I turned on the computer this morning intending to write a breezy post on Facebook about my partner having begun the 545 mile San Francisco to Los Angeles AIDS LifeCycle ride. Instead I was greeted by the horrible, devastating news that Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Wichita, Kansas, had been murdered while serving as an usher at his church.
Eyes blurred with tears, hands shaking, I entered this status on my Facebook page:
Angry and devastated at the murder of Dr. George Tiller today in Wichita. I'm looking now at a t-shirt he gave me that says "We can do it! Team Tiller." It encompasses his and his incredible staff's dedication, persistence in the face of constant harassment and violence, and complete belief in compassionately being there for women who needed his late-term abortion services. He will be desperately missed.
I can tell you exactly where I was when I found out about each of the previous seven murders of abortion providers by anti-choice extremists who claimed they were killing for life. The moments are frozen on my brain.
March 10, 1993: Dr. David Gunn, Pensacola, FL
June 29, 1994: Dr. John Britton and James Barrett, Pensacola, FL
December 30, 1994: Shannon Lowney and Leann Nichols, Brookline, MA
January 29, 1998: Robert Sanderson, Birmingham, AL
October 23, 1998: Dr. Barnett Slepian, Rochester, NY
And now I have to add, through tears that won’t stop:
May 31, 2009: Dr. George Tiller, Wichita, KS
The names and dates and cities don't take up enough space on my computer screen to account for the weight of the losses chronicled there. My years of work as a reproductive rights organizer, administrator, and activist have brought me into contact with each of these lives senselessly ended in the name of “life”: I worked with Dr. Gunn’s son, David Gunn, Jr., as part of the Refuse & Resist! task force that initiated and planned the National Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers, which happens every year on March 10, the anniversary of Dr. Gunn’s death. I met Dr. Slepian’s niece at a vigil I helped organize in her uncle’s memory. I served on the board of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice with June Barrett who was in the truck with Dr. Britton and her husband Jim when they were riddled with bullets; sitting in the backseat, she was wounded but survived. I met Emily Lyons, the nurse who was maimed in the Birmingham clinic bombing that killed off-duty Officer Sanderson, when she was given a Courageous Resister award by R&R! A friend and former Planned Parenthood co-worker held Shannon Lowney as she bled to death. I’ve done clinic defense for women’s health centers that were the victims of these horrible acts of violence. But Dr. Tiller was the only one I knew personally, and I’m taking his death particularly hard.
I will leave the important tasks of outlining the political context and rallying the sadness and protest into action in the able hands of my friends and colleagues such as Debra Sweet and Cristina Page. What I want to write here is a more personal reflection. An intimate look at commitment. Persistence. Belief.
David Gunn, Jr. says that his father’s favorite song was Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down.”
Well I won’t back down, no I won’t back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down
Gonna stand my ground, won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin me down
Gonna stand my ground, and I won’t back down
This could certainly have been Dr. Tiller’s theme song, as well. One of the ever-shrinking generation of doctors whose commitment to providing abortion services stemmed from seeing first-hand the horrible consequences of illegal abortion before Roe v. Wade changed the law in 1973, Dr. Tiller provided compassionate abortion services in Wichita for 36 years. He was one of less than a handful of late-term abortion providers, certainly the most public, who saw women from all over the country. Women with wanted pregnancies with severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life. Young rape survivors whose pregnancies were discovered too late to be handled by most health clinics who will only perform first-trimester abortions. Low-income or rural women, for whom costs or distances or mandatory counseling laws had forced them to delay abortion services until the closest clinic would no longer help them. In fact, one of the ways I interacted with Tiller’s clinic, Women’s Health Care Services, was as a co-founder of the Eastern Massachusetts Abortion Fund. As a member of the National Network of Abortion Funds, EMA has helped numerous women find the funds necessary to travel to Wichita for what is often a multi-day procedure.
Dr. Tiller and his staff provided these services despite being the targets of constant harassment and periods of intense violence, including the 1991 “Summer of Mercy” in which the notorious anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue pummeled the clinic with six weeks of blockades. Thousands of people were arrested. Two years later, Dr. Tiller was shot in both arms by Army of God member Shelley Shannon; he continued his work, undeterred. Protestors outside his door were not the only opposition he faced. The Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline and conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly, among many others, singled him out for attack, contributing to an atmosphere of hatred in which the epithet “Tiller the Killer” could be casually tossed around, even on national TV.
Though I’d seen him at conferences, I really got to know Dr. Tiller when I went to Wichita in 2001 to defend the clinic during the “Summer of Mercy Renewal,” wrought by the re-named Operation Save America. I discovered him to be not only defiant, but warm, with a ready sense of humor that was probably a necessary defense mechanism. The day I and my colleagues from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, along with members of Refuse & Resist!, Anti-Racist Action, the Feminist Majority, and others arrived in Wichita, Dr. Tiller and his staff greeted us in the clinic parking lot, decked out in specially made t-shirts that said “Apple pie, ice cream, and abortion: 43% of American women can’t be wrong.” The back of the shirts read “Outpost of Reproductive Freedom, Summer 2001,” matching a flag that flew above the clinic, right below an American flag. Perhaps it goes without saying that he then invited us all inside for…yes, apple pie and ice cream, as a thank you for having traveled so far to support the clinic.
The week I spent in Wichita was tense and sometimes scary. I know my family worried about me being in close physical contact and sometimes confrontation with Army of God members and signers of Paul Hill’s so-called “justifiable homicide” petition (in fact the Wichita police made no efforts to separate pro-choice defenders of the clinic from the protestors). But how could I waver if Dr. Tiller did not? My action was so small in comparison with the way he literally put his life on the line every single day.
I’m not one to lightly use the word “hero.” I think it’s overused, often inappropriately so. But if anyone deserves to be called a hero, Dr. Tiller certainly does. Not only did he persist in his work against overwhelming pressure, he did so without becoming embittered, and by honoring those who worked with him. And he did so without faltering in his simple philosophy, “Trust Women.” This motto appeared on buttons, t-shirts, and bags. Any way the clinic could proudly spread their message, they did. Trust women to know when abortion is the right choice for them. Trust women to know when parenting is the right choice for them, or adoption. Trust women who say that abortion is a relief, not a tragedy. Trust women who are pro-choice, yet mourn a pregnancy that they chose to end. Trust women. Not a politician, or a minister, or even a doctor. Women. These days, when the best one can hope for from a political leader (and sometimes even pro-choice leaders) are platitudes about abortion being “legal but rare” and “common ground,” Tiller’s unwavering and unapologetic insistence upon the rightness of his work as an abortion provider, and his centering of women as moral agents, were heroic stands from which he never backed down. And his did all of this with a smile, as you can see in all the pictures accompanying news stories of his murder.
Mourning Dr. Tiller today, I ask: Who will take his place?
Organizations such as the National Abortion Federation and the Abortion Access Project, where I worked during the most violent and murderous years of the 1990s, have long tracked the “graying” of abortion providers, those doctors like Tiller whose pre-Roe experiences have kept them committed to their work, despite all the violence. These organizations, and others like Medical Students for Choice and Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, have been working for the better part of two decades to insert abortion training in medical school and residency programs, recruit and support new abortion providers, and expand early abortion practice to advanced practice clinicians such as nurse midwives, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants. Their work has met with some success, but the threat of violence is a powerful deterrent. One provider in the bold tradition of Dr. Tiller is Dr. Susan Wicklund, who chronicled her story in the 2008 book This Common Secret. I am proud to call Sue a friend, and am constantly in awe at her bravery and perseverance, demonstrated in almost unbelievable stories of intimidation and violence that she has endured as a provider to women in rural northern states, areas that would not have any abortion services at all if Sue did not fly in or drive hundreds of miles each way to reach them. There are others, of course, who I won’t name because they choose to not be as public, to protect the safety of their families. The late-term abortion provider whose clinic is like a fortress. The nurse midwife who is constantly willing to push the law to allow her to provide the full range of reproductive health services to her patients. The doctor who as a young woman pre-Roe who was forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term and vowed to never let another women endure the same punishment. The medical students who fight their administrators to expand reproductive health curriculum beyond pregnancy, childbirth, and gynecological cancers. But they are not enough.
Nor can the weight of filling Dr. Tiller’s big, big shoes fall solely on medical providers or clinic staff. I write somewhat hypocritically here, given that three years ago I retreated from my non-profit career to graduate school. Burnt out and disillusioned by what I saw as constant concessions on the part of the mainstream pro-choice movement, which at the same time was channeling so-called grassroots activism into activities that were in my opinion ineffective, I left active participation in the movement. But here I am three years later, at my computer too late at night, compelled to write, urgently asking: Who will take Dr. Tiller’s place? And how will we – because it has to be a we, one person shouldn’t have to take on so much responsibility – act?
This is a serious and critical question, for which I do not have the answer. The status quo of point-and-click activism, donations to national pro-choice organizations, and calls to elected officials is not enough. Indeed, all it’s gotten us is right back to 1993. Clearly, something else is needed. Something new. We need to figure this out together. We owe Dr. Tiller that much.
May 31, 2009
1 In fact, 89% of all abortions take place within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Only 1% take place at 21 weeks or later. http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_induced_abortion.html
2 NNAF’s documentary video and publication Legal But Out of Reach share women’s stories that demonstrate why late-term abortion is sometimes necessary. http://www.nnaf.org/press.html
3 See the excellent documentary Soliders in the Army of God (2000) for more information on this loosely-affiliated group of individuals.
4 This refers to the number of American women who (it was estimated at the time) will have an abortion during their reproductive lifetimes.
5 Paul Hill murdered Dr. John Britton and James Barrett, and wounded June Barrett, in Pensacola, FL in 1994. He was executed by the state of Florida in 2003.
6 On the other hand, your local abortion fund can very much use your donations. The need for their services is even higher now in the bad economy. See http://www.nnaf.org/fundinfomap.html to find the fund closest to you.