Dr. George Tiller believed that no woman should ever be forced to continue a pregnancy. Today, on the fourth anniversary of his death, his Kansas clinic — closed since 2009 — reopened despite threats of violence.
It was these very threats of violence that took George Tiller from this world. Because he provided access to abortion, Tiller was frequently a target of anti-abortion activists. In June 1986, his clinic was bombed but Tiller wouldn’t be intimidated — in response, he hung a sign on the door that said “Hell no, we won’t go.”
“Sarah Coe,” one of the many who sought help from Tiller told the Guardian (on the condition they use a pseudonym) about the abuse she encountered when she was referred to Tiller by her doctors.
Coe had been pregnant 22 weeks when doctors found that the fetus hydrocephalus, an excess of fluid in the brain; they told Coe and her husband that their baby would not have conscious life. Devastated, the Coes decided this wasn’t the life they wanted for their child. Unfortunately, because it had been over 20 weeks, no doctors would help them terminate the pregnancy. The couple was referred to Tiller, in Wichita, Kansas. Per the Guardian:
She says the care they received at the clinic was exceptional. There was counselling and support. “We were able to see our little boy after he was delivered, no longer alive, and to touch him and say goodbye. They handled the cremation for us and we have his ashes in our home. It was the worst Ã‚Âexperience in our lives and they made it so much easier to bear.”
The process took four days. During that time Coe and her husband ran the gauntlet of anti-abortion protesters. “We were mobbed. They were banging on our car window. My husband wanted to explain and tried to talk to them but quickly backed off. Just by winding down the car window he was putting himself at jeopardy.”
George Tiller had to face those crowds every day. In the summer of 1991, the mob outside the clinic totaled 2,700 protesters. The situation was so volatile that federal troops had to be sent in to keep things under control.
Two years later, Shelley Shannon shot Tiller five times. It was later discovered that Shannon had sent letters of support to Michael Griffin, who had murdered another abortion provider — David Gunn — earlier that year. Even during her trial, Shannon referred to Griffin as a “hero” and stressed that there was nothing wrong with killing a man like Tiller.
“He was such a committed individual,” writes his colleague, Suzanne Poppema. “I was speaking with him about a patient the same afternoon, in 1993, when he was shot the first time. Despite his injuries to both arms, George was of course back at the office the next day.”
Tiller was frequently discussed on the Fox News talk show The O’Reilly Factor, which frequently called him “Dr. Killer,” and characterized him as “a savage on the loose, killing babies willy-nilly,” and “operating a death mill.” The conservative host suggested that Tiller performed late-term abortions for the most superficial of reasons — “a bit of a headache or anxiety” or because they were “feeling a bit blue.” Many have suggested that these incendiary encouraged violence against the doctor and other abortion providers and supporters.
Tiller was fatally shot on May 31, 2009 by the anti-abortion militant and anti-government activist Scott Roeder during worship services at Tiller’s church, where the latter served as usher. Tiller had been wearing a bullet-proof vest at the time — possibly prompting his attacker to shoot him in the head at point-blank range. Roeder told the Associated Press that he shot Tiller because “preborn children’s lives were in imminent danger.”
Until his death, Tiller never gave up. During one of the many trials — other attempts by anti-abortionists to stop his clinic — he recounted a story that was a source of strength to him: “My daughters came into my study. I was reading. And they said: ‘Daddy, if not now, when? If not you, who? Who is going to stand up for women with unexpected and badly damaged babies?’ I had the support of my family, and we were able to proceed ahead.” Two of his three daughters are now doctors.
It’s heartening to see his clinic reopen, but it would be folly to consider this a triumph. Since Tiller’s murder, eight states have moved to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy — and not just that, all manner of restrictions on reproductive rights have been leveled against our progress. Unable to intimidate abortion-providers, anti-abortion activists have focused on legislation, creating requirements nearly impossible for clinics to meet. What are we doing to honor the memory of the man who once said, “Trust women”?
Header photo by Tim Pierce.