George Tiller, the Kansas doctor notorious for his commitment to performing late-term abortions, was killed May 31 while attending a Sunday morning church service.
By his count, Tiller performed 60,000 abortions. His clinic, Women's Health Care Services in Wichita, was one of only three clinics in the United States that offered abortions after the 21st week of pregnancy.
Loss of human life is a tragedy and should be reported as such, and premeditated murder is always wrong - something all the mainstream pro-life groups were quick to affirm in the wake of the killing. But in reporting this tragic story, the news media have much to say about a man who helped provide women with the "right" to end their pregnancies, but have little to say about lives he helped to end. In failing to highlight what Tiller's work actually entailed, reporters do nothing to help their audience understand why this man was targeted.
Tiller as Abortion Rights Martyr
Broadcast networks painted Tiller as a man willing to die in defense of women's rights.
All of the broadcast coverage noted past attempts people have made to disrupt Tiller's work - a bombing of his clinic in the 1980s and a 1993 attack in which he was shot in both arms - which, while pertinent to the story, also increased the aura of martyrdom that now surrounds him.
ABC's "World News Sunday" and "Good Morning America" reports featured footage of a 1991 interview of Tiller in which he insisted, "I have a right to go to work. What I am doing is legal. What I'm doing is moral. What I'm doing is ethical. And you're not going to run me out of town."
NBC's "Nightly News" report included a different clip of Tiller stating, "You simply cannot retreat when you're committed." Eleanor Smeal, current president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and former president of the National Organization for Women, told NBC, "People don't understand the need for this service, that women's lives are saved, but he did. And he was brave enough to keep going."
ABC's "World News Sunday" featured Tiller's fellow parishioner, Mickey Cohlmia, defending the abortionist: "The church has stood back behind Dr. Tiller, I think we all have, because he was a Christian, good man."
CBS' Julie Chen interviewed Tiller's lawyer, Dan Monnat, during the June 1 "Early Show." She asked, "Can you explain why Dr. Tiller continued his practice all these years, despite all the harassment?" Monnat answered, in part, "Both Dr. Tiller and his family continually asked the question, if Dr. Tiller is not here to serve a woman's right to choose, who will be here to do it? There are only a handful of late-term abortion providers that remain in the United States, and in the world. Most of them have been terrorized and run off by the protesters."
On ABC's "Good Morning America," host Diane Sawyer gave Lee Thompson, another Tiller lawyer, the same opportunity to portray him as a misunderstood servant of women. She asked, "Given the controversy and given the danger, why was he committed to doing this? What was it exactly that he wanted to make sure that he was accomplishing?" Thompson replied, "The fact that he is one of, if not the only one of too very few doctors who perform these services speaks to his dedication and his courage throughout his life."
Refusal to Look at Consequences of Abortion
There is no doubt that abortion ends a life. Yet, according to abortion proponents, including the broadcast networks, it's only the shooting of an abortion doctor that causes the abortion debate to become "deadly."
ABC's Sawyer teased the "Good Morning America" report with "The abortion debate turns deadly." "World News Sunday" anchor David Muir referred to Tiller's killing as "cold-blooded."
NBC reported President Barack Obama's response to Tiller's killing during the "Today" and "Nightly News" segments. The statement read, in part, "However profound our differences as Americans over difficult issues, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence."
Late-term abortion, the procedure Tiller specialized in, could not be described as anything else but "deadly," "cold-blooded," and a "heinous act of violence."
Responses to Tiller's Death
ABC and NBC did report that many "anti-abortion" organizations condemned the actions that resulted in Tiller's death, a point left out in CBS' "Early Show" coverage. However, only the most inflammatory remarks were reported. ABC's Jeffrey Kofman quoted only the inflammatory response of Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, and several random responses from the Internet:
While many on both sides of this divisive debate condemn the shooting of Dr. Tiller, Randall Terry founder of "Operation Rescue," issued off this statement: "George Tiller was a mass murderer. He was an evil man. His hands were covered with blood." And a lot of inflammatory comments on the Internet. On Twitter, one person wrote, "Oh happy day. Tiller the baby killer is dead." Another wrote, "God bless the gunmen." Clearly the passions in this issue have not gone away."
NBC's Janet Shamlian reported during "Today," "Even in death, there would be no respite from those who opposed him. As friends remembered a 67-year-old grandfather at a vigil Sunday night, some anti-abortion protesters shouted taunts from across the street."
Statements from major pro-life organizations revealed a different story: that the pro-life community truly views all loss of human life as a tragedy.
Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, said "The foundational right to life that our work is dedicated to extends to everyone."
Family Research Council president Tony Perkins stated, "As Christians we pray and look toward the end of all violence and for the saving of souls, not the taking of human life. George Tiller was a man who we publicly sought to stop through legal and peaceful means.
Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, reminded people of how most pro-life advocates protest, "Through the years, hundreds of thousands of pro-lifers have prayed for George Tiller, peacefully tried to persuade him to end his killing of innocent children and exploitation of women, and actively worked to enforce the laws of Kansas. We were guided by the hope that he would change his ways and find forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
The National Right to Life Committee's executive director, Dr. David N. O'Steen, affirmed the notion that all life is sacred, "The pro-life movement works to protect the right to life and increase respect for human life. The unlawful use of violence is directly contrary to that goal."
Blogging from the Left
Bloggers also attempted to glorify Dr. Tiller. Michelle Goldberg, of "The Daily Beast," wrote, "Tiller, known for providing late-term abortions, had been unbowed by the relentless campaign against him." According to the blog's Joe Stumpe, Tiller's original plan was to become a dermatologist, but he took over his father's general practice. That practice had performed abortions since a woman to whom Tiller Senior had denied the procedure died during a "back-alley abortion."
Jill Brooke, from "The Huffington Post" made Tiller out to be a humanitarian, describing how he was the only doctor who could help a friend of hers who wanted to terminate her pregnancy after learning the baby would be born deformed. That friend, Brooke wrote, "says a prayer for Dr. Tiller almost every day," and called Tiller "a hero" after learning about his murder.
Bloggers also attempted to link Dr. Tiller's death with terrorism. Stumpe called The Army of God, a branch of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, "a terrorist offshoot." Michelle Kraus of "The Huffington Post," who described Dr. Tiller as "an unassuming man who did not choose his destiny," wrote that his death "is an act of domestic terrorism at its worst."
Jill Filipovic, of the "Guardian.co.Uk." also tried to link Dr. Tiller's death to terrorism. "Not surprisingly, his killer is strongly suspected to be affiliated with the "pro-life" movement. If that's the case, it makes Tiller the 10th person in the United States to be murdered by anti-choice terrorists."
Another "Huffington Post" blogger, Cristina Page, wrote, "One can only conclude that like terrorist sleeper cells, these extremists have now been set in motion. Indeed the evidence is already there. The chatter, the threats, the hate-filled rhetoric are abundant."
At the People for the American Way's "Right Wing Watch," Kyle gleefully connected the murder to the Department of Homeland Security's recent report, "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment." The report, which insulted many Christians and veterans' groups, singled out returning Iraq veterans and mentioned "groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration."
"All of the caterwalling eventually lead DHS to pull the report ...," Kyle wrote, "but in light of the details emerging about Scott Roeder, the man arrested in the killing of physician George Tiller, it seems as if the report - far from being an offensive attack on Christians and anti-choice activists - was remarkably timely and accurate."
CMI Intern Sarah Knoploh contributed to this report.