The Associated Press has received 287 pages of documents from the FBI file about threats to Dr. Tiller’s life after making a Freedom of Information Act request. The documents are heavily redacted and about half the pages in the file remain secret. But they show a decade of harassment and death threats that led to Dr. Tiller’s murder in 2009. Some of the documents may speak to communication between Shelley Shannon, who shot Dr. Tiller in both arms in 1993, and another potential assassin. The documents are full of threats to Dr. Tiller’s life coming from a number of mentally unstable individuals.
I imagine most folks in the reproductive health, rights and justice communities reacted to these documents the same way I did: duh. Carole Joffe, who studies the conflict around abortion in the US, outlines the threats documented by Guttmacher Institute, Feminist Majority Foundation, and the National Abortion Federation in an article at RH Reality Check. Here’s just a sampling:
88 percent of abortion clinics experienced at least one form of harassment in 2008, most commonly picketing, but—notably—42 percent reported picketing that also involved patient blocking. Nearly one fifth of clinics reported vandalism…
[B]esides the 8 murders, there have been 17 attempted murders, 175 incidents of arson, 41 bombings, 1429 incidents of vandalism, 2057 cases of trespassing, 661 anthrax threats, 526 cases of stalking, and 416 death threats.
I wrote last week about Operation Rescue setting up shop across the street from Dr. Carhart’s clinic and how terrifying this is to those who know the history of violence against abortion providers. I often hesitate to use the word “terrorism,” since it’s been so disconnected from its actual meaning in the current racist context and come to stand for “Muslim” or “Arab.” But this is the reality of the anti-choice movement. Its leaders call providers murderers, compare them to the worst war criminals and say the world would be better off without them. Of course they publicly condemn murder, but this is in contrast to everything else they say. Anti-choice foot soldiers harass patients outside clinics and try to block access to medical care. And of course the most mentally unstable anti-choicers are pushed to violence. Leaders may claim they have nothing to do with this, but they’re all to happy to share the location of clinics, providers homes, where they go to church. All the while they claim to be doing a Christian God’s good work against absolute evil. This is domestic terrorism, plain and simple.
I do not believe the majority of those who identify as pro-life are horrible people. I believe their views come from a place of compassion and care coupled with a complete lack of understanding of the reality of abortion. An angry, dogmatic, violent fringe is allowed to speak for all of them. Meanwhile, supporters of abortion access are represented by entrenched leaders in Washington who have barely changed their rhetoric or tactics since Roe. The result is that we do not have a real conversation about abortion in the US, just empty rhetoric being hurled back and forth, which is the perfect context for this medical procedure to be fought over like it’s the center of a violent war.
I know the power of talking about the reality of abortion with anti-choice folks. I know because I used to identify as pro-life and caring people changed my views. I know because I have had open and honest conversations about abortion with self-identified pro-lifers whose beliefs and political views changed when they learned about the reality of abortion and reproductive health care in general, despite still identifying as pro-life. I believe this is what needs to happen on a large scale, that we desperately need to stop hiding from reality and have an honest conversation about abortion in all of its complexity. Because the fact that Dr Tiller, a compassionate, spiritual man who colleagues called St. George to his face was murdered for providing life affirming medical care is beyond heartbreaking. Because anti-choice leaders would love to see a repeat of this travesty. There is a war waging around abortion, and we must replace violent extremism with honest, compassionate, reality-based dialogue and policies if we are ever going to escape the horrendous context abortion exists in right now.