Ten years ago today, Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider who specialized in providing abortions later in pregnancy, was assassinated in the foyer of his church. He was handing out bulletins to his fellow churchgoers when he was shot at point-blank range by an anti-choice terrorist. His wife, another member of the church, was present when he died.
While many anti-choice advocates denounced the violence that took Dr. Tiller from his wife, his children, his patients, and his community, the so-called pro-life movement is historically rooted in violence. It relies on violence. It is violence, because it is only through acts of violence against abortion providers, clinics, and pregnant people who seek abortion services, not only through outwardly dangerous actions but via anti-abortion legislations, that the movement maintains its near-consistent, and now exacerbated, attack on the constitutional right to abortion.
Since 1977, there have been 11 murders, 26 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 188 arsons, and thousands of incidents of criminal activities directed at abortion providers, according to the National Abortion Federation (NAF). And, in 2019, the amount of anti-choice harassment directed at abortion providers, clinics, and people who seek abortion services has only continued to rise.
"Always having to look over your shoulder, to wonder if someone is watching you or wants to cause you harm, is exactly what the anti-abortion fanatics want. The point of terrorism is to make people fearful all the time," Dr. Diane Horvath, OB-GYN and abortion provider in Maryland and Fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, tells Mic via email. "No pregnant person should have to experience violence while getting routine medical care."
Pregnant people are, though. In 2018, there were more than 1,135 reported incidents of trespassing at clinics that provide abortions by anti-choice protestors, according to the NAF's annual report. That number surpassed all reported trespassing instances at clinics that provide abortion since 1999, the first year the organization started tabulating instances of criminal trespassing. The same report found that instances of obstruction at health care facilities — protestors trying to block patients from accessing care — nearly doubled, and, again, was the highest number since NAF started tracking the number in 2012. There were also a reported 99,409 instances of picketing at clinics that provide abortion, beating any previous year of reported incidences since NAF started tracking the number... in 1977.
"The hostility and harassment that physicians face and abortion providers in general face from protestors at clinics all the way to politicians and state houses, has grown out of control," Jodi Magee, President and CEO of Physicians for Reproductive Health (PRH), who worked with Dr. Tiller when he was on the board of directors for PRH, tells Mic via phone.
"The political rhetoric around these issues in the last couple of years has just heightened extraordinarily and that’s dangerous, " says Magee. "It’s dangerous for abortion providers, and it’s dangerous for people seeking abortion care. No one should have to think twice about going to their doctor to get the care they need. Abortion is health care. Nobody should be intimidated out of receiving it, nobody should be intimidated out of providing it. Politicians have to get out of the exam room and let trained medical professionals do what they were trained to do."
But politicians aren't staying out of the exam room. In fact, they're impeding on the doctor/patient relationship with shameless impunity. Twenty-seven abortion bans have been enacted across 12 states so far in 2019. An astounding 15 states have introduced, moved, or enacted six-week abortion bans in 2019: Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. These bans make abortion illegal before most people are capable of knowing they're pregnant. And between January 1, 2019 and May 20, 2019, 378 abortion restrictions have been introduced across the United States — 40 percent of them have been abortion bans.
These bans are now legal, and are what anti-choice champions consider to be a "win" for the so-called "pro-life" movement. Sue Swayze Liebel, who runs the National Pro-Life Women's Caucus for Susan B. Anthony List, told The New York Times of the recent influx in near-total abortion bans, “Everybody just put the pedal down, let’s all go, everybody rushing to the finish line.”
But make no mistake, these bans are, in and of themselves, an inherent and blatant act of violence; the same kind of violence that killed Dr. Tiller; the same kind of violence the anti-choice movement tries so diligently to distance itself from but perpetuates with impunity.
When the United States has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed nations, forcing a pregnant person to remain pregnant against their will is, in no uncertain terms, an act of violence. And considering black women face higher rates of maternal mortality — a black woman is three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy- or birth-related complications than a white woman — this violence is disproportionately directed at black and brown pregnant bodies.
When studies have shown that people who are denied abortion care face higher risks of developing mental health issues like depression, are at a higher risk of living in poverty, and their children are at a higher risk of failing to reach developmental milestones on time, forcing someone to carry an unwanted or non-viable pregnancy to term is violence.
When studies have shown that the states with the most strict anti-abortion legislations also have the highest rates of maternal and infant mortality, and are least likely to provide health care for mothers, babies, and families, forcing a pregnant person to carry that pregnancy to term is an act of violence.
When a reported 200 people died from unsafe abortions in the year 1965, a year the anti-choice movement is tirelessly trying to push the country back into, anti-abortion legislation is an act of violence.
For so many pregnant people, the government forcing them to carry a pregnancy to term is, in fact, a death sentence. It's the death of the life they have worked tirelessly to create for themselves. It's the death of the lives they've tried to create for the children they've already had, especially since 59 percent of people who have abortions have at least one child at home. And for so many pregnant people, especially black and brown people who face increased incidences of discrimination in medical settings, it can mean actual death, as in, the end of people's lives.
This is why, 10 years later, the life, death, and legacy of Dr. Tiller feels more important to acknowledge than ever before.
"He was a symbol of somebody who just wouldn’t back down, and was unfazed by people attempting to shut his medical services down," Magee says. "He saw abortion as intricate to health care, and so I think his impact, by doing that, was that he stood as a symbol as a way to make your way forward despite the taunts, harassment, and violence that he was at target of."
When asked about how Dr. Tiller would respond to the recent attacks on the constitutional access to abortion, Magee audibly sighs. She doesn't like guessing how those her and her community have lost would react to the current political climate. But she does make one thing clear.
"The fact that political rhetoric has ramped up is totally unacceptable, and I think the care our current physicians continue to provide their patients espouses the same principles that George embodied 15 years ago, 10 years ago.
The way he lived his life speaks to the way he would’ve continued to live his life."