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Murder most foul: Reflections on abortion doc slaying

June 1, 2009

There are several levels of horror in the shooting death of George Tiller, a Kansas doctor who performed late-term abortions. First of all, the most obvious, someone killed him in cold blood. Second of all, it happened in front of his friends and family. Third, it happened during a church service. Fourth, he was the target of violence twice before — once in 1985 when his clinic was bombed and in 1993 when he was shot in the arms by so-called pro-life activists. 

But somehow, for me, the most wrenching element of Tiller’s murder was this sentence in the AP story:

National anti-abortion groups had long focused on Tiller, whose Women’s Health Care Services clinic is one of just three in the nation where abortions are performed after the 21st week of pregnancy.

Late term abortion is just a vague term that doesn’t really conjure any images in my mind. But “the 21st week” is specific, especially for someone who has so recently experienced pregnancy. Twenty-one weeks was one of the milestones I counted. More than half-way there, I told myself as I eagerly checked the baby site to see the development of this little person. The eyelids and eyebrows had formed. He or she was the length of a carrot. My husband were so invested in this developing child. 

The notion of  cutting off that life at that stage was unimaginable. And it’s not something I probably would have given much thought to were it not for a story I wrote about an Austin clergy panel that was on call to counsel Planned Parenthood clients.

Late last year, Rabbi Alan Freedman responded to a counseling request for a woman making an agonizing decision. She was terminating her pregnancy in the 19th week of gestation because of severe fetal deformities. 

The woman wasn’t Jewish, but she told the staff at the Planned Parenthood clinic in South Austin where she was seeking the abortion that she wanted to talk to a member of the clergy before going through with the procedure. 

Freedman, the chairman of the clergy panel for Planned Parenthood of the Texas Capital Region, asked the woman to tell him about her baby. Then the two planned a ceremony to memorialize the child before the abortion took place. 

I remember how deeply sad I felt for that woman and how strange it was for me to be so late in my own pregnancy and doing interviews at Planned Parenthood (though that’s exactly what I was pursuing — planned parenthood). 
But back to Tiller. I can’t imagine the agony his patients endured. I can’t imagine how he created the emotional distance to be able to sleep at night. This was dark and wrenching work. Whether he was merciful or murderous is a matter of opinion, I suppose. It’s clear how his killer felt. 
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