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Editor’s note: Dr. George Tiller was an abortion provider—one of only three in the U.S. who provided abortions after the 21st week of pregnancy. On May 31, 2009, Tiller was assassinated by an anti-abortion extremist while serving as an usher at his church in Wichita, Kansas. He was known for mantras like “Trust women,” “I’m a woman-educated physician,” and “Attitude is everything.”
From the Summer 2009 issue of Ms. magazine:
Dr. George Tiller planned to be a dermatologist. He could have led a comfortable, secure life with his wife, Jeanne, their four children and, ultimately, their 10 grandchildren. Instead, Tiller decided to enlist in what shouldn’t be—but is—one of the most perilous jobs in the United States: women’s reproductive healthcare.
In addition to a family practice, Tiller decided to treat women who chose to have abortions. It was a specialty that did not become legal nationally until 1973 with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. Nonetheless, some brave physicians performed abortions on the sly before then, risking their licenses and livelihoods because they recognized how strong women’s needs were for their services.
George Tiller’s father, Jack, was one of them. A family practice physician himself, Jack died in a 1970 plane crash that also took the lives of his wife, daughter and son-in-law—a tragedy that led George to leave dermatology, return to his hometown of Wichita, Kan., and take over for his father. That was when the younger Tiller learned, to his great surprise, that his father had been performing abortions, inspired to do so in the mid-1940s after a woman he had refused to help lost her life from a botched abortion.
Would the new Dr. Tiller, some patients asked, be willing to help?
He eventually said yes, taking on a lifelong mission that by then had become legal. Tiller called it “making the world a better place … one woman at a time.”
Over the decades, given a highly organized movement of escalating vehemence and, ultimately, violence against abortion providers—it proved a dangerous undertaking. Only a doctor steadfast about a woman’s right to choose would dare take it on.
“Some people want to walk across the bridge, others want to follow,” said Susan Hill, speaking of pioneering abortion providers like herself and George Tiller. “Some people are on the front lines.”
Hill, who had been a hospital social worker, helped open an abortion clinic just two weeks after Roe v. Wade was decided, and has subsequently operated as many as 11 at a time in various underserved communities. Like Tiller, she came to know not just the gratitude of her patients, but the horror of anti-abortion terrorism. At first, however, there were just nuns protesting at her clinic, sent by their church. “Peaceful,” said Hill.
As early as 1976, though, peaceful protests turned violent.
“The rhetoric escalated, the protests outside clinics escalated, we started to get threatened,” said Hill. Anti-abortion extremists turned to arson, bombings, severe vandalism. “We used to say, ‘Gee, where are the nuns?’” said Hill.
Tiller, too, hadn’t expected terrorism—like having his clinic bombed in 1986. Some 1,100 were arrested for blockading Tiller’s clinic during the “Summer of Mercy” demonstrations organized by Operation Rescue in 1991, and even on the most ordinary day five to 10 protesters showed up. Besides being bombed, the clinic was also repeatedly vandalized—the last time in May.
“While I was developing this practice between 1973 and 1985 I thought I was just Joe Blow family physician, raising my kids, stamping out disease and taking family vacations,” he told the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Young Women’s Leadership Conference in March 2008. “[But] it has been impressed on me that there are a lot of people in the United States who don’t like what we do.”
He used a similar dark humor in telling conferees, “The phrase ‘a shot in the arm’…has had an entirely different meaning to me.” Anti-abortion extremist Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon shot Tiller in both arms in 1993 during an assassination attempt as he tried to leave his clinic. The attack didn’t stop him: He just hired a Brink’s armored car for a time to take him to and from work, and gradually built his clinic into a fortress. “Hell no, we won’t go” became his motto. Tiller had become particularly known by anti-abortion forces—and demonized with such epithets as “Tiller the Killer”— because he was a dedicated advocate and political activist for women’s right to choose. In 2002, the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue and its leader, Troy Newman, moved to Wichita from Southern California with the express purpose of closing down Tiller’s clinic. In subsequent years, Newman employed aggressive and highly unsettling harassment of Tiller, his family and clinic workers.
Tiller also became well-known for providing what the anti-abortion movement turned into a hot-button rallying point: late abortions, performed at the end of the second or third trimester. Most providers don’t perform these, both because they’re highly specialized and for fear of running afoul of ever-more-stringent state and federal laws regulating what techniques can be employed.
Blinded by inflammatory rhetoric, the country lost sight of what late abortions really are: rare procedures needed by women carrying fetuses that have died or carry severe abnormalities, or for women facing irreparable physical or mental harm should they continue their pregnancies. Here’s how Tiller explained one significant reason for late abortions:
“Chromosomal abnormalities make up about 24 percent of our [late abortion] patients, and sometimes the heart, the lung, the intestines, all of this is outside of the body [of the fetus]. Most places in the United States say that even if you have this kind of a problem you may not have a termination of pregnancy. …What this says is that … women are not smart enough, they are not tough enough and they do not love enough to make these family decisions about their children and their families.”
In her 28th week of a very wanted pregnancy in 2000, Miriam Kleiman, a government employee in Washington, D.C., and her husband, Jason, learned that their male fetus had a severe brain malformation. He would probably die shortly after birth.The couple immediately went for second, third and fourth opinions. The news stayed the same.
“This is not a fair life for a baby,” they decided. “Even with every medical intervention, the baby’s going to die. It’s not if, but when. If there’s no hope of improvement, why do that to a baby?” When she and Jason made their choice clear to the perinatologist they consulted, the doctor left the room and came back with a scrap of paper. There were just four words on it: Dr. Tiller, Wichita, Kansas.
From the moment they called Tiller’s office, they were greeted with compassion. “I’ve never met any medical professionals who were that attentive, that caring, that warm. They got it,” Kleiman said.
Tiller was actually on a rare vacation during the week Kleiman and her family spent in Wichita, but his presence was unmistakable. “The clinic was Dr. Tiller and these wonderful people he brought on board,” Kleiman said.
Exactly a year after she terminated her pregnancy, Kleiman gave birth to a healthy baby boy, and subsequently had a second. She finally met Tiller when she came to Wichita in 2006 to speak at a conference on choice.
“To be able to publicly thank him”— she chokes up at the memory—”was just so meaningful to me. Dr. Tiller was such a good man.”
At age 67, financially comfortable, Tiller didn’t have to continue working in his long-embattled profession, said Susan Hill, who often referred late-abortion patients to Wichita. Over the past decades, abortion providers live with increasing risk: One in five clinics annually are the targets of severe violence. Since the early 1990s, nine doctors and clinic workers have been murdered in attacks by anti-abortion extremists, and 21 others wounded, including law enforcement officers responding to the incidents.
Each time, the killers (or attempted killers) have been characterized as lone nuts. But in truth, they are often involved with extremist anti-abortion organizations that track the whereabouts of abortion doctors and deliver white-hot rhetoric that paints a George Tiller as a murderer rather than a healer. Anti-abortion extremists have even promoted the assassinations of abortion providers as “justifiable homicides.” So these “lone nuts,” heeding the call to violence, are as good as licensed to kill.
Dr. Tiller was a feminist par excellence. He really believed you should listen to women and that the government should not be interfering. [Abortion] should be decided between a woman and her doctor.Eleanor Smeal
Tiller also faced a concerted attack through the courts, including two grand juries convened to investigate him as a result of a citizen petition drive organized by Operation Rescue and other anti-abortion groups (neither jury found any basis for indictment). And in 2004, then-Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline, a right-wing anti-abortion Republican, subpoenaed Tiller’s patient records, supposedly to determine if he hadn’t reported statutory rapes of pregnant girls under 16. Kline got some of the records and filed 30 criminal charges, but a state court judge quickly dismissed them.
Kline was voted out of office in 2006, but the new attorney general, Democrat Paul Morrison, surprisingly charged Tiller with 19 misdemeanors. Morrison downplayed the charges that Tiller failed to get a legally proper second opinion on some abortions as just “technical,” but if Tiller were to have been convicted, he could have served 19 years in prison. After nearly two years of legal proceedings, the jurors in the case delivered a resounding “not guilty” in just 25 minutes. Dan Monnat, Tiller’s Wichita attorney, remembers the jury privately asking the judge to deliver the message to Tiller that they were pleased to know that Tiller’s clinic, Women’s Health Care Services, offered a place for women to have abortions in a safe, secure and sanitary environment rather than in an archetypal “back alley.”
“It was Kansas jurors, men and women, who were brave enough to deliver Kansas justice,” said Monnat. “Everything else was nonsense Kansas politics.”
The legal battles were exhaustive and expensive for Tiller, although he “held up like a soldier,” said Monnat.
Nonetheless, his friends worried about him. “The last time I talked to him,” said Susan Hill, “I said, ‘Why are you still doing this, George? You certainly don’t need to. Why don’t you just retire, enjoy life?’
“He said, ‘I can’t, I can’t leave these women. There’s no one else for them.’”
Two weeks later, just months after his acquittal in court, while handing out programs at his local Lutheran church where his wife was singing in the choir, George Tiller was shot dead.
At the large, airy church in which Tiller’s funeral was held, one wreath stood out from the wealth of flower tributes. Bedecked in scarlet and pink flowers, it displayed two words at its center: “Trust Women.”
That was one of the physician’s favorite “Tillerisms,” his philosophical guideposts. Another was “Attitude Is Everything”—which was printed on small metal buttons passed out to mourners and on blue T-shirts worn by dozens of NOW members who lined the roadside in front of the church to keep away extremist protesters. Also serving as guardians were a group of veterans known as Patriot Guard Riders, who roared up on motorcycles to honor Tiller for his service as a flight surgeon in the U.S. Navy.
“What he meant by attitude was positive attitude,” said Monnat. “Dr. Tiller managed to be fearless and solid in his position without ever being vengeful or negative in any way. He was very strong, very confident that what he was doing was the right moral, legal, ethical thing to do.”
Why are you still doing this, George? You certainly don’t need to. Why don’t you just retire, enjoy life?Susan Hill
In the aftermath of his murder—allegedly committed by anti-abortion zealot Scott Roeder—the U.S. Department of Justice sent marshals to protect the most threatened abortion doctors in the country. Such attacks on clinics have been classified acts of domestic terrorism by the FBI, and the DOJ has opened an investigation into whether others were involved in Tiller’s murder.
Sadly, but understandably, the Tiller family has decided to close the Wichita clinic. Providers like Hill, longtime late-abortion doctors Warren Hern and Leroy Carhart—the latter who, along with two women physicians, worked with Tiller at his clinic—have started devising strategies for providing additional late-abortion services to women in need despite the escalated risk. Hern has spoken bluntly about being “next on the list” to be murdered, but other providers are under dire threat as well.
For feminists, Tiller was a hero.
“Look at the statement his family released,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation (publisher of Ms.), which has worked for decades to stop violence at abortion clinics. “They described him as ‘a dedicated servant on behalf of the rights of women.’ Dr. Tiller was a feminist par excellence. He really believed you should listen to women and that the government should not be interfering. [Abortion] should be decided between a woman and her doctor.”
“When I found out about the murder,” said Miriam Kleiman, “I just kept hugging and kissing my boys and telling them I loved them.” Her 8-year-old asked, “Mommy, why do you keep crying?”
“And I said, ‘There was a man who helped us about Junior’”—the family’s name for the son whose life was unsustainable. “Someone killed that man, and I’m sad.” Later, her son saw a headline and a photo of Tiller in the newspaper and asked, “Mommy, was that your friend?”
“At whatever level,” said Kleiman, emotion welling up again, “my son got it.”
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