Lauren Rankin is a freelance writer and a clinic escort at an independent abortion clinic in northern New Jersey.
Ten years ago today, George Tiller, a Kansas abortion provider, was handing out the bulletin in his longtime church when he was shot and killed. On May 31, 2009, he became the eighth abortion provider to be murdered by antiabortion terrorists. A decade later, his legacy is under dire and escalating threat. But those of us inspired by his motto, “Trust women,” aren’t going anywhere. We should take the anniversary of Tiller’s death as a reminder of what we’re up against, and his life as a source of courage to continue his work.
Tiller, one of the few remaining providers of later abortions in the country, had long been in the quite literal crosshairs of targeted antiabortion harassment and violence. In 1986, a pipe bomb ripped through his clinic, Women’s Health Care Services, and destroyed much of it. During the now-infamous so-called Summer of Mercy in 1991, Operation Rescue, a radical antiabortion protest group, blockaded Tiller’s clinic for nearly six weeks, rendering it incapable of functioning and wreaking havoc on patients, staff and the community. Two years later, Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon, a member of an antiabortion terrorist group known as the “Army of God,” shot Tiller in both arms in a failed assassination attempt. He returned to work two days later.
The protesters who flocked to Tiller’s clinic didn’t get the idea to go there on their own.
Because Tiller unapologetically performed abortions later in pregnancy than many providers are willing or able to do, he was targeted by conservative media. Former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly, in particular, led a smear campaign that almost obsessively targeted Tiller. In the four years leading up to Tiller’s assassination, O’Reilly mentioned Tiller in 29 different episodes of his ratings juggernaut “The O’Reilly Factor.” He famously mocked Tiller as “Tiller the Baby Killer,” and even went so far as to say, “And if I could get my hands on Tiller — well, you know. Can’t be vigilantes. Can’t do that. It’s just a figure of speech. But despicable? Oh, my God. Oh, it doesn’t get worse. Does it get worse? No.”
That rhetoric had consequences then. And the language abortion opponents use has only become more inflammatory.
In 2015, Robert Lewis Dear walked into a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, killed three people, including a police officer, and wounded nine others. Dear, who kept mentioning “baby parts,” and exclaimed in court that he was “a warrior for the babies,” was referencing an antiabortion smear campaign featuring doctored videos of abortion providers that made it seem as if Planned Parenthood sold fetal part for profit. This was patently false but hideously effective in tarnishing Planned Parenthood’s reputation — and in helping inspire Dear to commit mass murder.
Since then, the climate for abortion providers has become more hostile as rates of harassment and violence against abortion clinics have continued to rise. According to the Feminist Majority Foundation, which tracks antiabortion violence annually, in 2018, nearly half of abortion clinics in the United States experienced at least one incident of severe violence, threats of severe violence and/or severe harassment. Not only that, but nearly 1 in 4 abortion clinics experienced the most severe types of threats and violence, including death threats, stalking and blocking clinic access.
Abortion patients and providers also face new logistical hurdles to obtaining care. Roe v. Wade is in serious jeopardy. Seven states (Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, Georgia, Alabama, Missouri and Louisiana) have now signed into law total or near-total abortion bans, all of which are intentionally unconstitutional and designed to finally force the Supreme Court to overturn this landmark legislation. Seven states have “trigger laws” that, as soon as Roe v. Wade is overturned, would immediately ban abortion in the state. Missouri’s last abortion clinic was saved from closing its doors at the 11th hour Friday by a judge, but that stay is only temporary.
These laws have a direct impact on the environment outside of clinics. I’ve seen this escalation in rhetoric firsthand. For the past five and a half years, I’ve served as a volunteer clinic escort at an independent abortion clinic in northern New Jersey.
Our protesters often cite antiabortion policies from the Trump administration, such as the domestic gag rule, which would bar Title X funding for abortion providers. They feel emboldened by this administration and by the draconian abortion bans sweeping the Southeast and Midwest. As these cases wind their way through the courts, the climate at clinics will likely get worse.
The ultimate cost of antiabortion harassment and violence is, of course, to the patient. Simply by trying to access a health-care service that has been legal for nearly half a century, a patient accidentally ends up in the middle of a war zone. Protesters scream that she’s a murderer, that she’s going to hell. They film her and plaster her image across the Internet. They thrust gruesome signs into her face and beg her partner not to let her murder the baby. It’s a battle no pregnant person should have to fight.
That is precisely why Tiller didn’t stop fighting to provide abortion care. After his clinic was bombed in 1986, Tiller hung a sign outside the rubble that said "Hell, No. We Won't Go!”
And neither will we.