Some very raw thoughts on the assassination of Dr. George Tiller.

Sunday morning, Dr. George Tiller of Wichita, Kansas, was murdered on his way into the church where he worships. Dr. Tiller was targeted because he was one of the few doctors in the U.S. who performed late-term abortions.

Late-term abortions make up a tiny fraction of the abortions performed in the U.S., and are nearly always done because the fetus has been found to have defect incompatible with life, or has already died, or because the life of the mother is in danger if the pregnancy is not terminated.

For the audacity of offering this vital medical service, Dr. Tiller and his clinic had been targeted by protesters for years. He had been shot, non-fatally, by a protester in 1993.

Sunday, a man who appears to have connections to Operation Rescue assassinated Dr. Tiller.

I understand that people who are against abortion feel very strongly about the issues involved. I get that they feel that medical procedures that are legal are nonetheless immoral, and that they would like the laws to be changed.

However, trying to accomplish a change in the availability of abortions by targeting health care providers with violence -- in other words, trying to change the situation by striking terror into the hearts of the people doing the things they do not like -- is terrorism. This kind of tactic is terrorism regardless of whether you agree with the end it is used to try to advance.

There are many alternative to terrorist tactics. Political action is one. A serious attempt at dialogue with others in your community -- even those with whom you strongly disagree -- is another. Non-violent protest and civil disobedience is a third.

Shooting to death those with whom you disagree -- and doing so in a very public way, calculated to terrify others with whom you disagree -- doesn't make the cut as an ethical move no matter how you cut it.

Fair warning: I've noticed that commenters who are quite approving of the intimidation, if not the murder, of doctors who perform abortions, are out in force tonight. Each comment on this post that, rather than engaging with the substance of the post (terrorist tactics suck, ethically speaking), instead bloviates on how Dr. Tiller was bad, got what he deserved, what have you, will trigger a $20 donation to Medical Students for Choice.

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After reading the comments here, I don't have much hope in getting through to any of you. But abortion is murder, and a late-term one, an abomination. There is no difference between a preemie and a late-term baby except that one is given rights and care and the other is left to die on a table or in a linen closet.

All the rationalizations in the world are not going to change that fact, or whitewash the gore and anguish involved. Protecting the few who allegedly require an abortion for "medical reasons" has opened the way for rampant murder of viable babies.

You can read on my weblog why it is wrong, terribly wrong.
http://cabbagejuice.wordpress.com/2009/06/07/the-murderous-hypocrisy-of…

His condoned abortion factory is a grotesque example of "science without ethics".

You might want to be careful with that warning --- there are enough stupid trolls on the internet to bankrupt the richest amongst us many times over. I'm sure the Medical Students for Choice would appreciate it though.

By Anonymous Coward (not verified) on 31 May 2009 #permalink

To be honest, that last sentence almost suggests the idea to put in a fake offending comment, just to make the donation. But some ideas are too repellent even to parody.

Thank you for your thoughts on this. Those of us in Wichita are very upset by what has transpired in our town today. It is imperative that the media treat this like the terrorist act that it was. Unfortunately, they seem reluctant to place the blame at the feet of those that deserve it.

@#2 Exactly my thought. As a computer scientist, I like toying with systems to do within their parameters, things they weren't intended to do -- but looking at the comments from Ed's or PZM's blogs, I would have to work hard to write a comment that qualified as offensive while not distressing me severly and not have someone think that the comment was actually true.

By Anonymous Coward (not verified) on 31 May 2009 #permalink

The late Dr. George Tiller once told me that medicine was simple compared to the ethical issues that it raised. By his tone and the interest he paid to what I had to say about ethics, I could see that he had a deep concern for doing what was right. The trouble is, as he was acutely aware, how can one come to know what is right?

With medicine there are tests, and although different doctors may interpret the tests differently, with ethics the matter is much more debatable. The more one thinks about finding certainty in ethics, the more unsettled one feels. With ethics, anxiety and philosophy are inseparable. Let us take a moment to reflect on this central question in ethics.

The first answer that I will consider is one of the more common ones. In response to the uneasiness many feel when faced with unanswered questions, there is a tendency to seek a definitive answer as directly as possible. Just like a frustrated parent finally answers a child's endless series of "Why? Why? Why?" with "Because I said so," many people simply live as they were raised. How often have we heard someone defend an ethical position with the line, "Well that was just how I was raised"? Such an appeal is really a refusal to fully consider the question. It foists the problem off on an authority such as a parent or church. The logic seems to be that, although the problem is too difficult for me to even consider, my father, mother, grandmother, or pastor was pretty smart and if they said so, then it must be just as they said.

For the individual, education and experience often challenge this appeal to authority. In the cultural history of the western world, the enlightenment did as well.

Prior to the enlightenment, a largely unquestioned trust in authority led to a stagnation in the sciences. The western would broke free of this stagnation by critically examining premises previously accepted as true. In place of mere authority, reasons were sought. Theories were put forward and then tested. Through this process, science corrected some misconceptions that it had inherited and, as a result of these corrections, technology was able to advance as never before.

But while technology was moving forward (from the industrial revolution to our current age of information), ethics still struggles to find any definitive answers, despite some rather clever philosophical attempts.

One such attempt defines what is right as that which generates the most happiness for the most people. To illustrate this pragmatic approach to ethics, many teachers will ask their students whether it is better to take one life if many more lives can be saved. Rather than debating such a question, it is wise to first examine the assumptions of the question itself. Such a calculation, I argue, conflates what is best in terms of moral absolutes with what is the best possible choice one has in life.

I will explain. Murder, I argue, is morally wrong regardless of the beneficial or tragic consequences that may result. But that is not the end of the matter. People do not live in a world of ideals alone, but in an imperfect world complete with horrific circumstances and limited choices where, at times, there is no right answer. We have been cast out of Eden and into a world of struggle and pain.

According to most Christian traditions, we all fall short. None of us ever measures up to perfection. Perhaps the choice to have an abortion is one of those times when a woman falls short of an impossible moral standard.

I have no position of privilege from which I can sit in judgment of Dr. Tiller or any of his patients. In a perfect world Dr. Tiller's services would never have been sought. There would be no rape, no deformities, no young women seeking assurance and love in the act of sex without commitment. Perhaps abortions are morally wrong in some absolute sense. But if I were put into the circumstances of one of his patients what would I actually do? That is an entirely different question. The reason that debates about abortion fail to get anywhere is due to the failure of the debaters to recognize this difference.

Try hanging your real coat on an ideal representation of a hook that you draw on a black board and you will see what I mean. An ideal might be inspiring, but we live on "good soup" as well as ideals. "The world is too much with us."

Perhaps Dr. Tiller's memory is best honored as one who served to help woman through a difficult time for which there is no right answer. Sometimes the best that can be achieved is still bad.

I realize that this view will leave many feeling uneasy. I know Dr. Tiller himself felt uneasy, and I imagine that many of his patients did as well. Many will attempt to soothe their anxiety by bearing fervent witness to what they hope is true or to the values upon which they were raised. Still, those who speak the loudest and with the greatest tone of conviction do not by such volume or tone have any greater access to the truth than do those of us who accept ethical undecidability and its attendant anxiety.

In solitudinous prayer and together in church we seek forgiveness for our shortcomings and comfort for what we cannot know.

I imagine that Dr. Tiller went to church on the day of his murder for the same reason that many of us go and that many of us pray. I imagine that he went with the same prayer in his heart that all humble men and women ask of God -- the sinners' prayer -- "Lord have mercy."

By Clinton Combs (not verified) on 31 May 2009 #permalink

Murdering somebody in the House of God? I wonder what kind of sick excuses O'Reilly and Company will make for this. (No doubt, they will decry the murder: "Baby Killer" Tiller deserved a trial before his demise.)

I'm sorry, but this kind of sick irony angers me.

At what point are the pastors and leaders of the religious organizations that literally demonized Dr. Tiller and others like him culpable, at least in part, for this murder? Would this man have shot Dr. Tiller in the lobby of his church without the prodding of these religious leaders? Just as many of the Islamic terrorists are created and spurned on by their religious leaders, it seems our own "christian" terrorists stem from similar origins. I wonder if a prosecutor would be willing to charge the leaders as conspirators in this murder.

I, too, am very slightly tempted to run the fake comment route just for the donation. I won't, obviously.

It's sad that this needs to be pointed out, but I agree wholeheartedly. I do doubt it will be treated as a terrorist act by mainstream media, but it needs to be. Activity like this is absolutely unacceptable.

Their sheer inability to see the pregnant woman as a human being deserving of a life-saving procedure really blows my mind. To think that we are even engaging these "pro-life" monsters in dialogue and asking them to please use political means simply goes to show that even the most inhuman and disgusting viewpoints can masquerade as legitimate concerns by donning the garb of religious morality.

I do not condone the murder of Dr. Tiller, but in all honesty we have to recognize that late term abortion of a viable human being is plain murder. DNA science has proven tha the child in his/hers mother's womb, is a complety separate person than the woman. Late term abortion needs to be banned. This is how late term abortion looks like:

www.antiabortionsigns.com/catalog.html

America will not reject abortion, until America sees abortion

Thanks, Mark. A donation of $20 to Medical Students for Choice has just been made in your honor.

Very well written and kinder than I would state it.

May I quote you (with credit and a link provided)?

As Theodor Roszak had Daniel say in "The Devil and Daniel Silverman", putting out gory pictures without context is no valid argument. And I suggest to Mark to do a little Google resarch about pre-eclampsia and how a woman can still, today, die through pregnancy. Or why parents choose not to let a child be born with incurable genetic defects that will make it suffer and die anyway.

Lisa, please feel free to quote (and credit, and link) me.

To those of you who expressed a desire to fake-troll for the donations, don't fear: I'm already donating the proceeds from my May blogging to Medical Students for Choice. The real trolls are just adding to that in $20 increments.

please listen to yourselves,iam against abortion and personnally not sorry over his death,,,you call it violent to shot dr tiller,i call it murder to abort but you would never listen and in the mean time lets go for a hundred million abortions. tom harrelson

Thank you Mark! You helped encourage me to make a donation to Medical Students for Choice, even though I've been laid off for quite a while. You, as well as many other clueless people, ONLY see the fetus. You totally ignore ANYTHING that the mother is dealing with. She becomes an incubator, nothing more. In fact, if one has to die, people like you would rather the mother die (although usually, if the mother dies, the fetus dies as well). You have to look at the WHOLE picture for each individual. And if YOU are not the one pregnant, the father, or the doctor, it's not your business anyway.

Thanks, Tom Harrelson. A donation of $20 to Medical Students for Choice has just been made in your honor.

Thanks for this post, Janet.

Clinton Combs' comment really rubbed me the wrong way- at a time like this when a brave human being has just been violently murdered for helping women through incredibly difficult circumstances, you think it's appropriate to pontificate about how abortion "may be" morally wrong and mourn that abortions are only necessary because of unideal circumstances?

Try imagining yourself in a woman's shoes and reread your comment. You lay the blame entirely on the woman when you say "Perhaps the choice to have an abortion is one of those times when a woman falls short of an impossible moral standard." As if it's her fault that the fetus had a life-threatening condition that forced her to make that choice! Please realize that as Janet described in the post, late-term abortion is not a decision that is made lightly. It is done to save lives.
And your statement that abortions wouldn't be needed if only there was "no rape, no deformities, no young women seeking assurance and love in the act of sex without commitment" is really frustrating. Sure, I'd love to live in a world without rape, and there is much to be done to try to achieve that. It's silly to even talk about a world without genetic defects, though, since they're inherent in living organisms. And to act as though premarital sex is all young women's fault - well, it takes two to tango. I'm sick of society's double standard for sexual activity.

I realize that overall your comment was not intended to say that abortion is evil, but rather to acknowledge the complexity of the issue. But right now, just after an assassination, is not when I want to hear about the complexity of the issue. I don't want to throw any fodder to the "pro-life" murderers. I want supporters of choice to speak out firmly and say yes, we believe that women have the right to decide to obtain abortions when they need them, and we believe that doctors who provide that service to women in need are heroes.

@ Jessica

> You lay the blame entirely on the woman when
> you say "Perhaps the choice to have an
> abortion is one of those times when a woman
> falls short of an impossible moral standard."

I think that depends upon whether or not you're placing the emphasis on "falls short" vs. "impossible". But Mr. Combs can probably defend his own comments.

@ Janet

This is one of those dicey moments when I'm not entirely certain (at this stage) that I'd conflate a deliberate murder with terrorism. Yes, I agree, the outcome of the action is certainly equivalent to the outcome of terrorist action, but I don't know that Scott Roeder (the alleged murderer) qualifies as anything more than a degenerate murderer who is also an accidental terrorist.

Certainly, we'll know better once more details come to light, but generally these sorts of murders are considered by the perpetrators to be acts of retribution, not political action statements. Roeder probably thinks of himself as some divinely inspired angel of vengeance, and chose the site of the attack with that in mind, instead of for the calculated effect it would have.

Now, on the other hand, people like Dave Leach, who has been quoted after this event as saying, 'To call this a crime is too simplistic,' adding, 'There is Christian scripture that would support this.' (http://www.towleroad.com/2009/06/suspect-identified-in-abortion-doctor-…), *that* is an actual act of terrorism.

It bothers me, though, that people who usually commit these sorts of acts are the ones labeled as terrorists, since they're usually just scumbag murderers, when the people who are actually leveraging the action itself as a political statement (and thus, to my way of thinking, are the actual "terrorists") aren't.

It is surely one goal and effect of terrorism to target individuals in order to cow an entire group. In that sense, anti-abortion violence has been terrorism for a long time since increasingly, physicians do not want to provide abortions nor work in abortion clinics out of fear for themselves, their staff and their families. The U.S. frequently likes to say it "won't negotiate with terrorists" and "won't let the terrorists win." But in terms of anti-abortion "terrorism", the feds HAVE let them make great inroads into abortion access in the U.S. I believe there are enough federal statutes to protect providers from this terrorism, but there has never been a matching will. As a pro-choice activist, I monitor anti-abortion Web sites. I know they target people, identifying them, detailing where they live, where they work, where their children go to school etc. And call them mass murderers, liken them to Hitler, liken what they do to a holocaust. If there were Web sites from so-called Islamic terrorists targeting specific Americans (or almost any other group) in this way, we can be certain action would be taken. (I'm reminded that this past week, six men who ran an Islamic charity, the Holy Land Foundation, were given stiff jail sentences for allegedly supporting Hamas.) I suppose I am not surprised that a nation that can debate whether or not torture *works* would debate whether or not, as the Times "Opinionator" headlined it, this murder was "moral". But I am infinitely saddened by it. That said, I will redouble my efforts for choice as a result of this murder.

@#5 - Extremely thoughtful and well put. I was disappointed to find no link to a blog - if you don't have one, you should. I was also disappointed what you said about prayer and seeking mercy...it seemed to mute the excellent point you made about humans being held to impossibly high ethical standards by the same god you ask for mercy. The fact that we are held to an impossibly high standard seems to speak for itself: if there is a god, he is anything but merciful.

Other than that, amazing points.

I find it inculpable that someone who rallies under a banner of being Pro-Life would have zero difficulty in murdering another human being. I would much rather this person who shot Dr. Tiller devote energy towards reducing the need for abortions in the United States by support crisis pregnancy centers and care for children under the age of 5. So many pro-life persons detract from the cause by resorting to such dehumanizing tactics. Personally, I would not qualify removal of the body of a miscarried child as an abortion and can see where such a situation would constitute an urgent medical need.

The sad thing is that most of the people who think it is good that Dr Tiller is dead don't really know what he did. They think they do. They believe the propaganda that late-term abortions are all just unwed mothers who for some mysterious reason did not avail themselves of an earlier abortion and now wish to be rid of their perfectly viable fetus. But this is not the case. These are cases where there is a medical problem of some kind. The decision of whether or not to abort is a difficult one. I know two women who had the option to abort because of difficulties. One was my mother-in-law, who developed hepatitis. She decided to stick it out, and my husband was born successfully. (She later did have to have an actual abortion, when her second child died in the womb. That allowed her to get pregnant again and produce my brother-in-law.) The other was a friend who had triplets (naturally conceived), one of whom was sickly. Doctors advised reduction for the sake of the others. After extensive thought, she and her husband decided to decline reduction, and instead chose to closely monitor the condition of the other babies. Their condition did not deteriorate, and amazingly, she managed to carry them all to 36 weeks. (And actually attended church the weekend before they were born! I was very impressed.) The weak one did require surgery once he was strong enough, but is doing very well now.

But I would certainly have understood if the mothers had chosen the other way. I know one mother who did. She had a late-term abortion because she had a very serious illness which could only be treated with a drug that would certainly severely cripple the child, and probably kill it. She chose to have an abortion, got the life-saving treatment, and later went on to have two more beautiful babies who would not have been born otherwise.

And I knew a woman who also made the reverse choice -- she had cancer, and was terminal. Chemo could prolong her life, but would seriously harm and probably kill her fetus. Given that she would only extend her life by maybe a year, she decided to keep the baby and refuse the chemo. She died about a week after he was born, leaving her husband a new single father. I deeply respect the courage that decision took; she knew she would die either way, and at least this way she left a legacy for her husband, and that is how he treated it. He loves that boy with all his heart.

Each decision is different. I do not approve of abortion simply as birth control; I think very few people do (with the exception of the Chinese authorities, naturally, who, in their defense, have a pretty much insurmountable population problem to deal with). I would hope that our society would start to support women enough that they did not feel that this was their only option in a time of crisis. Like it or not, although women technically are in control of their bodies, they still face severe social repercussions for doing what comes naturally with them. Legislating abortion away would not solve that, and it would threaten the lives of women who have the *really* difficult decisions to make -- the women who have to decide whether or not to stay pregnant when the pregnancy poses a serious risk to them. Therefore, I remain firmly convinced that the decision must be between a woman and her doctor, with the doctor guided by medical ethics -- admittedly, not perfect and not immutable, but the best guide we've got.

Elyse -- the Christian tradition is not that God is "anything but merciful". It's that striving for perfection is a foolish way to seek His grace, partly because we can't achieve perfection but mostly because God's already given us His grace, with no strings attached. It's us who keep insisting on perfection, not God.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 02 Jun 2009 #permalink

@ Alison

> It is surely one goal and effect of terrorism to
> target individuals in order to cow an entire group.

Sure, that's the actual primary goal.

> In that sense, anti-abortion violence has been
> terrorism for a long time.

I understand the point, but I disagree with the characterization via "practical effects" without taking into account the planned effects. I think it's somewhat irresponsible because it's a context-changing use of language. Someone who plans to do something because of the political effect can be countered one way. Someone who plans to do something because he thinks he's an agent of vengeance can't be countered the same way.

Terrorism, as classically defined, is a particular social problem, with particular social causes and particular social effects. All of those things lead one to formulate a strategy to deal with the problem.

Murder, on the other hand, is a different social problem, with different social causes and different social effects. All of those things lead one to formulate a different strategy to deal with the problem.

Conflating the two is just going to lead to bad strategy, and plans that don't deal effectively with the respective problems.

For example, you say, "If there were Web sites from so-called Islamic terrorists targeting specific Americans in this way, we can be certain action would be taken." That's probably true, but that speaks more to the fact that Americans are unjustifiably terrified of anything that seems to be Islamic and fundamentalist rather than unjustifiably under-emphasizing anti-abortion tactics. The reality of anti-abortion activists is that nearly all of them are vocal blowhards who are not actually committed to action without really significant direct intervention (much like most of the people that have been arrested for "terrorism" in the U.S. since 9/11).

"Taking action" against anti-abortion sites is probably going to lead to the exact opposite effect you want; you're going to increase the persecution complex, increase the conspiracy complex, and thus, while weeding out the vast majority of the vocal (but unlikely to turn violent) anti-abortion crowd, you're unfortunately providing precisely the direct intervention that can push those who *are* likely to turn violent right over the edge.

I'm not saying that the effect isn't similar to terrorism; animal researchers (for example, see Janet's other threads on that here) have the same imposed fear that pro-choice doctors have. But you have to tackle that problem by a hearts-and-minds campaign.

Pat, I see your point about the distinction, but I'm not sure I agree that anti-abortion violence so clearly falls into the "standard murder" rather than "terrorism" camp. The individual loons who kill abortion doctors may see themselves more as "avenging angels" than agents of political change, but so, as we know increasingly, do the individual loons who strap bombs to themselves and get on an airplane.

But stopping individual loons won't stop anti-abortion violence (or Islamist terrorism, for that matter), because there are *always more loons*. It's the people who deliberately whip the loons into a frenzy that need to be stopped, and they almost certainly meet any reasonable definition of "terrorists." They are *not* simply angling for vengeance; they are without question trying to spread fear.

You've got to be careful here, because it's sometimes a fine-ish line between rhetoric and incitement, but the line does exist. While I wouldn't advocate "taking action" against arbitrary anti-abortion sites (and I don't think it would be constitutionally legal to do so), sites that meet the legal criteria for incitement (and these sites do exist) should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. I'm not a lawyer, but I think stating that a particular person should be killed, that anyone who kills a particular person would be a hero, etc comes at least very close to these criteria.

@#24 Calli Arcale

I was responding to #5, who seems to have a completely different interpretation of the Christian god than you do...who is this Christian god anyway? For each person you ask, each will have a different answer.

He has given us grace with no strings attached? Jesus subjected himself to human sacrifice and then said, worship me the rest of your days and for eternity or you will burn in eternal hellfire (Jesus' version, not O.T. god). I wouldn't call that "no strings attached." In fact, that seems to be the very definition of strings attached. That is like me doing you a favor without asking you if you wanted the favor, and then saying you were legally required to pay me $1,000 dollars for the favor or you will go to prison.

Strings are definitely attached.

@ Avrom

> The individual loons who kill abortion doctors
> may see themselves more as "avenging angels"
> than agents of political change, but so, as
> we know increasingly, do the individual loons
> who strap bombs to themselves and get on an
> airplane.

Point of fact, most suicide bombers don't see themselves as agents of political change. The ones that see themselves as agents of political change are those people who convince 12-20 year old poor and uneducated individuals that strapping a bomb on their body and blowing themselves up with a bunch of bystanders is a fulfilling religious exercise. The psychology of the suicide bomber is a fascinating area of research (if you can read this sort of thing without having your brain turn bleak and cynical), like the psychology of the serial killer.

> It's the people who deliberately whip the
> loons into a frenzy that need to be stopped,
> and they almost certainly meet any reasonable
> definition of "terrorists." They are *not*
> simply angling for vengeance; they are without
> question trying to spread fear.

That's my point.

Unfortunately, I'm not entirely convinced that this societal problem is something that is best "fixed" through the avenue of the law. Criminalizing hate speech and incitement has a bad historical record of working the way you want it to, and usually comes accompanied with lots of unintended consequences that you don't want.

After reading the comments here, I don't have much hope in getting through to any of you. But abortion is murder, and a late-term one, an abomination. There is no difference between a preemie and a late-term baby except that one is given rights and care and the other is not.

All the rationalizations in the world are not going to change that fact, or whitewash the gore and anguish involved. Protecting the few who allegedly require an abortion for "medical reasons" has opened the way for rampant murder of viable babies.

You can read on my weblog why it is wrong, terribly wrong.
http://cabbagejuice.wordpress.com/2009/06/07/the-murderous-hypocrisy-of…
His condoned abortion factory was a grotesque example of "science without ethics".