The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent

Anti-Abortion Groups Dodge Fallout From Tiller Murder

Anti-abortion activists recall Clinton-era consequences to rise in abortion clinic violence.

Daniel James
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | Jun 03, 2009

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/06/bauerterry.jpgGary Bauer and Randall Terry (American Values, Wikimedia)

On Sunday, when he heard that abortion doctor George Tiller had been murdered outside of his Wichita, Kans. church, Fr. Frank Pavone was “overcome by sadness.” He had opposed Tiller’s work vociferously, for many years. But he didn’t want the fight against his late-term abortion practice to end like this.

“I wanted to come to a legal peaceful way of stopping Tiller’s activities,” Pavone told TWI. “I believe that we were closing in on the revocation of his medical license. So I reacted with sadness. I knew the circus was about to begin.”

Image by: Matt Mahurin
Image by: Matt Mahurin

The “circus” is what many anti-abortion activists are bracing for in the wake of the first murder of an abortion doctor since 1998. Every major anti-abortion group responded to Sunday’s events, almost all of them condemning alleged murderer Scott Roeder. “Violence is never an answer in advancing the pro-life message,” said Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) in a statement. The National Right to Life Committee extended “sympathies to Dr. Tiller’s family.” Phill Kline, the hard-line conservative Kansas lawyer who repeatedly sued for Tiller’s patient records, called the murder a “lawless and violent act” that “should be met with the full force of law.” All of this was aimed to pre-empt charges that the broader anti-abortion movement should share the blame for what happened.

Activists are not yet sure how the Tiller murder has altered the landscape of abortion politics. A spokesman for one major anti-abortion group, who chose to remain anonymous, said that reaction would be limited to a short statement because “this was a horrendous tragedy, a heinous act, and we’re not fielding questions about some kook who doesn’t represent our organization or anti-abortion movement in any way.” Other spokesmen dismissed the immediate response of Randall Terry, the anti-aboriton activist who called Tiller a “mass murderer” at a hastily assembled Monday press conference, as a ploy for attention that put unneeded political heat on the rest of the movement.

One reason for the relative hush is that movement veterans recall how, in the 1990s, attacks on abortion providers gave rise to new laws protecting their businesses from protests and aggressively going after radical anti-abortion activists. In 1994, after a wave of attacks on abortion clinics, President Bill Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act to ban protests that restricted doctors and patients from entering clinics. Four years later Attorney General Janet Reno set up a task force to monitor violence against abortion providers — a strategy that The New York Times asked current Attorney General Eric Holder to revisit.

Anti-abortion leaders quickly got out front to denounce the idea of a large-scale response to Tiller. Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, the head of the Christian Defense Coalition, staged a protest outside of the Supreme Court asking Barack Obama and Democrats “not to repeat the mistakes of the Clinton administration in the mid-’90s and use this tragedy for political gain.” One of the chief worries among activists — whether Obama will revisit a pledge he made to Planned Parenthood during the 2008 campaign and push for the Freedom of Choice Act, a bill that would roll back Bush-era federal restrictions on abortion.

“I wouldn’t put it past abortion advocates in Congress to use this tragedy to put more protections in place for the so-called right to choose,” said Frank Pavone. “That would just feed into the problem. There’s a lot of disappointment and frustration out there as a result of 2008 elections. People feel desperate. I’m not justifying what happened to Tiller at all when I say that it’s not surprising that a pattern begins to develop — the administration is hostile to the anti-abortion movement, there are acts of violence from people who feel helpless.”

As of Tuesday, there was no sign that the anti-abortion movement’s foes in Congress were acting out the way that Pavone expected. In March, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) hinted that FOCA would be introduced “sooner rather than later” for a new vote. But Nadler spokesman Ilan Kayatsky said that there were no discussions of FOCA after the news of Tiller’s murder broke, just as Congress was returning from a weeklong recess. “The reasons to re-introduce FOCA at some point,” said Kayatsky, “will be the same reasons that preceded this murder.”

Without legislation to respond to and oppose, anti-abortion activists have begun to push back against the news that Department of Justice dispatched federal marshals to protect abortion clinics that requested extra, temporary security. That has been interpreted in some anti-abortion circles as a warning to opponents of administration policy. And the murder of a military recruiter in Little Rock — Muslim convert Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad is the suspect — has prodded activists to portray coverage of Tiller’s murder as unfairly slanted and overblown. Jill Stanek, an anti-abortion blogger and activist who gained fame in 2008 after arguing that Barack Obama had effectively supported infanticide as a state senator, responded to the Little Rock murders with a simple, unsubtle question: “Where are Obama and Holder?” Gary Bauer, the president of American Values, told TWI that the “benefit of the doubt” was given to Islamic terrorists but not to anti-abortion extremists. Reporters, said Bauer, ask whether anti-abortion extremists are “linked to pro-life groups,” while assuming that suspects like Abdulhakim Muhammad were acting alone.

“It would be interesting to see whether or not the attorney general will now send marshals to protect military recruiting stations,” said Bauer. “There’s hypocrisy here from the people who are screaming out about the brutal descrution of George Tiller’s life, who then spend the rest of the year talking about how the destruction of unborn children is a Constitutional right.”

Joseph M. Scheidler, the national director of the Pro-Life Action League, argued that the reaction to Tiller — including the federal marshals — was “just a show,” and no different from how “the abortionists blame the pro-life movement for everything, anyway.”

“It’s like the swine flu,” said Scheidler. “It’s something for the press to get people to focus on so they don’t obsess over the declining economic conditions.”

By the close of Tuesday, anti-abortion activists had moved from messages of condolence for Tiller to aggressive pushback on any use of the murder as a political issue. Manny Miranda, the chairman of the Third Branch Conference, suggested that the murder might have disrupted the ability of anti-abortion activists to push Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor on their issue “had it come up at a more proximate moment.” Since conservatives will have time to move on from the murder, the issue and the circus around it may end up starved for attention.

“It’s going to be a month and a half or two months until the hearings,” said Miranda, who has wrangled dozens of anti-abortion activists into a coalition demanding a “democratic filibuster” of the nominee. “It would be foul play to bring up the Tiller thing, just as if somebody wanted to bring up how late-term abortions are performed in utero. You just don’t play it like that.”

Daniel James | Daniel James is an author, keynote speaker, and entrepreneur who is a professional coach and gerontologist. Daniel holds a bachelor's degree from Georgia Tech, a master's degree from UCLA, a diploma in gerontology from the University of Boston, as well as a Professional Coaching Certification.


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