Dr. George Tiller’s Death: Five Years Later

Dr. Tiller's supporters remember him at a vigil in San Francisco, June 1, 2009. Image: Steve Rhodes

Dr. Tiller’s supporters remember him at a vigil in San Francisco, June 1, 2009. Image: Steve Rhodes

On May 31, 2009, Dr. George Tiller was murdered by Scott Roeder while attending church services in Wichita, Kansas. This Saturday is the fifth anniversary of his assassination. From 1975 until his death, Tiller was an ob/gyn who also performed late-term abortions.

Dr. Tiller is remembered for the compassion he showed his patients.

A late-term abortion is a medical procedure in which a pregnancy is terminated during the later stages. The definition of “late-term” varies — even among medical journals — because of its correlation to fetus viability (i.e., when a fetus can survive outside of the uterus on its own). The medical community has not established an age at which a fetus becomes viable, as its survivability is contingent upon conditions internal and external to the womb; however, the survivability of a fetus greatly increases after 25 weeks, or almost 6 months from a woman’s last menstrual period. For reference, the expected gestation of a pregnancy is 40 weeks, or 9 months. Only 1.2 percent of abortions take place at or after 21 weeks.

Late-term abortions remain particularly controversial because of the issue of fetus viability, as well as the methods used to perform the medical procedure (e.g., inducing labor). Late-term abortions also have the potential to be more physically and emotionally challenging for the woman than those performed during earlier stages of pregnancy. While a woman should not be required by law to account for herself and the reasoning behind her medical decision-making, there are numerous medical reasons why a late-term abortion is a valid medical choice.

While in practice, both Tiller and his staff were known not only to have the medical proficiency to safely perform a late-term abortion, but the capacity to provide the emotional support that one undergoing the procedure might need. He will be especially remembered for helping those who had nowhere else to turn, such as the victims of child abuse so severe they became pregnant. Today, there are only four doctors in the United States who will perform late-term abortions. Additionally, many states have defined late-term abortions well before viability (e.g., 20 weeks) and put in place unconstitutional regulations that ban these abortions. The resources available to those who require such medical care are already extremely limited, and lawmakers are actively seeking to make the constraints against women making their own decisions even more stringent.

Anti-abortion violence, such as Dr. Tiller’s murder, are acts of terrorism in an ongoing war on women and girls that attempts to threaten both the medical community that provides health care services and those who use them. There are laws in place to protect both patients and medical practitioners against these acts of terrorism, specifically the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. Since the FACE Act was signed into law by President Clinton in May 1994, acts of violence to prevent patients from entering reproductive health clinics, as well as against the medical providers themselves, have decreased.

Still, the war continues, as demonstrated through such acts of violence against women and their doctors, including Dr. Tiller’s murder, as well as intrusive state laws that require a pregnant person to undergo invasive acts (e.g., transvaginal ultrasounds) before the state considers a woman is competent enough to decide to have an abortion. It is essential that Dr. George Tiller is remembered as a resource who safely helped women and girls when no one else would. He understood that women are agents of their own bodies and decisions. Five years after his death, this distinction is especially timely when lawmakers are more driven than ever to take away that basic right from women.