I did the 500 miles between Iowa City and Wichita in seven hours, chased by a line from an Allen Ginsburg poem about a trip he took to Wichita during the Vietnam War: “The war is language / language abused / for Advertisement.” This was 2005, not 1966, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had left me grasping for words to counter a vocabulary saturated with violence. But you can’t just show up at an organization’s door and start quoting poetry and expect to be granted entry, so when a young woman in thick glasses cracked open the door to the mobile home and asked if she could help me, I gave her my name and told her I had an appointment.
She asked me to give her a moment and closed the door, leaving me on a stoop shaded by a copse of pine trees. Unless he’d forgotten or changed his mind, inside the trailer waited the president of Operation Rescue, Troy Newman. Studying an empty oil barrel rusting away in dying grass beside a sun-bleached wooden cross with “HE DIED FOR YOU” painted in red across the top beam, the part of me that questioned the wisdom of talking to people who drive around in trucks plastered with photographs of aborted fetuses hoped he had.
Seven years later, in 2012, a 24-year-old man named David Daleiden with fewer reservations than I would make a similar journey to Newman’s doorstep. For several years, as part of a pro-life group called Live Action that specialized in hidden-camera videos, Daleiden posed as an employee with a company that procured fetal tissue for medical research in order to record conversations with Planned Parenthood employees. He’d done so seeking evidence Planned Parenthood was doing more than covering their costs for providing fetal tissues for medical research, which would be a violation of federal law, but had failed to come up with anything. Assuming he could find what he sought, there was also the question of how to get the videos the kind of attention he thought they deserved.
Newman took a liking to him, later describing him in an interview on Fox News as energetic and motivated and sharing Newman’s desire to use the legal system to attack anyone associated with providing abortions. He also liked Daleiden’s focus on fetal tissue since, like embryonic stem cell research, it had rhetorical and political advantages. The public’s general unfamiliarity with the purposes and benefits of both types of research created a space where activists could create a narrative based on graphic details, innuendo, and claims of merely seeking to uphold the law—all of which served their real goal of complicating access to abortion.
When Daleiden approached Newman about his research project, he understood this landscape. He knew how to disguise his identity and make hidden-camera videos, but had reached the limits of what he could do on his own. Operation Rescue could offer financial resources and advice to expand his project—but in 2011, anything associated with Operation Rescue would struggle to gain traction outside the most ardent corners of the pro-life movement. Since the ’90s the organization had fallen on hard times, splintering and losing both membership and lawsuits while developing a reputation that embarrassed less aggressive activists.
The solution: Create what Newman would call an “investigative journalism organization” called The Center for Medical Progress to release what is thought to be thousands of hours of video. Edited down to short, misleading clips—subsequently debunked with the release of the complete footage—the failure of the videos to show what they purport to show was mostly irrelevant to their reception. What Newman understood is that if you tell people how to see something, those who are sympathetic to your goals will see it that way regardless of the content.
Before the videos were released, only two Planned Parenthood affiliates in the country provided fetal tissues to medical researchers, and according to Politico only its California affiliate accepted reimbursement for its costs. But after the release, at least a dozen states launched investigations or hearings.
Even at the federal level, hearings led to calls by Republicans to revoke Planned Parenthood’s federal funding. When Rep. John Boehner refused to support those who’d close down the federal government unless the demand was met, it was the last straw in a contentious relationship he’d had with an ultra-conservative faction of Congress. Boehner was forced to resign his position as Speaker of the House.
In no instance did investigators find evidence that Planned Parenthood broke any laws.
Information-as-intimidation is one of Operation Rescue’s preferred tactics. The organization’s “Tiller Watch” page listed the whereabouts of George Tiller, the Kansas OB/GYN who was one of only three doctors in the country performing third-trimester abortions, including the address of his home and of his church, where he was murdered in 2009 by a mentally ill anti-abortion activist named Scott Roeder. In the years after Tiller’s murder, they’ve maintained a growing public database of the names, locations, and photographs of every doctor who performs an abortion in the United States. This dissemination of personal information about abortion providers is the digital equivalent of the Wanted posters pro-life activists distributed throughout the 1980s and 1990s that resulted in the murders of the doctors they depicted. However, since it presents the information with an exhortation not to use it for violent purposes, Operation Rescue is able to threaten through implication without opening itself up to prosecution.
In the spring of 2005, Troy Newman had been the president of Operation Rescue and living in Wichita for three years. He had moved there at the request of Operation Rescue’s previous president Flip Benham, who commanded Newman in a letter to “Go to Wichita with a desire to lay your life down for the saints who are there desiring to see child killing come to an end in the city of Wichita and our nation.” The year before Rolling Stone published a profile on Newman titled “One Man’s God Squad” that made him sound as wild-eyed as the headline suggested—and George Tiller was still alive.
“Wichita,” Newman wrote, “isn’t big enough for George Tiller and me.”
The pro-life community had been obsessed with Tiller for years. Tiller’s reputation for expertise, mentorship, and willingness to continue his practice in a hostile environment had made him arguably the most famous doctor offering abortion services in the country and elevated him to hero status among abortion providers. To those who wished to make abortion illegal, all of these attributes only increased their motivation to intimidate him into quitting or to find a law he’d broken that would force the state to close his practice.
In the hundreds of thousands of words written about Tiller, two events encapsulating the anger felt by pro-life activists toward him almost always receive attention. The first was in 1991, when he was the focus of the “Summer of Mercy” protests, which Operation Rescue helped organize.
Initially intended as a weeklong picketing outside the city’s three women’s health clinics, the protest lasted through July and most of August and primarily targeted Tiller’s clinic, Women’s Health Care Services. Thousands of protesters arrived to chain themselves to fences and lie down in streets to block clinic access while screaming and praying. Police made 2,700 arrests and, by the end, officers had resorted to wearing weightlifting belts to support their backs from lifting and dragging the dead weight of thousands of limp protesters. Dr. Tiller’s clinic, Women’s Health Care Services, was the primary target, but the protests culminated when WCHS and Wichita’s other two clinics closed for a week.
Two years later, in August of 1993, a protester shot Tiller while he was leaving work, wounding him in both arms. Unwilling to allow them the victory of closing his clinic again, he returned to work the next day and went public with the news that since the 1970s he had also been running an adoption service for pro-choice parents.
From 2005 until Tiller’s murder in 2009, Fox News broadcaster Bill O’Reilly, or his guests, would mention Tiller in at least 28 episodes, almost always referring to him as “Tiller the Baby Killer” and comparing him to a Nazi, language commonly used by Operation Rescue.
It didn’t matter that according to the Center for Disease Control, only 1.4 percent of abortions occur after 21 weeks, or that these were often intended pregnancies where something had gone wrong with fetal development while also risking the woman’s health. In Kansas, the procedure is legal after 22 weeks only to protect the life of the woman or because a continuation of the pregnancy would cause a “substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.”
In 1998, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment began requiring doctors to submit records of abortions performed at their clinics. Over the next 10 years, Tiller performed approximately 4,800 abortions past 22 weeks. Close to 2,000 of the procedures were required due to severe defects in fetal development, or illnesses. The rest were deemed necessary to protect the life and health of the woman. His patients had traveled to Wichita from around the world.
When Newman and the organization moved from San Diego to Wichita he began going through Tiller’s trash and harassing businesses that worked with him—dry cleaners, garbage collectors, the Starbucks where he bought his coffee—and threatening them with boycotts and the annoyance of a “Truth Truck,” a flat-panel box truck emblazoned with photographs of fetuses, left in their parking lots.
In a full-page ad Newman placed in the Catholic newspaper The Wanderer, it was clear he had embraced the Wild-West heritage of his new hometown in the challenge he issued: “Wichita,” he wrote, “isn’t big enough for George Tiller and me.”
My first encounter with Newman was in September of 2004, at an intersection in Iowa City, when I passed a “Truth Truck” on my way to the grocery store, the headline over the image declaring that John Kerry and John Edwards were “A Bloody Team for a Bloody America.” I’d just moved to Iowa from Washington, DC, for graduate school and a job teaching writing to college freshmen. The Iowa caucuses were approaching and the truck seemed to confirm all the East Coast stereotypes about “Middle America” I’d yet to unlearn.
I wanted to dismiss the truck and its driver as artifacts left over from the days of mass clinic protests, violence, and lawsuits. But if I assumed I knew him, didn’t that make me just as close-minded as I thought he was?
Over the years, I’d evolved from preacher’s kid to non-practicing Christian sympathizer to agnostic to atheist, but was nevertheless offended by such a display by someone claiming beliefs I’d once espoused. Well into adulthood, I identified as pro-choice mainly out of a disinterest in having input on whether or not someone became a parent and my belief that abortions only happened if there was a good reason. My awareness of the anger and violence legal abortion inspired in some people was as dim as my awareness of the ways in which pregnancy can go awry and the reasons why women feel obligated to make that decision. By the time I spoke with Newman on the phone, I was still largely ignorant of the degree to which access had been curtailed since it had been legalized.
The next morning, a quick Googling of the Truth Trucks turned up a 2001 article on Florida police searching an Operation Rescue truck in which they found three handguns, two shotguns, ammunition, body armor, and pepper spray, for which the driver had a permit. A bit more internet sleuthing led me to a photograph Newman had posted of himself titled “The Well-Prepared Pro-Lifer.” It revealed a trim white man a few years older than me with the inoffensive appearance of a real estate agent, his hair cropped and graying, a leather jacket over a checkered button-down shirt and khakis. He stood in the dark and carried a spotlight—labeled as “The ‘Light of Truth’ (especially helpful for night picketers),” a Bible—“Sword of the Lord”—a bullhorn, video camera, and digital camera. His cell phone number was listed. Any loon could call him up.
When I joined those ranks the next morning, he said he was sitting in a Truth Truck parked outside of a Cracker Barrel in Monroe, La., 850 miles away. Despite the distance he assured me the truck I’d seen belonged to him.
Over the next hour, he did most of the talking, answering my questions about his tactics with a mash-up of Bush administration war-on-terror rhetoric, complaints about the media, and populist language sprinkled with sports metaphors. He said the best strike against abortion was “a preemptive one.” The only way to get their message out was to “run an end-run around the mainstream media.” Operation Rescue wanted to “bring it to the people.” He’d picked up the term “every tool in the toolbox” from Donald Rumsfeld and described the trucks as satire, as funny, saying, “if you can’t laugh, you’re dead.”
As an afterthought, I asked what he would be doing if Roe v. Wade was overturned.
His answer would eventually send me to Wichita.
“I’d be an entrepreneur,” he said. “That’s what I do now. I invest. Stock. Real estate. I do whatever will turn a profit and I’ve got a pretty good eye for that sort of thing. That’s what I did with Operation Rescue. No one wanted to be associated with us. We were known as the bombers and the shooters and the radicals. I bought the URL and the rights to the name. If I had a million-dollar advertising budget, I couldn’t buy the kind of media attention I get with this name.”
The “we” in this instance meant Summer-of-Mercy-era Operation Rescue, when it was run not by Newman but by a used car salesman named Randall Terry. Terry had become infamous for showing a fetus in a bucket to Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention, and he was sued by the National Organization for Women on anti-racketeering charges for Operation Rescue’s clinic-blocking tactics.
In 2008, though he had left the organization more than a decade prior, Terry unsuccessfully sued the US Patent and Trademark Office demanding they cancel Newman’s ownership of the name. Terry claimed he should still own the name and called Newman a “squatter,” saying Newman never took the risks he did. Terry said he only left the organization and gave up the name in an attempt to dodge lawsuits and that Newman’s ownership of the name was about profiting off the name’s ability to attract media attention and donations. Newman retorted that the lawsuit was “unbiblical.”
Motivated in part by a desire to not give him the attention he desired, I decided in 2004 that Newman was a person best ignored and allowed the peace of his own obsessions. Our conversation had revealed nothing to suggest otherwise.
Then George W. Bush was reelected with the evangelical Christian vote. Hopped up on the political zeitgeist, I came to see Newman as representative of that vote and decided his words embodied what felt like a truth about the merging of entrepreneurial ambition and morality. I was enticed by the idea of sitting across from someone who’d made that marriage into a career. I wanted to roam around in Newman’s world. Breathe its air.
The trailer door opened. Inviting me inside, the woman with the thick glasses turned to monitor a photocopier ejecting postcards printed with a photograph of a dismembered human fetus. Two men stood along the opposite wall, talking in front of a window adorned with a fading NRA sticker. One was tall and gaunt, the other heavy and bearded. I recognized them from photographs as Operation Rescue staff and they answered my hello with a look down the hallway.
Troy Newman, flanked by soft-focus photographs of cherubic babies, stood in the half-open doorway leading to his office, then strode forward, hand extended, smiling and introducing himself with a question.
“Are you wearing a wire?”
I laughed. No one else did.
“Treat him like he’s FBI,” said Newman to the two men. “Tell him the whole truth and nothing but the truth—but only what he already knows.” To me he said, “Let’s go for a ride.”
At lunch, he prayed over the crab rangoon, asking for “help in protecting all the little babies” and explained he left Catholicism and mainline Protestant Christianity because both are tainted by “the feminized church,” which is “feelings-based,” where “love gushes from every pore.”
“I’m edgy,” he said. “I speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. I speak for the babies. They hired me.”
Sitting across from him, I felt none of the irritation experienced when I saw the truck, only the sense that we were two guys trying to find meaning in life by attaching ourselves to other people’s tragedies. He resisted questions about his family or Operation Rescue’s finances. Instead, he told me what I already knew: that he was adopted and raised Catholic in Anchorage, Alaska, and left home at 18 to enroll in community college in California, and that he had worked for a machine shop, computer manufacturer, and a defense contractor while becoming an evangelical Christian, studying at a bible college, and proselytizing to surfers on San Diego’s beaches. He went to work for Operation Rescue a few years later and eventually took over the San Diego chapter.
When he moved to Wichita in 2002, a couple of staff members followed him, including Cheryl Sullenger, who had been convicted in 1988 for a plan to blow up a San Diego women’s clinic providing abortions. She’d worked previously with Robert Ferguson, another Operation Rescue member, who has his own page on the website of The Army of God, an organization that describes those who kill abortion providers as American heroes. When the publisher of Life Advocate Magazine, a magazine that advocated for the killing of abortion providers, died of a heart attack at a Denny’s after a long pro-life speech, Sullenger described Life Advocate Magazine as “a no-nonsense periodical that urged Christians to take meaningful action to protect the innocent.”
Once in Kansas, Newman tracked down his birth mother and siblings using the same private investigator he uses to investigate clinic employees—though he declined to say what he did with that information—bought several houses as rental properties, and moved to a small town outside of Wichita.
Married, he has five children, all of whom are home schooled to keep them from assimilating into secular culture. He is an elder in Presbyterian Church PCA, an evangelical church that left the mainstream Presbyterian church, and is an ordained minister in what he will describe only as a “non-denominational denomination.” In his 2001 self-published book Their Blood Cries Out, he wrote that the September 11 terrorist attacks were God’s response to the legality of abortion, that AIDS and cancer are God’s responses to Roe v. Wade, compared Women’s Health Care Services to Nazi concentration camps and suggested that abortion is a “sacrifice to demons;” the evil spirits that guided sacrifices made to the Canaanite god Baal “are probably the same ones hanging out down at the Planned Parenthood offices!”
When we returned to the trailer after lunch, Newman ushered me past the small group huddled around the photocopier and into his office. I sat across from a large spear (a gift from a friend) hanging on the wall to the left of a poster of Winston Churchill brandishing a Tommy gun. Scattered about on the walls were photographs of babies, Bible quotations, and framed newspaper articles referencing Newman. On his bookshelf, a Bible rested upon Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, a fifth-century book of aphorisms that’s found a second life in the sales community. Newman interrupted my brief fantasy of a sales team practicing trust falls while chanting “all war is deception” by popping a videocassette into a VCR and asking if I ever watched The O’Reilly Factor.
Before we watched the show, he listened to a voicemail from an executive vice president with a hotel chain unhappy about a Truth Truck intermittently parked in front of one of their Wichita hotels. The hotel, said Newman, offered medical discounts to women in town for abortions, and he didn’t think they should. Newman had studied the regulations closely and saw himself as providing a service to the hotel by informing them he suspected that nurses from Tiller’s clinic checked in on patients, which he believed qualified as illicit medical care.
Newman had chuckled about how mad the man sounded on the voicemail but once on the phone, they spoke politely. Hanging up the receiver, Newman yelled “KAPOW!” out into the hallway.
Getting “no response from the troops,” Newman forced a laugh and a sigh. The vice president had said the discounts went to anyone in town for any medical procedure and they would keep offering them but would make sure nurses were not offering actual medical services on the premises. Newman considered this a win and called up a friend, putting him on the speakerphone and introducing me as a “writer doing a psychological profile” on him. Newman told his friend the hotel was “kicking out” the nurses.
From 2005 until Tiller’s murder in 2009, Bill O’Reilly or his guests would mention Tiller in at least 28 episodes, almost always referring to him as “Tiller the Baby Killer.”
The phone rang before he could start the tape and Newman again punched the speakerphone button. The caller was a young woman.
“I have this postcard with all this stuff on it.”
“You sent these?”
She had received an Operation Rescue postcard sent to the neighbors of clinic employees featuring each employee’s photo, name, and address and the admonition to “Tell death to leave your neighborhood.”
Newman’s back was to the telephone as she spoke. “You guys are sending her contact information out and her picture and stuff. If something happened to her you’d be liable.”
Without looking up from the VCR remote control, Newman responded that the clinic employee mentioned on the postcard “profits off of blood.”
“She’s a human being, too. I mean, what are you people doing?” For several seconds neither person spoke, then the line clicked.
“She hung up because she doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” said Newman. “We put Tiller’s clinic number on the postcards and they call the clinic. Then Tiller’s people give them our number. She’s an idiot.”
Asked to clarify, he would only say she didn’t understand that what he did was legal; adding after a pause that he liked “to mix it up.” He reached for the remote.
The O’Reilly Factor segment of interest featured a debate over the then-Kansas attorney general Phil Kline’s request, under the auspices of investigating sex crimes, to see the medical records of girls under the age of 16 who receive abortions.
The attorney general’s argument was he needed to see the records as a step in determining if any of the minors had been in a sexual relationship with adults. He justified the demand by interpreting the state’s mandatory reporting laws on statutory rape to mean that any evidence of sexual activity by anyone under the age of 16 was by default considered evidence of injury, allowing him access to their records. (Kline’s investigation would cause him to lose reelection by 17 percent; a related investigation of George Tiller would cause the indefinite suspension of his law license for professional misconduct.)
After he spoke, a spokeswoman for a pro-choice group claimed the patients’ rights to privacy would be harmed and that the requisitioning of records was intended as an intimidation tactic.
“They always put the pretty girls on for the other side,” complained Newman. “Look at the guy opposing her! Look at his hair! He looks like a mobster!” Then, “Did you hear that? He didn’t say abortion clinic, he said abortion mill. Those are my talking points! His producers email us all the time for information. I was supposed to be on the show a couple times, but got bumped.”
The show ended. Staring into the dark screen, Newman said, “I’m not crazy about the show, but I’ll get on there one day. It’ll happen. I’ll get on there eventually.”
We talked about contraception. He didn’t like it. Leave it up to God, he said. Besides, having kids makes a person behave more responsibly. He told me guys need to learn how to keep their thing in their pants and then reached behind his back to draw a four-inch blade with a serrated edge.
“It’s like learning about this knife,” he said, waggling it in my direction. “This is a knife. It’s dangerous. It cuts. Ow. Some people stab people with it. Learn how to use it.”
The next day, I watched the thin man I’d met in Operation Rescue’s trailer and his wife stand on the sidewalk facing the church attended by Tiller and hold signs and demand the congregation repent. Churchgoers drove by and waved.
Outside Tiller’s clinic I met a Vietnam vet who called himself a “crosstologist” who’d been hired during a period of homelessness by a former mail-in Christian dating service operator to plant crosses into the grass in front of Tiller’s clinic each morning and remove them at night.
He struck me as lonely and happy for company when I accepted his invitation to come to his house. He told me being a liberal meant you’re obliged to listen and consent to all ideas, then shared that the rifle hanging over the fireplace was the same model used to shoot John F. Kennedy.
I asked him if he ever had any doubts about his own beliefs and he admitted he saw things pretty much in black and white and that was his weakness; he knew there was a lot of gray, a lot we don’t know and a lot he doesn’t know and the strongest thing you can do is admit what you don’t know, and that maybe he shouldn’t say it, but he didn’t know how humans arrived on this planet. From that mystery he concluded that human life originated from somewhere else, from “worlds beyond,” and that’s why the liberals were stupid on this one. Because they weren’t willing to admit it was possible we’re descended from space aliens.
In 2007, the Supreme Court upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Act, which used a misleading name to further erode support for abortion. It is the only time the US Congress has ever banned a medical procedure.
I drove back to Iowa and tried to forget about the trip. When asked by friends what had happened, I shrugged it off as a wild goose chase. National events began to suggest otherwise.
In 2007, the Supreme Court upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Act, which used a misleading name to further erode support for abortion. Used to terminate pregnancies between 20 and 26 weeks, a “D&X” was also used to remove second-trimester miscarriages and was often requested by those mothers who wished to say goodbye to their lost child. It can also be safer than other late-term procedures. It is the only time the US Congress has ever banned a medical procedure.
In a later session, the Supreme Court dismissed the decision in the National Organization for Women’s suit against Operation Rescue, a ruling the court decided was a violation of free speech. Some states began to require clinics acquire hospital admitting privileges—which providers say is unnecessary and illogical since hospitals handle their own admissions. Twenty-six states now require a 24-hour waiting period between consultation and abortion, which complicates matters for people who do not live near a clinic. Personhood amendments regularly crop up to declare that a fertilized egg is a human being. The time window in which abortions can be performed has narrowed in many states, and some ban specific types of procedures irrespective of the science on their efficacy and safety, require parental notification, and mandate that doctors read unscientific warnings to potential patients.
In Alabama, where a minor can ask a judge to bypass the parental consent laws if she cannot obtain their consent, the state legislature passed a law that would require the state to appoint a lawyer to represent the rights of the fetus and allow the district attorney to call witnesses to testify against the minor until she is past the point where it is legal to get an abortion in Alabama. In a single session, Missouri’s state legislature filed 32 pieces of legislation to regulate the only surgical abortion facility in the state. In 2013, Texas passed an omnibus bill requiring clinics undergo renovations to become ambulatory surgical centers, in effect making them miniature hospitals. Compliance requires expensive renovations beyond the reach of smaller clinics, which tend to be located in smaller towns and rural areas, meaning abortion services will be limited to cities with larger, established clinics. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and American Medical Association have said in a brief opposing the Texas law that there is “no medical basis” for the renovations and requirement to have hospital admissions privileges for a procedure that is safe and rarely results in hospitalization. Texas’ motivation for the restrictions is critical to the case as it challenges the contention in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey that the state may not place “undue burdens” on abortion access. Should the Supreme Court view the regulations as having a medical basis, Texas will be left with nine clinics compared to the 41 that were open when the bill passed and other states will be free to pass similar laws. A ruling is expected in June.
A study by the Texas Evaluation Project presented in mid-November of 2015 at the North American Forum on Family Planning found that 100,000-240,000 women in Texas have self-induced an abortion. A previous study found that self-inducement was more common in Texas than in other states, with 7 percent of women saying they tried to end their pregnancy on their own by comparison to 2 percent nationally. The new study questions the conventional wisdom that self-induced abortions are rare and suggests that lowering access to abortion does little to curtail the desire to obtain one—it only complicates the methods and safety.
Access has been severely curtailed. Operation Rescue claims the number of abortion clinics has dropped by 75 percent since 1991, numbers that don’t entirely mesh with statistics compiled by the Guttmacher Institute, the leading sexual and reproductive health research organization. Operation Rescue estimates there are 739 abortion clinics, a figure that does align with estimates by the Guttmacher Institute, though Guttmacher says a little more than half of those clinics are specialized abortion clinics, defined as a clinic where more than half of all patient visits are for an abortion. But Guttmacher calculated the United States only had around 900 nonhospital clinics by the mid-1990s, suggesting the decline is closer to 20 percent.
Since the mid-1990s, the Guttmacher Institute finds that the number or doctors who provide abortions at clinics, hospitals, and physician’s offices has dropped from approximately 2,100 doctors to 1,720. Since 2010, at least 54 clinics in 27 states have either closed or no longer offer abortions. Each state has at least one clinic, five states have five or fewer, and the South and Midwest have the lowest rates of access and longest distances to travel for access.
In 2008, a year before Tiller’s murder, Newman used an 1887 law allowing anyone with enough signatures to convene a grand jury against Tiller. Operation Rescue’s lawyer brought 19 misdemeanor charges against the doctor built on a Kansas law prohibiting the two doctors required to sign off on any third-trimester abortion from having a financial relationship when both have a financial interest in the decision. Newman claimed he could show Tiller had financial connections with the doctor who typically offered the second opinion. The evidence showed that, as permitted under Kansas law, the other doctor was paid for her consultation, her time, and the two-hour drive from her own practice in Lawrence, but that payment was the same regardless of her decision, and Tiller accepted her conclusions even when they conflicted with his own. She did concede to using his office printer on occasion.
After deliberating for 25 minutes the jury declined to indict Tiller.
Sitting in the courtroom was 51-year-old Scott Roeder, who saw the refusal to indict he saw a justice system unable to do what needed to be done. As with the previous attempt on Tiller’s life a year after the Summer of Mercy, the second attempt would follow the failure of a sustained and high-profile effort to close his clinic.
As a child, Scott Roeder was diagnosed as schizophrenic, but refused medication. In his late twenties, he married, had a son, and after a period of unemployment fell in the thrall of the 700 Club and Christian anti-tax and anti-government groups. Soon he became convinced fluoride was a poison and part of a conspiracy to give him cancer. He found a vessel for all of his troubles in fighting taxes and abortion, and became emotionally abusive to his wife, who divorced him.
Roeder protested at Tiller’s clinic in Wichita and another in his hometown of Kansas City, where in the months after Tiller’s acquittal he was repeatedly caught on videotape super-gluing locks. In May of 2009, he purchased a .22 pistol at a pawn shop. His background check revealed that the FBI had received letters from the husband of Roeder’s ex-wife saying Roeder was a danger to Tiller, and that during a traffic stop 15 years earlier, Roeder had been arrested for possession of explosives and a military rifle without a permit. But because the search of his car had been overturned on technical grounds, he passed his background check and was able to take possession of the gun the next day.
Newman writes that those who provide and support abortion suffer from “bloodguilt,” a biblical concept from Deuteronomy 21 commonly cited in the anti-abortion movement that exhorts a community to cleanse itself by executing its murderers.
He was in Wichita by that evening and would attend services over the next three weeks at Reformation Lutheran Church, waiting for Tiller to come to church. On the last day in May, Roeder found Tiller in the foyer with the other church ushers. He walked up to him, drew the .22, and shot him in the head. At the time of his death, Tiller was wearing body armor, as he had since the late ’90s.
Roeder was arrested that afternoon. After his arrest news crews photographed a piece of paper in his car on which he’d jotted Cheryl Sullenger’s phone number. When questioned, she said she never called him, that he had been the one to call her, and that they had only discussed protest locations and questions he had about Tiller. She characterized the conversations as similar to those she has all the time.
Soon, comments he’d posted on Operation Rescue’s web site wishing a large group of people would protest inside the church Tiller attended surfaced, as did evidence that he donated a thousand dollars to Operation Rescue.
When asked about a connection with Roeder, Newman called him a “loon” and said they’d never met, that he was opposed to violence, and that the murder disappointed him since he believed the doctor was planning on retiring and that Operation Rescue was on the cusp of finding another law the doctor had broken.
Amanda Robb, the niece of Barnett Slepian, an abortion provider murdered in 1998, interviewed Roeder in jail a dozen times over a six-month period in 2010. Roeder told her that he had spoken intermittently on the phone with Sullenger before the murder, a story corroborated by his roommate who shared Roeder’s views.
He also said that he had indeed met Newman. He said that in 2002 he had lunch with Newman, who gave him a signed copy of Their Blood Cries Out. In the book, Newman writes that those who provide and support abortion suffer from “bloodguilt,” a biblical concept from Deuteronomy 21 commonly cited in the anti-abortion movement that exhorts a community to cleanse itself by executing its murderers. This reading is commonly interpreted by people who study the violent elements of the pro-life movement as a way they justify killing abortion providers.
During that lunch, Roeder said he asked Newman about whether it was justified to use violence to stop abortion, using Tiller as an example. He claimed Newman said if Tiller were murdered, “it wouldn’t upset me.”
It took a jury 37 minutes to convict Scott Roeder of murder. He received the maximum allowed under state law: life in prison with no possibility of parole for 50 years.
In an interview with Associated Press reporter Roxana Hegeman, Newman blamed Tiller’s death on Sedgwick County district attorney Nola Foulston, whom Operation Rescue had long accused of “protecting” Tiller. To Newman, if Foulston had “done her job” and prosecuted Tiller during an earlier case, he would still be alive because Roeder would not have felt obligated to take the law into his own hands.
Newman made these statements not from the mobile home were we had met, but from Operation Rescue’s new headquarters, a former abortion clinic that had closed after the clinic was late on its rent and forced the property into escrow. When women who don’t know about the clinic’s closure arrive seeking an abortion, he greets them with a lecture and a tour.
After a period of weak donations following Tiller’s murder, their finances recovered and they found a new target: a doctor in Nebraska who frequently traveled to work at Tiller’s clinic.
On April 3, 2013, the former director of a political action committee founded by Tiller re-opened Women’s Health Care Services under the name South Wind Women’s Center. They no longer offer abortions after 22 weeks and it is now the only abortion clinic remaining in Wichita. Scott Roeder, in an interview posted on YouTube with a supporter who openly advocates for violence, immediately began speculating how long it would be before someone targeted the new staff.
Looking back over the past 10 years since I met Troy Newman, I see how Newman and those who think like him force a strange dichotomy. On one side, the existential zygote, embryo, and fetus. On the other, the health and well-being of everyone else, including the pro-life community. To confuse the process of becoming human with what it means to be human diminishes life down to a series of basic biological events. Ironically, this elevation of biology has public health consequences.
Case in point: Buried beneath the false allegations and political intrigue of the Planned Parenthood videos was the news that Operation Rescue’s tactics had again inspired the threat of violence in the form of death threats received by those who work at companies procuring fetal tissue. Wishing to avoid threats and negative publicity, some of the companies have found it easier to stop providing the tissues at all. That means researchers who use the tissue, who have received similar threats, now find it harder to push forward with research into some of the most common and cruelest diseases, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease.
Ideology posing as science, it turns out, is bad for our health.