I remember vividly the hundreds of handwritten letters that filled the walls of the Women’s Health Services clinic in Wichita, Kansas.
They were personal, poignant letters from women all over the world, thanking Doctor George Tiller and his staff for helping them in their time of need. The women were from Los Angeles, Prague, Shreveport and Paris. They had travelled hours and hours to Wichita to obtain a late term abortion. The messages were sprinkled with phrases like “you saved my life” and “I don’t know what I would have done without you.” It was impossible to read the letters without feeling the love emanating from the pages.
The irony is that no one wanted to be there. That’s because for the most part these were women whose pregnancies had suddenly gone terribly awry. Indeed, when I first met Doctor Tiller I bluntly asked him why women would wait so long to terminate a pregnancy. “I’ll show you why,” he said, and led me into a small room. He then opened up a drawer and took out a photograph album. As he started quickly flipping through the pages, I became disoriented as he tossed out medical terms in rapid fire, terms I had never heard of. When I asked him to stop for a moment, I composed myself and soon realized that he was showing me pictures of fetuses or, if you like, babies with shocking deformities. I never imagined how things could go so wrong. One had two heads jutting out of the neck area. Another had a heart outside its body. I ultimately excused myself, but I learned a lot about the work of Doctor Tiller and his staff.
These were wanted babies and the women did not want to be in Wichita. They probably had already picked out the name of their baby when they suddenly discovered something horribly wrong and after a wrenching decision making process decided there was no other recourse except to abort the baby. And, once the decision was made, they were fortunate enough to find Doctor Tiller.
I remember sitting in on some counseling sessions and how sensitive staff was with the woman. I was amazed to learn that the clinic made a Chaplin available to discuss any religious issues that might arise. The environment was as comforting as could be, considering the difficult personal circumstances of each woman and her family.
But while I was ensconced in the serenity of the clinic, hordes of anti-abortion zealots filled the sidewalk, spewing hatred, carrying signs with pictures of aborted fetuses. Interestingly, after what I had just witnessed inside, I had to admit that for the most part the signs were accurate depictions of what a fetus would look like in the late second trimester. Certainly at some point the fetus starts to develop and ultimately one can see a “baby.” The terminology is not important. The fact is that women were seeking Doctor Tiller out, not the other way around and fortunately he was there for them.
The protestors outside were just a reminder of the extreme pressure that Doctor Tiller and his staff had to work under for decades.
In July, 1990, the radical anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue, held its “Summer of Mercy,” which brought in thousands of protestors to camp out daily in front of Women’s Health Services. Despite the near riotous conditions, the clinic remained open every day and, after running the gauntlet, the women found sanctuary with Doctor Tiller and his staff.
Then, the next year, just a few months after Doctor David Gunn was killed outside his clinic in Pensacola, Florida a woman jumped up on Doctor Tiller’s car as he was leaving for the day and fired several shots into his arms. Amazingly, Tiller jumped out of the car and chased her down the street until he started to lose consciousness. Ultimately, she was apprehended, tried, convicted and remains in jail today.
George Tiller, this unassuming, mild mannered Kansas physician, ultimately became a target on the Internet, on Bill O’Reilly, on anti-abortion posters. He wore a bullet proof vest and his car was equipped with a special armor. There was a national whirlwind about him, but he calmly went about his work during the storm. He was a steadfast member of his church, a recovering alcoholic who spoke openly about the disease, an unassuming spokesman for the pro-choice cause, a grandfather and a loving husband.
A man of quiet dignity and strength beyond imagination.
And, now, he is gone. One Sunday morning in May of last year, while ushering at his church, it finally happened. For one man, whose name I refuse to repeat, the inflammatory rhetoric got to be too much and he walked up to George Tiller and shot him in the side of his head, killing him immediately. Within minutes, the murder was national news. The pro-choice movement went into deep shock, although many opined that it was inevitable with so much hate spewing his way. Memorial services were quickly arranged. His colleagues cried openly into their telephones.
I mourn Doctor George Tiller but, as the Irish would suggest, I choose to celebrate his life. I choose to think about the thousands and thousands of women who he helped in a time of need. I choose to thank him standing up for his convictions at great personal risk. And I choose to think about the walls adorned with the letters from all over the world.
- How An Abortion Provider’s Murder Was Enabled & Incited [Video] (jezebel.com)
- Grand Jury Weighs Whether There Was Conspiracy To Kill George Tiller (huffingtonpost.com)
- Anti-Choice Fanatics Enforce De Facto Abortion Ban in Wichita (littlegreenfootballs.com)
- The bottom line in America is you are free to hate (cbc.ca)
- Judge Blocks Doctor From Filling Vacancy Left By George Tiller Murder (huffingtonpost.com)
- South Dakota’s “Murder Bill” Against Abortion Providers Would Make Scott Roeder Proud (crooksandliars.com)