The Tiller Abortion Slaying: Is Violence Against Health Care Workers ‘Domestic Terrorism’?

Photo from Planned Parenthood's Candlelight Vigil for Dr. George Tiller on Tuesday night. From KOMU News, via Flickr.

Photo from Planned Parenthood's candlelight vigil for Dr. George Tiller on Tuesday night. From KOMU News, via Flickr.

Before I earned my degree in nursing, I worked as a medical assistant at the Bill Baird Abortion Clinic in Hempstead, Long Island, which is believed to be the first abortion clinic in the United States. We used to take turns driving to LaGuardia Airport to pick up out-of-state women who came to New York City to access safe and legal services—something they couldn’t get back home in their own states. We served women of all ages and from all backgrounds. I counseled women and assisted during procedures.

It was also where the first arson attack against a clinic took place, on February 15, 1979, four years after Roe vs. Wade. Fifty people, over half of them patients, were inside at the time. Peter Burkin, a 21-year-old who’d picketed the week before, burst into the waiting room armed with a flaming two-foot torch in one hand and a gallon of gasoline in the other. While a clinic doctor completed an abortion, Burkin threw the gasoline and the torch. It was only because the staff had been trained for just such an attack that they and all the patients were able to escape in time. Burkin was captured.

I showed up to work a couple of hours later to find the clinic in flames, the streets lined with fire trucks and the police, my colleagues huddled together in tears, shaking and in shock. I was angry and struggled to try to understand this senseless violent act. We reopened a couple of weeks later in a new location, determined to continue to provide legal, safe abortions to women. I don’t remember being afraid for too long. We all got back to work and acclimated ourselves to the new line of picketers who were outside the clinic every day as we escorted the women safely inside. As the weeks went by we all assumed it was an isolated incident. There was a trial—Burkin was found guilty, and was given less then two years in a mental institution.

I was wrong about this being an isolated incident—every year since then there has been more and more violence against health care providers who provide abortion services to women in communities across America. The violence has escalated, clinic personnel have been murdered, and thousands of cases of vandalism, stalking, bombings, arson, and other serious violations have been reported. Along with the increase in violence has been an increase in legislative barriers denying access to care. Today, there are 87 counties in the United States that do not have providers available to perform abortions.

This past Sunday, more then 30 years after this first firebombing, Dr. George Tiller, one of the few U.S. doctors who performed the procedure later in pregnancy, was shot and killed at his church in Kansas.

When I heard the news, I could barely breathe. I cried. Are doctors, nurses and other caregivers who go to work to provide legal reproductive health care services, including abortions, for women in clinics and hospitals around the country at risk for their lives?

I am angrier then ever and I am determined to act. As a registered professional nurse, I ask you to join the chorus of voices demanding that the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security treat the murder and intimidation of health care workers as domestic terrorism. The violence must stop.

—Barbara Glickstein, MPH, MS, RN, is an independent broadcast journalist in NYC and a member of the board of Project Kesher. She is also on AJN’s editorial board.

Editor’s note: Off the Charts often includes posts from guest contributors. We seek to include a wide variety of viewpoints, one that reflects the diversity and vitality of the nursing community. Views expressed on the blog are solely those of the authors or persons quoted, and do not necessarily reflect AJN’s views or those of Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. Comments in response to specific posts are welcome. However, we reserve the right to remove comments that lack basic civility or are otherwise inappropriate.

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2016-11-21T13:27:25+00:00 June 3rd, 2009|Nursing|6 Comments
Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.


  1. Ruth Flicker June 3, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and convictions, Barbara.

    From what I have read in the papers, the evidence points in the direction that the shooting of Dr Tiller was a premeditated and intentionally performed action. Given that the shooting resulted in Dr Tiller’s death, those of us who are so outraged at this senseless violence must become activists in pursuit of, at mininimum, first degree murder charges.

    Due to the frequency of occurrence, as a society we have become somewhat desensitized to the horror of individuals being killed. This is especially so when the murders are reframed as justified acts in a political conflict. One example of how this works is the by now ubiquitous use of the term “suicide bombers.” Coined by those sympathetic to a political cause, the term implies that those who commit violent crimes are victims of injustice as oppose to criminal perpetrators.

    This renaming/reframing then leads to formulating the basis for legal justifications for taking the lives of others. Unfortunately, such a reframing of violent acts can result in an egregious event being transmuted into a social phenomenon. Those who will follow the prosecution of the crime committed against Dr. Tiller must guard against such reframing happening here.

    We must monitor the prosecutors and ensure that jurors are not allowed to consider this crime as any other than premeditated murder. Activists must ensure that the DA is not in the least bit ambivalent about what happened in this instance. And, if there is any evidence of doubt, activists must demand that the venue of the trial be changed.

    If this cold-blooded killing was undertaken to do more than the already unspeakably violent act of stopping Dr Tiller, and a case can be made that it was the intention of the killer to injure or intimidate other health care providers or sympathizers with abortion, then a charge of domestic terrorism makes sense. This charge makes it clear that not just specific individuals have been targeted, but that a crime has been committed against American society.

    Ruth Flicker

  2. Elaine Schreibman June 3, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    Dear Barbara,
    I too was sick when I heard of this murder. For many reasons, not the least of which is that so so many women are in desperate need of these abortions, I am furious that this is not considered an act of terrorism. Clearly, it is. And, G-d bless you and your passion – and thank you for keeping us focused on what we have to do.

  3. meg olmert June 3, 2009 at 5:52 pm

    Barbara, Thank you for reminding us of the bravery and compassion that moves health care professionals to risk their lives to provide safe, effective, LEGAL healthcare to women. You are right to demand that our justice department treat this murder as an act of domestic terrorism. It was anarchy and treason. Where’s my “Support our Health Care Professional” bow to stick on my car?

  4. Courtney Harmel June 3, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Barbara, Thank-you for asking the question “Is violence against healthcare workers domestic terrorism? in response to the murder of Dr. Tiller. You’ve written with great power & clarity about your personal experiences and I agree that there should be legislation by the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security to treat the murder and intimidation of health care workers as domestic terrorism. I’m angry too and the violence must stop!

  5. Shannon Rose June 3, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    Barbara, What I find most distressing is that Dr. Tiller wasn’t someone working at a clinic in NYC or in a very progressive area. He was a doctor in a small community in Kansas. These rural areas are already hurting for health care professionals, let alone those who are willing to perform abortions. He was very brave to stand up for the rights of women in these areas and his death is very tragic. And yes – the violence must stop!

  6. Tina Awad, LMT June 3, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Barbara, thank you for sharing your and deeply moving experiences and insight on this important and horrifying topic. Probably most of us know a woman or know of a woman who, in the past, sought out an “illegal abortion” because legal medical intervention was not available to them. They would often be taken, blind folded, to what they hoped was a safe place to receive help. They also had to go on blind faith that they would be returned to their point of origin safely and in good health. I always assumed that these events happened way before my time when I was just a kid. Now I’m not so sure. Not only must our government get involved but so must religious leaders condemn these and all acts of violence to their congregations and in a bigger public way.
    God bless the providers who hold strong to their values and ethics to give legal care to those in need.

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