Making Sense of George Tiller

Learning from the last time a physician who performs abortions was murdered.

America has domestic terrorists, and they are not all Muslims. That is one lesson brought home by the murder of Dr. George Tiller, a physician and abortion provider from Wichita who was gunned down in the foyer of his church on May 31. Those who imagined that the culture wars that dominated headlines in recent decades were finally behind us were given a grim reminder that deep divisions capable of provoking tragic violence remain. 

But how should journalists cover events like Dr. Tiller’s murder — and, more generally, the emotionally freighted and deeply polarizing issue of abortion? As the author of a book examining a similar case — the 1998 murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian, an obstetric-gynecologist shot while standing in the kitchen of his home in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst, where I grew up — I can offer several tips.

First, reporters owe it to their readers to use precise and appropriate language, a responsibility that goes beyond merely labeling the two sides in the abortion debate with respectful terms (“pro-choice” and “pro-life,” respectively). When Dr. Slepian was murdered, dozens of newspapers ran stories describing him as an “abortion doctor.” Few mentioned that, in fact, Dr. Slepian was an OB-GYN who, in addition to working at an abortion clinic on some days, ran his own medical practice in a facility that offered a full of range of women’s health services. This may seem like a petty semantic detail. It is not. The political controversy surrounding abortion has led the procedure to become increasingly isolated from mainstream medical practice. The isolation is real, but one way it gets reinforced is when physicians who terminate pregnancies are labeled and perceived as different from their colleagues — “abortion doctors” — even when, as is often the case, they have received the same medical training and perform the same range of OB-GYN services as their peers, including delivering babies.

Another journalistic responsibility is to put violent acts in context. The murder of Barnett Slepian was not an isolated incident but part of a wave of violence targeting abortion clinics and doctors in the 1990s. To understand this violence, one had to look beyond the details of the case to broader developments: the extreme rhetoric that opponents of abortion rights had been using for years to describe physicians who performed abortions; the frustration in the pro-life movement that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s appointees to the Supreme Court had not overturned Roe v. Wade; the invocation of religion as a justification for breaking secular laws and even committing acts of violence.

Does the murder of George Tiller mark the beginning of another wave of violence? It’s too early to tell, but it is not too early for reporters to probe the parallels. Then as now, a President who supports abortion rights assumed office, and the prospects of overturning Roe (or banning abortion through legislative means) seemed remote. When social movements sense they are losing, the temptation to resort to extreme measures tends to increase. In April, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report on right-wing extremism that was widely ignored by the media, save for the conservative press, which criticized it for allegedly overstating the threat. In light of Dr. Tiller’s murder, this assessment clearly merits critical scrutiny.

But even if there is more violence in the years to come, it shouldn’t stop reporters from covering the context that makes such violence exceptional: the story of the tens of millions of Americans whose views on abortion don’t line up neatly with either the “pro-choice” or “pro-life” camps, much less those of radical extremists like Dr. Tiller’s murderer.  In the course of writing my book, I came to realize that the perception of Buffalo, NY, as a blue-collar, Catholic — hence, socially conservative and pro-life — city was wrong. Polls showed that, in fact, most people in the city supported keeping abortion legal. But they also supported regulating the procedure.  In other words, their views were laced with ambivalence and nuances too often drowned out as reporters quoted advocates or protesters with extreme views, such as Randall Terry of Operation Rescue. Terry’s comments (and antics) are invariably colorful. They are also utterly unrepresentative of what most Americans think, which risks making the debate about abortion seem black and white when it is anything but.

Covering the gray “middle” is particularly important right now because Americans who hold more nuanced views are also more likely to support a range of measures (improving sex education, broadening access to contraception, encouraging adoption) that could reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies without dividing and radicalizing people. In his commencement address at Notre Dame, President Obama challenged his fellow Americans to search for “common ground” by engaging in this debate. Fellow reporters and journalists, the challenge extends to us as well.