George Tiller, an abortion provider in Wichita, Kan., was shot and killed this morning at his church. Police have a suspect in custody — a 51-year-old male — according to the Kansas City Star.
Tiller, 67, was shot just after 10 a.m. in the lobby of Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, where he was a member of the congregation.
Tiller was serving as an usher at the church, one of six ushers listed in the church bulletin. He was handing out bulletins to people going into the sanctuary minutes before being shot.
Tiller’s family issued a statement through Wichita attorneys Dan Monnat and Lee Thompson.
“Today we mourn the loss of our husband, father and grandfather. Today’s event is an unspeakable tragedy for all of us and for George’s friends and patients.
“This is particularly heart wrenching because George was shot down in his house of worship, a place of peace.”
In March, Tiller was found not guilty of illegal abortion. He had faced 19 criminal charges for allegedly violating a state law requiring an “independent” second physician’s concurring opinion before performing later term abortions.
“Tiller, 67, is one of a handful of doctors in the country who terminate very late-term pregnancies and has virtually become public enemy No. 1 to those who oppose abortion. For years, prosecutors and activists have tried to bring him down, and for years, Tiller has survived legal and physical challenges,” wrote Robin Abcarian in a L.A. Times story previewing the trial.
Tiller was shot in both arms in 1993; Rachelle Shannon remains in jail for the shooting. The clinic was bombed in June 1986, and vandals caused extensive damage, including flooding, to the building earlier this month.
“For almost two decades, Dr. Tiller and those individuals who helped provide care to his patients have lived under intense harassment tinged with persistent threats of violence,” Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement issued today. “Even under these adverse circumstances, Dr. Tiller never wavered in his commitment to providing abortion services and other reproductive health care to women and their families, often in the most difficult and heart-breaking circumstances.”
Operation Rescue, the militant anti-abortion group that harassed George Tiller for years, released a statement that read in part: “Operation Rescue has worked for years through peaceful, legal means, and through the proper channels to see him brought to justice. We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place this morning. We pray for Mr. Tiller’s family that they will find comfort and healing that can only be found in Jesus Christ.”
That bit of insincerity prompted this response from Kansas City Star editorial page columnist Barb Shelly:
Operation Rescue denounces vigilantism? Since when? Since today, obviously.
The “Tiller Watch” page is no longer available of Operation Rescue’s website. But this is a group that made it its business to learn the identities of Tiller’s family and employees. It publicized their home addresses and, yes, it publicized where Tiller went to church. It made the fight personal. [...]
They should not be surprised, or pretend to be appalled, upon learning the news that Sunday, in a house of worship, a murderer got too close.
Plus: The Associated Press put together a list of recent cases of abortion-related violence.
Update: I came across Tiller’s own story of why, despite the picketing and the violence, he continued to provide abortion services to women.
Tiller didn’t go into medicine to perform abortions; in fact, he planned on starting his residency in dermatology. Then his father, also a physician, died in a plane crash, and Tiller took over his family practice. Soon patients asked if he would perform abortions, like his father did. The news shocked him.
I began to ask some of these women. And I found out that in 1945, ’46, or ’47, a young woman for whom Dad had already delivered two babies came to him pregnant again right away, and she said something to the effect that, “I can’t take it, can you help me?” That is apparently the way you asked for an abortion from your regular doctor before abortion was legal. Dad said, “No. Big families are in vogue, by the time the baby gets here, everything will be all right.” She had a non-healthcare provider abortion and came back and died.
I can understand how upset my father was. I do not know whether he did 100 abortions or 200 abortions or 300 abortions. I think it may have been something like 200 over a period of about 20 years, but I don’t know for sure. The women in my father’s practice for whom he did abortions educated me and taught me that abortion is about women’s hopes, dreams, potential, the rest of their lives. Abortion is a matter of survival for women.
When it became legal and my patients began to ask for it, I’d say, “Sure. It’s a legal process.” I was a service provider. I was a physician. The patients needed abortions, and I did them. It is my fundamental philosophy that patients are emotionally, mentally, morally, spiritually and physically competent to struggle with complex health issues and come to decisions that are appropriate for them.
Tiller goes on to talk about the harassment he and his family (he had four children) faced daily — and what it was like always being on alert. After recalling the shooting attempt on his life in 1993, Tiller concludes with words that are hauntingly poignant:
I am a member of this community. Our DNA has been here since 1880. I belong here. The folks that come in from out of town, they are the intruders. Forty percent of all the people who were arrested here during the Operation Rescue in 1991 came from out of state. I intend to stay here. I am part of the fabric of Kansas and Kansas is part of the fabric of me.
I have more to be grateful for than I have to be resentful about. We have much more support in Wichita than we have rejection and castigation. If Wichita and our community did not want us to be here, I wouldn’t be here. But the vast majority of people in Wichita support, on a quiet level, what we do, which is help women and families.