Dr. George Tiller drove a jeep with armor plating and a bombproof glass and undercarriage to and from work every day. His clinic, where he practiced medicine for decades, was a fortress. His out-of-town patients, many of whom were facing catastrophic pregnancies, could no longer stay at one local hotel because it was targeted by protesters. In early May 2009, someone cut the power to the security cameras and outdoor lights at the clinic and drilled holes in the roof. On May 31, 2009, Tiller was gunned down in the lobby of his church as he handed out flyers before the service. He was wearing his bulletproof vest at the time.
Tiller was killed because he was an abortion provider. The man charged with his murder, Scott P. Roeder, is currently on trial, charged with first degree murder. This week, as the prosecution rests and defense lawyers begin to put on their case, we expect Roeder to try to introduce evidence to prove he is only guilty of voluntary manslaughter. If he succeeds, instead of facing a life sentence he could receive less than 10 years in prison.
In Kansas, where Tiller was murdered and the trial is being held, voluntary manslaughter is known as the “imperfect self-defense.” It is available to those defendants who honestly, but mistakenly, believed the circumstances justified the use of deadly force.
But Roeder is not asserting that he misread the circumstances in the lobby of Tiller’s church that morning. He is arguing that he is less culpable for Tiller’s murder because he honestly believes that the constitution should not protect the right to abortion. Roeder knows that abortion is a constitutionally protected right; he just thinks it shouldn’t be. Not only is this a blatant misreading of the law, but the broader implications of the defense should be frightening to anyone who has ever exercised a constitutional right.
On Wednesday, the ACLU asked the court to prohibit Roeder from arguing that his anti-abortion beliefs, no matter how genuine, mean he is less culpable for Tiller’s murder. As the Kansas Supreme Court held nearly 20 years ago (in a similar case): “If every person were to act upon his or her personal beliefs in this manner, and we were to sanction the act, the result would be utter chaos.”
Doctors who provide abortions deserve the full protection of the law. They devote their lives to ensuring that women can get the health care they need. It is important that we support a woman’s ability to make this most private, personal decision. And it is critical that we protect the medical professionals who care for them. Just because Roeder disagrees with legal abortion, doesn’t mean he should get away with murder.