On May 31st, 2009, Scott Roeder assassinated Dr. George Tiller. Roeder had been waiting patiently that morning in the pews of Tiller’s church. Right after Tiller finished his job as an usher, Roeder walked into the church foyer, pressed a gun against Tiller’s forehead and shot him. He died from the single gunshot wound.
Roeder killed the doctor for one reason, and one reason only: Tiller was a prominent abortion provider – maybe even the most prominent in the country at the time – and Roeder wanted to stop abortion. No one questions that Roeder’s radical anti-abortion views were responsible for Tiller’s death.
But this, the day Bill O’Reilly was ousted from Fox News, is a good time to remember O’Reilly’s role in the Tiller tragedy – especially in the context of newly released statistics showing that harassment of abortion providers in various forms is on the increase.
O’Reilly had waged an unflagging war against Tiller that did just about everything short of urging his followers to murder him.
According to Salon, between 2005 and April 2009, O’Reilly talked about Tiller on 29 episodes of his show. He repeatedly referred to him as “Tiller the Baby Killer” and hurled all sorts of other epithets in Tiller’s direction: He equated him with Nazis, al-Qaida and NAMBLA; said he was “operating a death mill”; claimed he was “executing babies about to be born”; and equated his profession with the actions of Mao, Hitler and Stalin.
In perhaps the most direct attack on Tiller, O’Reilly came close to saying that he personally would be violent toward Tiller if he could get away with it:
“And if I could get my hands on Tiller – well, you know. Can’t be vigilantes. Can’t do that. It’s just a figure of speech. But despicable? Oh, my God. Oh, it doesn’t get worse. Does it get worse? No.”
As Gabriel Winant of Salon wrote the day of Tiller’s murder, “there’s no other person who bears as much responsibility for the characterization of Tiller as a savage on the loose, killing babies willy-nilly thanks to the collusion of would-be sophisticated cultural elites, a bought-and-paid-for governor and scofflaw secular journalists.”
This is the mindset that Scott Roeder had when he murdered Tiller at his church on a Sunday morning. Roeder pulled the trigger; Bill O’Reilly was one of the forces to metaphorically put the bullet in the chamber.
It is important to reflect on this aspect of O’Reilly’s career not only as a way of remembering the horror of Tiller’s assassination, but also because the national epidemic of anti-abortion extremism, harassment and violence continues to this day. Since Tiller’s killing, three others have been murdered because of anti-abortion extremism. Those deaths occurred on November 27th, 2015, when another anti-abortion extremist, Robert Dear, attacked the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, killing three and injuring another nine.
According to data released this week by the National Abortion Federation, 2016 saw “an increase in a wide range of intimidation tactics meant to disrupt the provision of health care at [abortion] facilities, including vandalism, picketing, obstruction, invasion, trespassing, burglary, stalking, assault and battery, and bomb threats.” Data released earlier this year from the Feminist Majority Foundation also shows that this kind of harassment and violence against abortion clinics and providers is on the rise. These forms of harassment often fall way below the national media radar, but for many abortion providers they are a regular occurrence that impact their lives in serious ways.
The hope is that, with the announcement Wednesday of Fox News parting ways with its biggest star, O’Reilly will never again have a platform from which to attack another abortion provider and incite others to violence. But just because he’s gone – from Fox, at least – doesn’t mean we can stop being vigilant in calling out this kind of extremism as a threat to the safety of lawful medical professionals and women’s reproductive health.