George Tiller and a vague They

LIFEembedDrawImage2('88085125','260'); David Barstow of The New York Times has written a 5,600-word report on the decades-long tensions between the late Dr. George Tiller and the protesters who worked to shut down his abortion clinic, Women's Health Care Services, in Wichita, Kansas. A lone gunman murdered Tiller on Pentecost Sunday while Tiller served as an usher at Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita.

Barstow's report implies that anti-Tiller violence was simply one of many tactics used by a broadly defined anti-abortion movement. Barstow's many details are sometimes obscured by unclear writing, or language that appears to depict Tiller in heroic terms while describing his opponents more critically. Here are some revisions that I believe would have strengthened a deeply researched but unbalanced report. I have added comments after the blockquotes.

Shrewd and resourceful, Dr. Tiller made himself the nation's pre-eminent abortion practitioner, advertising widely and drawing women to Wichita from all over across the nation with his willingness to perform late-term abortions, hundreds each year. As anti-abortion activists discovered, he gave as good as he got, wearing their contempt opposition as a badge of honor. A "warrior," they called him with grudging respect.

Let's save the glowing adjectives unless they're distributed more evenly. Do you mean to suggest that anti-abortion leaders were driven by contempt? How could anyone know this?

And so for more than 30 years the anti-abortion movement threw everything into driving Dr. Tiller out of business, certain that his defeat would deal a devastating blow to the "abortion industry" that has abortion clinics that have terminated roughly 50 million pregnancies since Roe v. Wade in 1973.

This change avoids loaded jargon and scare quotes.

They blockaded his clinic; campaigned to have him prosecuted; boycotted his suppliers; tailed him with hidden cameras; branded him "Tiller the baby killer"; hit him with lawsuits, legislation and regulatory complaints; and protested relentlessly, even at his church.

Did the same people do all of these things? Did the same people engage in both nonviolent protest and more intrusive actions with hidden cameras? How many people comprise this every-possible-weapon collective? Did as many people show up at his church as at his clinic?

Some sent flowers pleading for him to quit. Some anonymous individuals, whose ties to anti-abortion groups cannot be determined, sent death threats. One bombed his clinic. Another tried to kill him in 1993, firing five shots, wounding Dr. Tiller in both arms.

Were any death threats traced, even peripherally, to leaders of anti-abortion groups? Did anti-abortion leaders, in Kansas or across the nation, respond to this bombing or this shooting? What did they say?

Confident and dryly mischievous, he Dr. Tiller told friends he had come to see himself as a general in an epic cultural war to keep abortion legal, to the point of giving employees plaques designating them "Freedom Fighters."

Is there something clearly mischievous about Tiller's self-perception or his distribution of these plaques? You've already established his confidence.

The son of a prominent Wichita physician, married 45 years, the father of 4 and grandfather of 10, a former Navy flight surgeon, a longtime Republican, Dr. Tiller, 67, insisted that he would not be driven from out of business in his hometown, where he belonged to its oldest country club, was a devoted member of one of its largest churches, was active in Alcoholics Anonymous, was deeply involved in his alma mater, the University of Kansas, and adored his local Dairy Queen.

Can you show that any anti-abortion leader wanted to drive him away from Wichita? Was that the point of these protests? Would protesters have declared victory and gone home if he had moved Women's Health Care Services to Topeka or Kansas City?

Friends said Dr. Tiller knew he would become a target. Pickets first showed up in 1975, two years after he performed his first abortion. Years later, an anti-abortion group put him on a "wanted" poster of prominent abortion providers and offered $5,000 for information leading to his arrest. When an abortion provider in Florida was assassinated murdered in 1994, Dr. Tiller spent the next few years under the protection of federal marshals.

Do you mean to suggest that the murder of David Gunn, cold-blooded and lawless as it was, equates to the killing of President Kennedy, Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.?

Protesters approached patients' cars, offering them baby blankets and urging them to visit an anti-abortion pregnancy clinic they had set up next door. Sometimes they followed patients to their hotels and slipped pamphlets under their doors. A few years ago anti-abortion campaigners spent weeks in a hotel room with a view of the Tiller clinic entrance. Using a powerful telephoto lens, they took photographs of patients, which were posted on a Web site with their faces blurred.

Much of this activity was methodically tracked by [Mark S. Gietzen, chairman of the Kansas Coalition for Life], who said he presides over a network of 600 volunteers, some of whom drove hundreds of miles for a protest "shift." Protesters counted cars entering the clinic gate, and they tracked "saves" -- patients who changed their minds. According to Mr. Gietzen's data, over the last five years they had 395 "saves" for an "overall save rate" of 3.77 percent.

They also kept detailed "incident reports" of unusual activity. It was a bonanza if an ambulance was summoned; photographs were quickly posted If an ambulance was summoned, Gietzen's group quickly posted photographs as evidence of another "botched" problematic abortion.

Is bonanza perhaps too flippant a word in this context? Also, you're clearly distancing yourself from Gietzen's jargon throughout this passage, and that's fine, but do you mean to suggest that no abortion has complications?

Jacki G., 29, went to Dr. Tiller for an abortion in 1996 after she was raped. She can still remember her trepidation when she and her mother pulled up to the clinic a few weeks into her pregnancy.

In [her?] middle school in Wichita, she said, children chanted "Tiller, Tiller, the baby killer."

This is so vague that it's confusing. Is she suggesting that middle-school students throughout Wichita chanted this? Did she say how large a group did this chanting? Was it widespread, perhaps even occurring during pep rallies? Might this seemingly perfect detail be worth verifying?

She recalled the gory Truth Trucks driving around town and the 1991 "Summer of Mercy" protests, when hundreds were arrested for blockading Dr. Tiller's clinic.

You've already described the Truth Trucks, with scare quotes on first reference, in ample detail to establish their goriness. This places too fine a point on it.

[Tiller's staff] worked under intense pressure, caring for women in distress while constantly confronting protesters eager to pounce on their every mistake watching for mistakes or negligence. Abortion protesters sent pregnant women into the clinic "under cover," undercover, hoping to catch the staff violating Kansas abortion regulations.

Scare quotes are gratuitous here. Presumably the pregnant women entering the clinic undercover had minds and wills of their own. Journalists have conducted undercover investigations of abortion clinics for years. Is such activity beyond the pale for anti-abortion activists?

As Wichita's three other abortion clinics closed under the pressure of protesters, Dr. Tiller cultivated a sense of mission. Throughout the clinic he hung hundreds of framed thank-you letters from patients. He posted a list of "Tillerisms" -- his favorite axioms, including, "The only requirement for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing."

Attribute this axiom to Edmund Burke. The word Tillerisms implies that Tiller coined it.

Since 1998, interviews and state statistics show, his clinic performed about 4,800 late-term abortions, at least 22 weeks into gestation, around the earliest point at which a fetus can survive outside the womb. At 22 weeks, the average fetus is 11 inches long, weighs a pound and is starting to respond to noise.

About 2,000 of these abortions involved fetuses that could not have survived outside the womb, either because they had catastrophic genetic defects or they were simply too small.

But the other 2,800 abortions involved viable fetuses. Some had serious but survivable abnormalities, like Down syndrome. Many were perfectly healthy.

Good work on providing context for these 4,800 late-term abortions. Would it be helpful to provide statistics on how many abortions the clinic performed because of Down syndrome? The abortion rate in Down's cases is staggeringly high, according to this study.

According to [Dr. Paul McHugh, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins], the files he saw contained diagnoses like adjustment disorder, anxiety and depression that to his eyes were not "substantial and irreversible." He also claimed concluded that some women offered "trivial" trivial reasons for wanting an abortion, like a desire to play sports. "I can only tell you," he said in his taped interview, "that from these records, anybody could have gotten an abortion if they wanted one."

Quoting a full sentence from his report would do away with the scare quotes and place the remark in a fuller context. Otherwise, there is no reason to telegraph disagreement with McHugh.

Yet Dr. McHugh's description of the files left out crucial bits of context. He failed to mention, for example, that one patient was a 10-year-old girl, 28 weeks pregnant, who had been raped by an adult relative. Asked about this omission by The New York Times, Dr. McHugh said that while the girl's case was "terrible," it did not change his assessment: "She did not have something irreversible that abortion could correct." (Dr. Tiller's lawyers, who have called Dr. McHugh's description of the patient files "deeply misleading," declined to discuss their contents.)

If McHugh does not mention this child, what makes her case a crucial detail? Does her tragic case explain all 4,800 late-term abortions? Does McHugh suggest that this child sought an abortion for trivial reasons? Does he write that Tiller routinely performed abortions on minors who were not raped? What other crucial bits of context, if any, did McHugh omit? What would be a thorough and accurate depiction of Tiller's abortion clinic?

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