Almost one year ago, Doctor George Tiller was murdered in Wichita, Kansas. This event garnered national headlines and this week pro-choice groups are honoring his memory. I knew George Tiller well and have already expressed my thoughts about him (see above). But a few months after he was killed, another pro-choice leader died and her death did not attract as much attention as Doctor Tiller’s murder. Her name was Susan Hill.
The first time I saw Susan Hill was at a meeting of the Board of Directors of the National Abortion Rights Action League. When she walked into a room, she literally lit up the place. A vivacious blond with a warm southern accent, she could charm the heck out of you. But if you crossed her, she could cut your lungs out.
Susan was the owner of several abortion clinics scattered throughout the country. For the most part, she placed her clinics in areas where women needed access to abortion services, places like Fargo, North Dakota, Fort Wayne, Indiana and Jackson, Mississippi. Ultimately, because they were so isolated, these clinics became the target of very intense anti-abortion activity. I still have a picture in my mind of Susan, in high heels and short skirt, standing defiantly in front of the doorway of her Fort Wayne clinic facing hundreds of protestors who were blocking access to her clinic. Meanwhile, her clinic in Fargo was regularly covered in the national press because of the constant protests, death threats, bombings and other forms of harassment.
Years after I met her at NARAL, she asked me if I would help form the National Coalition of Abortion Providers. Her reasoning was that, while there were other pro-choice groups in Washington, D.C., the abortion providers needed their own person on Capitol Hill representing their particular interests. As she often said to me, “the groups are great at defending ‘choice,’ but when it comes to abortion they disappear pretty quickly.”
Working through NCAP, Susan and several other key abortion providers helped pass the first federal law protecting doctors, staff and women seeking access to abortion. Indeed, when President Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act into law, she was there. When the bullets started flying, Susan bravely became a face of the providers, never shying away from going on a television show to talk (proudly) about what she did for a living. She testified before the Congress, she met with the Attorney General to demand protection for her and her colleagues, and she put her money where her mouth was, always ready to make a contribution to a pro-choice cause.
She had one of the finest political minds of anyone I’ve ever met. But we wouldn’t just talk about politics. We talked about baseball (she was once married to a professional player), movies, books and even our love lives. She was a brilliant strategist and an above average golfer. And she could demonstrate a heart of gold. When my father died a few days before Easter, I drove down to Myrtle Beach for the ceremony and stopped at her house on the way back home. Knowing I had been preoccupied over the last few days, she presented me with two Easter baskets for my young boys.
About twenty years ago, her twin sister, Nancy, died of breast cancer. It was a terrible experience for Susan and she literally disappeared for two years helping Nancy through the ordeal. Then, about two years ago, I got the horrible news that Susan had contracted the same deadly disease. Unfortunately, she cut off all communication with her friends for fear that the anti-abortion movement would find out that she was dying and try to exploit the situation. As far as I know, they never found out. Unfortunately, that meant that I never got the chance to say goodbye to my dear old friend.
Goodbye, my friend.