Dr. George Tiller, one of the few physicians in the country who performed second and third trimester abortions, was fatally shot in church on Sunday. It seems that Tiller was marked for death because of his work. The man charged with murdering Tiller, 51-year-old Scott Roeder, has a 20-year history of anti-choice and anti-government extremism.
Tiller's compassion for his patients was legendary. Even during his lifetime, many referred to him as a saint for risking his own life to perform abortions that few other doctors would provide, irrespective of his patients' ability to pay. The American Prospect features a moving tribute to Dr. Tiller by Michelle Goldberg, who relates a life story that's equal parts John Irving and John Grisham:
"Tiller never set out to become an abortion provider, or even an ob/gyn. The son of a doctor, Tiller was working as a Navy surgeon when his father, mother, sister, and brother-in-law were killed in a plane crash. He took over his father's family practice, and soon women started asking him if he was going to do what his father did. That's how he found out his father had provided abortions in the years before Roe v. Wade. He committed himself to providing the same service."
Nation columnist Katha Pollitt attended a vigil for Dr. Tiller in New York's Union Square. Pollitt reports that, compared a similar vigil she attended in 1998, the crowd was younger, angrier, and larger. She says that, over a decade after the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian, people are finally fed up with anti-choice terrorism:
"It's about time. Time to demand federal legal protection for abortion rights. Time to demand that law enforcement take seriously the violent anti-abortion underground. Time for doctors to show some spine, defend their colleagues who perform this necessary service to women and reintegrate abortion into normal medical practice."
Going back to the Prospect, Ann Friedman argues that Tiller's murder, and the years of violence and intimidation that led up to his assassination show that the United States' current protections for abortion providers are not working:
"Tiller's clinic, Women's Health Care Services, was bombed in mid-1980s. In the '90s, it was the subject of blockades, bomb threats, and a shooting attack -- Tiller sustained gunshots to both arms. Just this month, Tiller's clinic was vandalized, with security cameras and outdoor lights damaged and the downspouts plugged, causing rain to pour through the roof. Protesters routinely gathered outside Tiller's church. In 2007, two men were arrested for disrupting services to speak out against him. Tiller often had a bodyguard by his side."
While we wait for reform, Attorney General Eric Holder is doing his best to protect abortion providers in the wake of Tiller's murder. The Colorado Independent's Ernest Luning reports that Holder has ordered U.S. Marshals to step up security for a late-term abortion provider in Boulder.
A 360-degree harassment of doctors and their staff is part of a deliberate, anti-choice extremist strategy. Josh Harkinson looks back on the time he spent reporting on anti-choice activists in Wichita, the home of Dr. Tiller's clinic, for Mother Jones. The groups often targeted people at home. "People have a public identity that they like to keep separate from their private identity," one anti-abortion activist told Harkinson, "but we believe you can't separate the two when you are talking about killing babies. And people are more likely to listen to what you say and be influenced when you bring the issue home to where they work and live."
In other reproductive health news, Rachel K. Jones, a co-author of a controversial paper arguing that sex educators should present withdrawal as a legitimate method of birth control, defends her study by questioning the motives of her critics in the blogosphere:
"This general view of withdrawal informs another response - sheer disbelief. In my work I've grown used to promoters of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs dismissing facts about the effectiveness of contraception. However, I'm surprised to see such disparagement of withdrawal among a crowd that is presumably younger, more diverse and more open-minded. Perhaps because most of us have been told for so long that withdrawal doesn't work, we are unable or unwilling to embrace scientific evidence that counters what we 'know.'"
I would argue that, on the contrary, Jones' study has been criticized for its shoddy evidence. The authors admit at the outset that there's very little research on withdrawal and that the practice has not been systematically tested in clinical trials, unlike other forms of birth control. Most of what we know about the practice comes from small studies, and/or studies that weren't designed to measure the efficacy of withdrawal as it is actually used. (For more discussion of the study, see last week's Pulse.) The evidence the authors present barely supports the contention that withdrawal deserves more study. However, they go much further, suggesting that sex educators change their curricula to present withdrawal in a more favorable light. Many of Jones' critics found that suggestion irresponsible. Before lecturing her critics about their receptiveness to evidence, Jones should take a hard look at the gap between her evidence and her recommendations.
Recent events have pushed reproductive choice to the forefront of national consciousness. For the latest on healthcare controversies, big and small, stay tuned to the Weekly Pulse.
By Lindsay Beyerstein, TMC Mediawire Blogger. This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care.
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