Dr. George Tiller’s Wichita clinic, which cared for tens of thousands of women over thirty-six years, was closed a week after he was assassinated on May 31, shot in the head at close range. One of his colleagues, Dr. Leroy Carhart, an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, immediately stepped forward to say that he will care for Dr. Tiller’s patients and continue the provision of late-abortion services, to fill the great need left by Tiller’s absence. He worked at Dr. Tiller’s clinic, and maintains his own clinic in Bellevue, Nebraska. In 1991, his home and barn were burned to the ground in an arson claimed by anti-abortion activists. This spurred Dr. Carhart to devote more of his practice to providing abortions, and to challenge federal laws restricting abortion access.
This brave stance on the part of this 67 year old doctor was Operation Rescue Wichita’s cue to turn attention on him as their next “target #1.” To that end, they have announced their visit to Dr. Carhart’s clinic the weekend of August 28 and 29 for “rescue outreach” and a “rally for victory,” with the aim of closing down his clinic. They have years of practice conducting this “rescue” outside Dr. Tiller’s clinic, using giant grotesque images of gore to harass patients, throngs of hysterical zombies throwing themselves in front of cars, and “counseling” women entering the parking lot by screaming at them, lying about what kind of help they would offer, and doing all this in the name of a hateful brand of Christianity.
The Wichita section of Operation Rescue, the group dedicated to ending women’s right to abortion and birth control, employs people like Cheryl Sullenger, their “senior policy advisor,” who served two years in prison for conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic in California. After moving to Wichita in order to make Dr. Tiller target number one for the national anti-abortion movement, they celebrated when their years of harassment, threats and violent attacks culminated in Tiller’s assassination.
One of their associates, Kansas Coalition for Life Chairman Mark Gietzen, stated in response to Dr. Tiller’s murder, “God has his own way, but you can’t say our prayers weren’t answered.” Since being captured, Scott Roeder, Dr. Tiller’s murderer, has corresponded freely with the hard-core violent sections of his movement from prison, speaking to the media, and promising “similar events” are planned.
This will not go unopposed!
In the week after Dr. Tiller was killed, rallies and candlelight vigils were held across the country as many people were stunned by the sudden return to violence. The last doctor had been shot in 1998; and while the Bush years were marked by still increasing restrictions on abortion under the born-again president, the violence and threats towards abortion providers decreased.
Dr. Tiller’s assassination punctuated a rise in violence, harassment, and threats that escalated approximately six months before Bush left office and has worsened since then. While many who have been providing abortion services in the trenches for years have sucked up their courage and carried on with the business of providing healthcare for women as usual, others, including younger women, have been newly galvanized into action by this attack.
Operation Rescue, along with the Christian Defense Coalition, based in Washington DC, planned a celebratory prayer vigil at Dr. Tiller’s now-closed Women's Health Care Services only two weeks after the murder. But when they arrived they found that the clinic’s property was already occupied by a well-attended abortion rights rally organized by the Wichita NOW chapter of local Wichitans determined to keep them away. They were forced to change their plans and relocated away from the clinic as long as the pro-choice demonstrators occupied the space.
During the Sotomayor Supreme Court hearings, notorious misogynist Randall Terry toured the country rallying his forces to work to get her confirmation filibustered. Terry was the first of the major anti-abortion activists to congratulate Tiller’s assassin, the very night of the murder, via a video on YouTube. He is known not only for founding Operation Rescue, but also for popping up at almost every single major Christian fascist mobilization as part of mobs protesting abortion outside Terri Schiavo’s hospice in 2005 and Obama’s Notre Dame speech this past spring.
When Terry came to Wichita last month, he staged a small press conference, right in front of the Dr. Tiller’s closed clinic. Instead of allowing him the space to perform for the media while counter-protesting from a distance, local abortion rights activists interrupted him, chanted over him, and generally shouted down his hate speech, preventing him from carrying his message that day. It’s these sorts of counter-protests that show the deep well of anger that has been uncorked.
The plans to target Dr. Carhart have provoked a response on the part of women’s groups and progressive people throughout the Midwest, though not yet on the level needed to defeat the emboldened Christian fascist movement. The Kansas chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), one of the most active groups in defending Dr. Tiller in Wichita, is calling for counter protesters to defend Dr. Carhart’s clinic from all over the Midwest, in conjunction with the Nebraska NOW chapter. Individuals and small groups from surrounding states have already responded, planning on coming from Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan and Indiana. A NOW chapter from the Chicago suburbs is working to fill a bus to carry people to Nebraska. World Can’t Wait supporters are coming from California, Philadelphia, Denver, Chicago and New York City.
The people who are coming are filled determination to protect Dr. Carhart and abortion rights. At the same time, they understand this is not a “mobilization as usual.” The atmosphere is charged with the sense that the anti-abortion storm troopers heading to Nebraska are the hard-core of that movement, those invigorated by the violence done in their name only months ago.
One Kansas woman I spoke to mentioned the right-wing “tea party” disruptions of Congressional town hall meetings on health care. The right-wing movement inclusive of the anti-abortion activists seems to be whipped up and ready to lash out at and attack American politicians, no less than ordinary people they disagree with. That battle has been cast as a struggle over a national health care plan, but it has also projected an intimidating and threatening pall over all social questions, with the subtext that a Black president can’t be legitimate. Especially for people living side by side with these reactionaries, the reverberations of the town hall scenes have been serious.
"They want to put me out of business or kill me, one of the two," –Dr. Carhart on TV recently.
Dr. Carhart is training as many doctors as he can in the best practices of late second trimester and early third trimester abortion, as well as maintaining medical licenses in seven states so he can step in if another provider is killed or injured. "Everybody says I should do less, but I think I'm already at risk. Whether you have an 89 percent chance of being shot or a 91 percent chance, I don't think it's that different." This doctor is a hero, and has taken a huge burden upon himself, knowing firsthand the stories of the women in need who will have nowhere else to turn.
Barack Obama asks us to find “common ground” with those who deny women choice. But the anti-abortion movement is not on the defense, brought to their knees and seeking to patch up relations with the “mainstream majority.” They are driving ahead with their goal to force abortion providers to further retreat into hiding from them and restrict their ability to actually provide women abortions when they need them. They are using violence, threats, and harassment to isolate the doctors and anyone the doctors work with from the rest of society. The federal and local law enforcement that many hope would protect Dr. Carhart and his continued, legal medical practice have made it clear that they will not do so.
The question at hand is whether Dr. Leroy Carhart will be standing alone to face the angry, mobilized forces of patriarchy at the end of the month or whether enough us us will stand with him.
Come to Nebraska!
What more do you need to know? Join us in Nebraska on August 28th and 29. Help to draw the line and defend Dr. Carhart and women’s lives.
As Sunsara Taylor wrote after Dr. Tiller was shot, “Either this killing will succeed in creating a climate where abortion providers cannot do their work and no one else joins them in that work, or it will be answered by growing numbers of people waking up, coming off the sidelines, defending our doctors and our clinics, and reversing the whole dynamic that has led to this situation where not only abortion, but birth control too, is imperiled.”
is an activist with World Can’t Wait, and one of 45 million women in the U.S. who has had an abortion. She traveled to Dr. Tiller’s Wichita clinic in 2001 to defend him from a major anti-abortion mobilization, and once again to Wichita this past June for his funeral. This year she and a fellow abortion-rights activist won first place at Chicago’s Bughouse Square soapbox debates in making the case that access to abortion saves womens’ lives.
World Can't Wait is a national movement formed to halt and reverse the terrible program of war, repression and theocracy that was initiated by the Bush / Cheney regime and the on- going crimes that continue to this day.