On the evening of May 31st, Dr. Tiller’s memory was honored at a Trust Women tribute event in Wichita, Kansas. The date marked the 3rd anniversary of this brave abortion provider’s death.
On May 31, 2009, Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed as he served as an usher at Reformation Lutheran Church during a Sunday morning service in Wichita, Kansas. A life-long resident of Kansas with the exception of a short period of service in the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute Flight Surgeon School and as a flight surgeon, Dr. Tiller took over his father’s family medical practice in Wichita after his father passed away. Renamed Women’s Health Care Services, Dr. Tiller’s clinic became one of the only safe alternatives to dangerous “back ally” abortions.
Even as protests in front of his clinic intensified in the last few years of his life, Dr. Tiller’s commitment to women’s health never wavered. Dr. Tiller knew that he was helping women at one of the most vulnerable times of their lives and that he was saving lives by performing safe and legal abortions. Patients that had visited the clinic from across the country would write letters of thanks and confirm Dr. Tiller’s belief that what he was doing was not only important, but also necessary. Dr. Tiller framed the letters and they lined the walls of Women’s Health Care Services, which stayed open until Dr. Tiller’s death.
Dr. Tiller once said about his decision to stay in Wichita and keep Women’s Health Care Services opened, “I am a member of this community. Our DNA has been here since 1880. I belong here. The folks that come in from out of town, they are the intruders. Forty percent of all of the people who were arrested here during the Summer of Mercy in 1991 came from out of state. I intend to stay here. I am part of the fabric of Kansas and Kansas is part of the fabric of me.
“I have more to be grateful for than I have to be resentful about. We have much more support in Wichita than we have rejection and castigation. If Wichita and our community did not want us to be here, I wouldn’t be here. But the vast majority of people in Wichita support, on a quiet level, what we do, which is help women and families.”
Dr. Tiller’s work and his commitment to women’s healthcare made him a target on May 31, 2009, but this work also made him a hero to reproductive rights activists. Dr. Tiller was an inspiration to reproductive healthcare professionals and advocates. He had a vision of an America where women could, without burden, control their reproductive lives, have healthy pregnancies, and deliver safely. A statement released by his family after his death perhaps sums up Dr. Tiller’s immense work in the best possible way: “George dedicated his life to providing women with high-quality healthcare despite frequent threats and violence. We ask that he be remembered as a good husband, father and grandfather and a dedicated servant on behalf of the rights of women everywhere.”
Trust Women and friends gathered at a local coffee and sweetshop to remember Dr. Tiller as such a man. As guests enjoyed the company of supporters and advocates they shared stories about a man who supported and enlivened the community in which he lived. Many supporters experienced the tumultuous circumstances of providing abortion care in Kansas with Dr. Tiller. He was illustrated as sharing deep mutual gratitude and respect with whomever he worked – volunteers, clinic escorts, nurses, colleagues, and allies.
Trust Women Founder and Director Julie Burkhart shared some “Dr. Tillerisms” with guests – phrases adopted by Dr. Tiller that could frequently be heard by those working with the dynamic and good-humored doctor. One “Dr. Tillerism” expressed the importance of continuing the fight for women’s rights: “The only requirement for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” As we think about how to best protect abortion providers and the women they serve with legislative action and the election of candidates who will act with integrity, let’s remember Dr. Tiller’s spirit of dedication. The health of women is nothing to be taken for granted; in fact the well being of women, based on the decisions of women, is what we must guard and insist upon tenaciously.