act of violence. Dozens of vigils were organized across the country.

The more mainstream wing of the anti-abortion movement seemed chastened by the atrocity. “We condemn this lawless act of violence. The foundational right to life that our work is dedicated to extends to everyone,” said Charmain Yoest of Americans United for Life.

Other anti-abortion activists admitted that Tiller’s murder will make it difficult to take a hard line on the nomination of Sotomayor, who has not staked out a clear position on Roe v. Wade.

(On the other hand, the killing and its aftermath didn’t take the wind out of the sails of right wing pundit Phil O’Reilly, who continued to defend his initial claim that Tiller was known as “Tiller the baby killer” in a June 15 airing of the O’Reilly Factor.)

The practical consequences of Tiller’s death appear to have been mitigated somewhat by the willingness of Nebraskan doctor LeRoy Carhart, a friend and colleague of Tiller’s, to provide similar services in Kansas.

Still, women whose medical or psychiatric conditions necessitate late term abortions will now have an even more difficult time securing appropriate care.

President Obama has made extremely important reforms in the areas of sex education and reproductive rights –ending the global gag rule, loosening restrictions on stem cell research and appointing some pro-choice activists to positions in his administration, to name a few — but Tiller’s murder is a good reminder that there’s still a long way to go.

For one, the Hyde Amendment still prevents poor women from using federally funded health insurance to get abortions. Before his election, Obama had stated his opposition to this law, but has not taken action to end it as president.

Tiller’s murder reminds us that, even in the age of Obama, we still need a stronger grassroots reproductive justice movement.


One response to “What does Dr. Tiller’s murder say about the state of reproductive rights in the US?”

  1. Dianne Avatar

    Thanks for the post!

    It’s essential for people who support a woman’s right to make reproductive decisions and to insist on the state’s duty to make sure various options are available to defend third trimester abortions.

    About 90% of all abortions occur within the first trimester. That’s because when women find out they are pregnant and decide they cannot continue the pregnancy, they arrange for an abortion. Those who have second and third trimester abortions do so because a) they can’t put together the money for the procedure, b) they discover late in their pregnancy that a serious abnormality has developed and they decide they cannot continue, or c) they are very religious and have been praying or hoping something would happen and finally realize they must act if they do not want to continue the pregnancy.

    The right wing has seized on third trimester abortions as the main space to conduct the fight to outlaw at least some abortions. They have succeeded in getting a federal law passed that severely limits third trimester abortions and conducted a huge campaign to particularly vilify medical personnel at clinics that perform them.

    We need to roll back the restrictions that interfere with women’s right to make the fundamental decisions about when and if to bear a child–and there are many. That means better birth control methods, better sex education, low-cost abortion procedures, well-funded child care options and paid time off so that parents can raise their children.