Don’t Call Him an “Abortionist,” and Other Issues with Coverage of the Tiller Murder

The murder of Kansas physician George Tiller is a devastating and, unfortunately, perfect illustration of the stupid, hypocritical, blindered self-righteousness of the anti-choice movement. And just as painful as the news itself is seeing the variety of twists and dodges with which the mainstream media does—or doesn’t—cover it. Let’s start with CNN, which I turned on this morning in hopes of seeing some onsite coverage from Wichita, where the man who shot and killed Tiller at his church Sunday morning was now in custody. What I got was a CNN anchor telling us that he’d show us footage of a press conference—but only for the 40 secords or so until the CEO of General Motors was ready to start his press conference because god forbid GM’s bankruptcy declaration is shunted aside for even a minute. For crap’s sake, it’s only been months in coming, CNN. We didn’t really have to see every awkward twitch and hear every paper-rustle of this shocking-to-absolutely-no-one press conference, did we? Apparently, we did.

Then there’s the fact that headlines of major newspapers repeatedly referred to Tiller as an “abortionist” or “abortion doctor.” Yes, Tiller was one of the few physicians in the United States who performed late-term abortions to women whose pregnancies threatened either their own lives or those of their fetuses. And I know headlines need to pack a punch in a limited number of words. But reducing Tiller’s work to the word “abortionist”  just buys into the antichoice fanaticism that equates “abortion” with “murder” and paints compassionate, humane people like Tiller as curette-wielding, manically-grinning baby killers—“doing Nazi stuff,” as self-appointed Tiller watchdog Bill O’Reilly has put it. Just substituting “abortion provider” could make all the difference in editorial tone and framing.

And finally, the reporting on the sham outrage of various pro-life figures. There’s just too much to parse here, but between Father Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life (“At this point, we do not know the motives of this act, or who is behind it….whether an angry post-abortive man or woman, or a misguided activist…”) and Operation Rescue founder and capo di tutti douchebag Randall Terry (“Unless some miracle happened, [Tiller] left this life with his hands drenched with the innocent blood of tens of thousands of babies that he murdered. Surely there will be a dreadful accounting for what he has done”) we’re in for a horrible week of anti-choice blameshifting. (Don't you just love how Pavone slips in that “angry post-abortive man or woman" comment?) Less fanatical pro-life groups have come out to condemn the murder, of course, but headlines like the Washington Post’s “Pro-Life Activist: Doctor ‘Reaped What He Sowed’” (you’ll need to register to read all that hatey goodness) don’t do much to foreground them.

Former patients of Tiller’s, whose lives were saved by his procedures—procedures that I wish the mainstream media would do more to emphasize were medically necessary, emotionally and physically awful, and not in any way the result of a woman waking up at 30 weeks of pregnancy and saying, “Huh, you know, I don’t think I want this baby after all. Let’s get abortin’, doc Tiller!”—are speaking out at blogs like A Heartbreaking Choice and in the comments sections of news and blog stories. Let’s try and make sure that they get reprinted and circulated and made as central a part of this story’s coverage as are the smarmy, faux-concerned contributions of the Pavones, Terrys, and O’Reillys.

by Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.

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20 Comments Have Been Posted

Nail That Cracker.. and other sins of communion

thanks, Andi.

I am even more extreme when it comes to what the Doctor should be called. Tiller was an obstetrician and gynecologist, a surgeon. He delivered babies, provided prenatal care, supervised difficult pregnancies, and provided abortions... in his case, specialty care where the pregnancy had reached tragically unfeasible proportions. This is what ALL OBGYN's should be trained to do, to help women with. Abortionist, as you say, sounds like you're sitting around in a dark room with a coat hangar.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out how the Christianists managed to turn late trimester abortions into a frivolous issue. Tiller's patients fell into two main groups: the women who desperately wanted children, and then... the children who got raped. That's the two tabloid-worthy populations involved.

And yet, as you say, the MSM just completely avoids this, it's like it's all a ruse for butchers to make money off of sluts. That is the message of most every report I read.

I'm in shock that this is off the front page of the NYT... and it was a late Sunday story to begin with, so it wasn't in their Sunday paper. I'm supposed to read about GM... no news there... and a tragic airplane crash that I can do absolutely nothing about, has no bearing on a social movement dedicated to downing airplanes.

The people who are sitting around clapping their hands with visions of righteous hellfire and "he got what he deserved"-- I just don't know what to say about their hypocrisy anymore. They have abortions, they break every one of their imaginary rules, and none of it matters because they're spe-shul. And you're not. And you're not. And you deserve to die. And you are worthless. I have read toooooo many vicious smug comments and editorials today, the rejoicing Puritans. I feel like I'm in a bad bad loop of the Crucible and I can't get out.

Obama and the PP/NOW response is timid, weak. I have no idea what we're supposed to do next. Today, despair is at the top of my list, I'm afraid.

Hear, hear

I'm with Susie: George Tiller was a doctor, an OB/GYN if you need to get specific. Imagine if the stories read like this: A doctor was murdered while ushering at his church, while his wife performed with the church choir. His four children and ten grandchildren are devastated. <br /><br />It's just a wee bit different, no?<br /><br />The mainstream media's complicity in parroting the anti-choice/forced-pregnancy agenda's language is unconscionable. (And Bitch's use of &quot;abortion doc&quot; in the Twitter stream is unfortunate as well.)

According to the AP

According to the AP Stylebook, it's never appropriate to use the word "abortionist" or anything similar because it does have that sketchy, coat-hanger feel to it. But I guess this isn't the only case we have of appropriate journalism being foregone in favor of the promotion of an agenda.

It's so important to share

It's so important to share the stories of women who have had to make these terrible choices. These stories are not being heard! I was raised in a conservative, pro-life home. I had no idea where to go to find out the truth about why women would ever have a late-term abortion. It's hard to know where to get that kind of information. Most girls or women trying to educate themselves out of their indoctrination are suspicious of reproductive rights organizations and aren't going to take their word for it. We really need more doctors to speak up and for the media to cover these stories. But both the media and the medical establishment seem completely intimidated by the politics. It would be a really good thing if there was some kind of educational site that was not connected to activist groups, or to the clinics themselves, but some kind of third party that could put out the information.

" Just substituting

<i>" Just substituting “abortion provider” could make all the difference in editorial tone and framing."</i>

Oh, the hell with that! That's still buying into the wingnut framing. He was a *DOCTOR*. The asshole killed a DOCTOR, an Ob-Gyn, a healer, a man of medicine. By all accounts he did a lot more than just provide abortions, and the only reason he did as many of those as he did was because he was the only one brave enough to continue doing so in such a warped and hostile environment.

He wasn't an 'abortionist' and he wasn't an 'abortion provider', he was a DOCTOR who performed abortions as one part of the many essential services he provided to women who needed them.

Your point is entirely valid, you just don't take it far enough.

Watch this girl, who had a

Watch this girl, who had a late term abortion herself, now blame dr. Tiller for something she chose to do. Unbelievable.
The clip is from Bill O'Reilly's show, of course...

She was probably "planted" there

My bets are that an anti-choice extremist group "planted" her there to make up that ludicrous story letting the world know that they are not backing down on their actions.

The stories I have read in the past about women who left babies in toilets or trash cans had given birth to them at full-term left them there because (for any of the following probable reasons)...

a) They do not believe in abortion
b) They had no idea in the first place that they were pregnant.
c) They could not afford to take care of it.
d) They do not believe in "the system" taking care of it, but hope that some wealthy married "heteronormal" couple out of nowhere finds it and gives it a good life.
e)Their husbands/boyfriends/partners did not want them to get pregnant and don't want children.
f) Immediate feelings of post-partum depression? ...

What else could they do but abandon the babies?

I'd like to know what kind of lawyer O'Reilly has that let him do his show last night. If I were his lawyer I would have forbade him to do it out of respect for this tragedy, even if I had to go all the way to Rupert Murdoch himself to demand that he not do it.

Is it permissible for O'Reilly to get a second Douchebag Decree? Well ... his own actions and tactics are, perhaps, beyond a second one ...

What really bugs me...

Is that it was pretty much the parents who took her to do it. And I truly find it hard to believe that no one told her what was going to happen, when she had group therapy and meetings and such.

"No one tells us what happens, what happens to us, to women, to the baby." Uhm... you got an abortion. Of course the fetus died.

And the effect of this was that she was promiscuous? You were pregnant at thirteen, clearly it's not just the abortion that made you start having sex. And even if it was, does that really make Tiller at fault? You and your parents went TO him. He did not come into your house in the middle of the night, suddenly induce an abortion as you were sleeping.

(I don't mean this as slut shaming, you got what you deserved, etc. She clearly should have had therapy after having this abortion at such a young age. I just... I'm frustrated that the blame is being laid on a person someone went to for an abortion.)

Extremists slut-shame like no other

It is the anti-choice extremists that slut-shame worse than anyone. They especially slut-shame rape victims.

I especially get annoyed when anti-choice activists proclaim that the "majority" of Americans side with their views. They do not speak for you, me, and the real majority of Americans. They just use and say that rhetoric to grab attention. Unfortunately, they grab the attention of the corporate-owned and controlled mainstream media more often than not. NPR, too.

The awesome writer and activist Jennifer Baumgardner has a book called <a href="">Abortion and Life</a> (Reviewed in the NOIR #42 issue of this magazine.) that gives perspectives that are crucial, thought/discussion-provoking, and need to be told in these desperate times.

I understand the pro-choice view...

...but lets be honest about what late-term and partial-birth abortions are. The doctor dismembers the fetus in utero and pulls it out, counts the limbs, skull pieces to make sure they got it all and tosses it away. Ever see an abortion performed via ultrasound? It would disturb any fair-minded person, and should.

I struggle as a feminist with this issue and of course, any non extreme person (pro-life or pro-choice) would denounce the murder of this doctor, and have.

I don't think anyone takes their pro-choice or pro-life stand lightly and the issue is worthy of continuous debate and retrospect that is honest and forthcoming. I don't think the good work of Tiller should be whitewashed. But don't use this tragedy to whitewash the opposing viewpoint as extreme when pro-life is and, by all statistical data will continue to be, a mainstream view; the data on those who oppose late-term and partial-birth abortion is even more heavily represented by the pro-life view. And the participation of Tilller in these acts, however debateable the necessity, should not be swept under the rug.

I grow weary of pro-choice feminists who start to assume that every "normal" person agrees w/them on abortion and then generalize anyone who disagrees as an extremist. There is a huge spectrum on this issue and women fall along the whole spectrum, not just the leftist end of abortion on demand, any time, for any reason. Instead of dismissing and alienating a large number of women who have conscientious pause when it comes to abortion, try finding common ground - perhaps in the area of promoting birth control and adoption.

And I grow weary...

And I grow wearing of people who suggest that pro-choice feminists do not work on trying to promote birth control and adoption. Pro-choice feminists -- those who support NARAL, Planned Parenthood, etc -- focus largely on birth control. Part of the issue is that places that perform abortions also provide birth control, and are constantly harassed for doing both. Pro-choice feminists believe in women's REPRODUCTIVE FREEDOM, not only the right to have an abortion. It's just that we believe that a woman DOES have the right to an abortion -- and so far it's a legal one. In either case, it's proven that liberals have done more to reduce the number of abortions than conservatives have -- it's just that we believe abortions should be allowed. And it's true we also believe you shouldn't have to justify it. Since when do you have to provide reasons for a personal, legal medical decision? And who is going to be the judge of what is justifiable and what isn't?

And while it's true that abortions -- any abortions -- are disturbing to watch, that doesn't mean we don't think they should be allowed. It would also be disturbing to watch a woman die in childbirth -- and that's what would happen to a lot of the women who seek late-term abortions. Did you actually read any of the stories on A Heartbreaking Choice? They are devastating. I think many people are really unaware of who Dr. Tiller really was and what service he provided.

In ANY case, I've allowed this comment to get me totally off the point -- BITCH magazine is about the analysis of pop culture, and this particular article is about the news coverage of this murder, not about the abortion debate in general. I think the coverage of the Tiller murder is yet another example of sensationalism in journalism -- which is almost all we get these days, and it deserves to be criticized.

I didn't say pro-choice women...

..don't do a lot for promoting birth control (not so much adoption) and thank God for that! As a pro-life feminist, my biggest pet peeve w/the pro-life movement is not being at the forefront of promoting birth control; if they want to reduce abortions and not demonize women, why not?

My point is let's be real about what abortion is, and if it is something that feminists want to fight to protect, why care about calling someone an "abortionist?"

Let's also be honest that half the country considers themselves pro-life and an even greater majority find late-term and partial-birth abortions too cruel and gruesome to justify. Feminists should not resort to calling half the country extremists (or mean, stupid, ignorant or hopeless - see below) because they have a different viewpoint - and a sincere view. I'm very educated and, as I said, struggle with it, as we all should since it is not ever something that should be taken lightly. But I know that pro-life and pro-choice feminists could find common ground and work together to try to reduce the numbers of abortions - just got to stop dismissing or alienating women like me first so we can do good work in greater numbers.

Birth Control - and my 2cents

Regarding Birth Control - Many pro-life activists are devout Catholics that follow every last word the Vatican dictates about how birth control is forbidden because they consider it to be infanticide. Remember - the Catholic Church officially advocates only abstinence and the "rhythym method" as birth control.

And let's not forget the Quiverfull movement (discussed elsewhere in this blog) forbids it, too. Catholics are not alone. Many of these "extremists" agree with the Catholic Church more than they admit to, because they actually agree on abortion and reproduction ... the same extremists that conveniently disagree with most Catholics on war and the death penalty.

my 2cents - I also want to point out that although I am staunchly and rabidly pro-choice, I peacefully agree to disagree with pro-life opinions. I am unhappy with certain other feminist bloggers that are slamming, shaming, and banning pro-life opinions. I won't name them because I otherwise think they are awesome. I just think that their tactics of banning opinions they do not agree with is completely inappropriate and unhelpful at all in this debate and they are discrediting themselves by doing so.

See, in my real, waking, day-to-day life I have close family and friends that are ... pro-life! Even though we disagree on abortion and reproductive rights (I come from a family line that is Protestant AND Catholic. I grew up in a predominantly Catholic region) , we agree to disagree because among ourselves WE FUNDAMENTALLY AND MORALLY BELIEVE THAT THE MURDER OF LIVING BEINGS IS WRONG AND WE COMPLETELY DENOUNCE THE MURDER OF DR. GEORGE TILLER. We never set out to try to kill each other because of that. Really. We don't!

I even have one close friend that USED TO BE pro-choice. Her viewpoint evolved over some time (Which stunned me at first, but I have grown to accept it) and is now part of a movement that is advocating for the lifelong care of living beings after they are born! This is called "100% Pro-Life" and there is a Facebook group for those committed to the cause. "100% pro-life" advocates are committed to advocating for living beings to be nutritiously fed, clothed, have access to quality education, quality health care (most are proponents of single-payer health care and are even for scientifically and medically correct sex education, including access to birth control), affordable housing, a sustainable environment with access to clean water that is safe for bathing and drinking, and access to opportunities for self-sufficiency (Not government dependency and let me tell you from personal experience - "the system" is more likely to exploit people and let more than enough of the neediest "fall through the cracks" than actually help them.) --these are the very matters most progressives, including pro-choice ones such as myself, advocate for every single day.

My pro-life family and friends are sick and tired of being stereotyped as greedy, self-centered gun-toting tormenters and murderers; just as I as a pro-choice advocate am sick and tired of being stereotyped as a "baby killer" because I staunchly believe that legal abortion procedures that really do save lives must remain legal, and insist that access to birth control must be made available everywhere. In all ... I am committed to the possibility for peacefulness among the divisions. I happen to be among the unfortunately too-few that agree with what Our President Obama said at Notre Dame a couple weeks' ago about the polarizing state of the abortion debate. We need to stop attacking each other with our self-centered, self-absorbing egos, and start reaching out with our open minds and open hearts to walk hand-in-hand in this debate more PEACEFULLY, advocating for LESS VIOLENCE. The endless attacks of shouting, arguing, debating, hating, intolerating--not to mention the corporate-owned mainstream media's persistent ignorance of the issue--have never resulted in any long-term resolutions. If I can get along with my pro-life family and friends, than so can others and everyone that is a Progressive feminist must start considering discussing these matters out in the open, and that includes this magazine, <a href="">Ms. Magazine</a>, <a href="">On the Issues</a>, and the feminist blogosphere (too many sites to list and link). The reality is that the pro-life viewpoint is not going away anytime soon, just as the pro-choice viewpoint is not going away anytime soon. We have to live amongst each other. Life on the whole is really very short, and I would rather live in peace and courage than at war and cowardice.

Another point of view... refreshing, thank you for having the courage to write. I don't necessarily agree with everything you've written but having someone intelligent provide a different point of view is important; otherwise its just a deafening cacophony of self righteousness.

It seems hopeless

Dear Anonymous (I understand the pro-choice...)
It seems hopeless to confront you will the fallacies in your post. It seems hopeless because, while you profess to understand, you yourself seem so unclear about what late term abortions are and why women have them. In Dr. Tiller's own words "make no mistake, this is about self determination by women of the direction and course of their lives and their family's lives. Abortion is...a matter of survival for women." And hopefully his clinic's website will be up and running again soon so you can read the testimonials of his patients. These are women who were going to give birth to dead babies, whose fetuses were threatening their life, victims of rape, and women who had no access to early term abortion because of where they live, their communities, their families, or their income. Is it still "partial-birth" if there was no chance at life? The nature of the procedure is almost entirely beside the point. It is a last resort. No one would choose this if there were other options. No considerate thinker should have "conscientious pause" about not forcing a woman to go through labor for a corpse.

Honoring Dr. Tiller and the women that he served

Andi, thank you for this post. I have been in deep mourning since Sunday as Dr. Tiller was not only my hero but my friend, and the loss of him feels huge and political but also so personal that reading the news coverage is sometimes just too much ...

A couple things I would like to say in response to the comments that have been made. Not to get nit-picky, but one of the mis-speaks of the media and several people here is that Dr. Tiller was NOT an ob/gyn ... he was a Family Medicine physician who came to specialize in abortion and reproductive health work because of the tremendous need he saw in his patients. I think this is an important piece of his life story.

Secondly, in response to the dialogue about "I understand the pro-choice ...": Thank you to Amy B. for pointing out that second and third trimester abortions are NOT an issue that should be taken back to the birth control debate. We can promote birth control all we want, and so many of us do, but the fact of the matter is that there is no perfect birth control and women have been finding ways to prevent and end pregnancies since the beginning of civilization. Women make the choice to have an abortion because they already have children, because they want to be good mothers, because of a million reasons that are brave and loving and moral ... sometimes these women face incredible delays in accessing abortion because of the extensive legal restrictions that are the norm across the country. Some of them can't afford it and have to spend weeks saving every last penny. Some do not find out they are pregnant until they are already pretty far along. And yes, some have very wanted pregnancies and then experience the horrible tragedy of finding out their fetus in not viable, many times through prenatal tests that are only available in the third trimester, only to be told by their doctors and insurance companies and everyone else but Dr. Tiller that there is nothing that can be done to help them in their tremendous grief. I know that this makes people squeamish, but as would the description of most medical procedures, and to tell the medical side without telling the stories of the women who choose these procedures is an injustice. And yes "And I Grow Weary ...", we should be talking about b/c, but not to exclusion of honest conversation about abortion that does not always drive us to defend the fact that "we don't like abortion either." Women will always need abortions, and as long as they do, I can only hope that there are doctors as compassionate as Dr. Tiller to serve them.

Original "I understand the pro-choice..." poster...

Thank you for all of these additional comments. Of course, as a pro-life feminist, I view every abortion as a sad reality because of the life that is ended. But I don't trivialize the real dilemna women face (that I faced as an unwed mother) in making the decision and understand that there is not likely any resolute answer to the right-to-life and right-over-body conflicts that make abortion such a contentious issue; and also that good, sincere women fall on both sides of the issue.

I think there are feminist bullies on both sides that often outshout the rest of us who truly want to find common ground for the betterment of women and can agree to disagree but still treat each other with respect and consideration. Makes me more a believer in feminism everyday - to see individual voices emerge on a blog like this without too much name-calling or self-righteous attitudes - that it can be more inclusive and continue striving to gain equal footing for women on a number of issues.

Just as an aside, I was raised Catholic, send my children to Catholic school, and was raised by a very loyal, faithful, Pope-following grandmother. I have NEVER (really, it must be a very small percentage) met a Catholic woman who didn't believe in (or use) birth control...seriously, the only Catholics that are pushing that idea are very old men who happen to maintain their positions of power in the Church....but that's a whole other issue:)

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