Abortion Rights Blog

The national pro-choice campaign

Dr. Tiller murder trial begins

The trial of Scott Roeder, who has admitted killing abortion provider George Tiller, began in Kansas this week under a cloud of controversy. Tiller, one of the few physicians who performed late-term abortions, was shot in the head as he attended church with his family in May 2009. The judge in the case, Warren Wilbert, is allowing Roeder to present his justification for the killing as part of his voluntary manslaughter defence; the first time in US history that the killer of an abortion doctor has been given a platform for their beliefs in court. Pro-choice groups, women’s organisations and medical professionals have condemned the decision, warning that Roeder’s court-room performance could spark copy-cat attacks. “This is utterly insane,” said Charlotte Taft, director of the Abortion Care Network, which represents around 70 independent clinics.

Although Roeder confessed to the killing, and was witnessed shooting Tiller, he is claiming the violence was legitimate and justified in order to prevent the doctor carrying out further abortions. The voluntary manslaughter charge carries a sentence of only five years in prison, rather than the life sentence he would face for first-degree murder.

National Organisation for Women President Terry O’Neill calls the ruling a dangerous and potentially deadly precedent. “Judge Wilbert’s ruling allows Roeder, in effect, to make out a claim of justifiable terrorism – that is, that Roeder was justified because of his religious ideology. Murder driven by ideological zealotry is a form of terrorism. What’s really disturbing about Judge Wilbert’s ruling is that it could easily encourage other religious extremists to attack healthcare providers as a justifiable means of stopping women from obtaining abortions.”

Roeder has a history of activity with anti-abortion extremists such as ‘Operation Rescue’, and was jailed in 1996 after explosives were found in his car. Staff at a clinic in Kansas reported him to the FBI in 2003 after a campaign of threatening behaviour, but no action was taken. Roeder’s witnesses will include Phill Kline, a former Kansas attorney general who had previously investigated Dr. Tiller. Roeder’s defence team has also drawn criticism for subpoenaing Tiller’s clinic records; Jeanne Tiller’s lawyer, Lee Thompson, argues that this is a gross violation of the women who were patients at the clinic.

Terry O’Neill added, “This trial is about the murder of Dr. Tiller – a family man, a father, and a caring and compassionate physician. Allowing the defence to make this trial about Roeder’s abortion views is not just demeaning to the memory of a brave doctor, but also creates real danger for providers around the country.”

Dr Tiller had been an abortion provider for almost thirty-five years at Women’s Health Care in Wichita, Kansas. The clinic was a target with anti-abortion extremists for carrying out late-term abortions past 21 weeks: it was firebombed in 1986, and Dr. Tiller himself survived a murder attempt by Shelley Shannon, who was jailed after shooting him five times in 1993. The clinic has now closed.