The documentary, The Assassination of Dr. Tiller, was directed and produced by Toby Oppenheimer, who co-produced Devil’s Playgroundand produced The Timothy McVeigh Tapes: Confessions of an American Terrorist. It clearly had the feel of msnbc’s weekend true crime stories, but this one had a clear polticial message: The deep-seeded anti-abortion sentiment in this country is dangerous. In an era where so few mainstream media outlets desire to go anywhere near the abortion debate, this documentary takes a strong pro-choice stance. In an interview that ran with Feministing before the documentary aired, Maddow said, "There are not that many things in America, where you know who’s going to get killed, because there’s a campaign against them that includes people who think that violence up to murder is justified against people with whom they disagree or who they’ve vilified."
The documentary reinforced that idea. “The ones that don’t carry guns certainly incite the ones that do,” said Shelly Sella, a doctor who was Tiller’s colleague. The documentary interviews several people involved in nearly all aspects of the case, from clinic workers to anti-choice activists to those who knew Tiller’s murderer. It showed photos of the Tiller murder crime scene, the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kans., and played the recording of the 911 call.
Of those in the documentary who knew Scott Roeder, the man who was convicted of Tiller’s murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison without parole, several noted that he was “off” and “not the brightest light on the string.”
Lindsay Roeder, the ex-wife of Scott, explained that their marriage began falling apart around the time that Scott became obsessed with the idea of saving “babies.” Roeder was converted to a fundamental form of Christianity while watching the 700 Club, a conservative Christian televangelism program. Lindsay says their marriage began to deteriorate and one day after she came home from work and her son came home from school, Scott had packed up his things and left. He joined a group called the Militia Of Montana, a pro-gun anti-governmental group. The couple later divorced.
Perhaps what is most chilling in the documentary is the tapes of Roeder’s testimony during his trial. Roeder calmly affirms holding a gun to Tiller’s forehead and pulling the trigger. “If someone didn’t stop him, the children were going to die. The babies were going to continue to die,” Roeder explained during the trial.
But if anything, Tiller approached his work with conviction as well. Tiller’s clinic and Tiller himself had been attacked several times in the last 20 years. In 1993, a woman named Rochelle Shelly Shannon shot Tiller as he was leaving work. The next day, Tiller returned to work. He later hung a sign that said, “Women need abortions. I’m going to do them.”
Tiller’s former colleagues talked of how each day at the clinic was a battle—not because of what happened inside the clinic, but because of the constant harassment from anti-abortion activists. They explained that the women who sought Tiller’s services came mostly out of desperation: Either the fetus was plagued with severe developmental problems or the women were suicidal or extremely young. “Some were 11, 12, 13 years old,” one clinic worker said.
After Tiller’s murder, his family made the decision to close the clinic. Now women in Wichita who require abortion services must drive 200 miles to Kansas City or 500 miles to Denver.
The conclusion of the documentary states clearly that those who survived Tiller—fellow clinic workers, family, and friends—certainly blame Roeder for the murder, but they also blame the seething hatred of the anti-abortion movement. Today Tiller’s motto, “Trust Women,” has become the banner of many pro-choice activists who seek to call attention to the violent harassment of abortion providers.
Though a card with an Operation Rescue hotline was found on the dash of Roeder’s vehicle when police arrested him, Troy Newman, president of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, insists that their group had nothing to do with the murder. “We’re certainly not suspects in this case,” Newman said. The group says they never intended for their message to be taken to such extreme violence.
But Nola Foulston, the district attorney who successfully argued the case against Roeder, questions claims of innocence. After years of fanning the flames of anti-abortion sentiment, she asks, “What the hell was your intent?”