"Abortion is not a cerebral or reproductive issue. Abortion is a matter of the heart: for until one understands the heart of a woman, nothing else about abortion makes any sense at all." - Dr. George Tiller
I've only cried once for someone that I haven't personally met, and it was the day I heard that Dr. Tiller had been murdered, at his church on a Sunday, five years ago today. It's been five years since we lost one of a handful of doctors who openly performs third trimester abortions, and it's been five years since we lost a true hero for women's rights.
I remember where I was when NPR reported the news on the radio. I was stunned, pulled out of whatever I had been doing and into a new time, an uncertainty. Something had shifted. Was this a return to the nineties, when abortion clinics were bombed and doctors and counselors murdered, with cheering sections from the alleged moral majority behind them? Was this just a loner with a lethal mixture of instability, access to firearms and a deep hatred of abortion? What was going on? What did this mean?
Mostly though, in that moment, I just felt sad. A good man had died. A man who spent his career helping others, often providing life-saving care, had been shot and killed for doing just that. The walls of his clinic were covered with hand-written thank-you notes from former patients. At a time when a lot of women and girls had nowhere else to turn, he was there to help. No judgment, no derision, just guidance and compassion.
The politics around abortion have nearly suffocated any possibility of having a normal conversation. The anti-choice movement has succeeded admirably in making the issue as toxic as possible. People who aren't really political but generally support a woman's right to have an abortion don't want to talk about it. The conversation is thus left to activists on both sides, and when you truly believe you're the only thing that stands between an unborn baby being murdered or not, apparently all means are justified. Even when a whole other life is endangered.
Dr. Tiller believed otherwise. He, quite simply, believed that women were capable enough to make their own decisions, consequences included. He believed in his patients and helped them to the best of his ability, which for his patients was an extraordinary ability. In addition to being very good at his job of practicing medicine, he became quite adept at navigating the legal and activist world of abortion politics. Abortion providers are not allowed to just practice. They must also deal with constant threats, to their buildings and clinics, to what they are allowed to actually do, and yes, to their very lives. It's easy to see how it can amount to too much for some. But not for Dr. Tiller. He practiced in Kansas, a state known by none for being liberal or progressive toward abortion rights. And anti-choice activists were never far away. As the New York Times notes, they "blockaded his clinic; campaigned to have him prosecuted; boycotted his suppliers; tailed him with hidden cameras; branded him "Tiller the baby killer"; hit him with lawsuits, legislation and regulatory complaints; and protested relentlessly, even at his church. Some sent flowers pleading for him to quit. Some sent death threats."
Dr. Tiller knew exactly what he was up against. He lived in a gated community in a home with a state-of-the-art security system. The bullet that would take his life was not the first to hit him. In 1993 he was shot in both arms -- only to return to work the next day. In 1986 his clinic was firebombed. He wore a bullet-proof jacket to work. Just not to church.
I wonder what Dr Tiller would think of the last five years. Would the state-level assaults on abortion care and access surprise him at all? What would he recommend we do? What would he have to say to the local activists who are outraged at the legislative power abuses infecting their state capitals, and their dogged determination to turn the tables? How many more thank-you letters would he have on his wall?
I'll never know, but what I do know is that his work continues, in the very building where he practiced and everywhere that abortion rights supporters are working. It continues to be an uphill battle in many ways, but we aren't backing down. Dr. Tiller never did, and the best way to honor his memory is by continuing the fight. As he used to say, "attitude is everything."
For more on Dr. Tiller and the anniversary, check out MSNBC, which includes an interview with Julie Burkart, executive director of South Wind Women's Center, which operates where Dr. Tiller's clinic used to.