A Gentle, Compassionate Man: Remembering Dr. George Tiller

Dr. Tiller’s memory is honored at a vigil in San Francisco, June 1, 2009. Photo: Steve Rhodes

Ten years ago this week, Dr. George Tiller was murdered in church on Sunday morning, May 31, 2009. Since the the Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in McCullen v. Coakley, which ended buffer zones at abortion clinics, violence in the anti-abortion movement has increased, as has racist violence, since the 2016 election. Leaders of what became the Christian right first mobilized their congregants to political action after private Christian schools were forced to integrate or lose tax-exempt status, and abortion was chosen by these leaders as the issue to keep their followers politically involved.

People who know nothing about the complex medical and personal needs that lead to late abortions tell stories that sow mass hysteria among abortion opponents.

When I volunteered to write something commemorating this sad anniversary, I was thinking of the connection between racism and the religious right, and of recent murders in churches, synagogues, and mosques. In this political moment, with the religious right passing flagrantly unconstitutional laws against abortion to get a case to the Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade, with the government itself stepping up violence against minorities and women, revisiting Dr. Tiller’s assassination seemed more crucial than ever.

But the more I learned about Dr. Tiller, the more I was captivated by the man and the doctor, by his essential decency and kindness, his commitment to his patients, and the way those who knew him felt about him. So, rather than a political argument, this post will be a tribute to Dr. George Tiller, using his own words and the words of those who knew and worked with him.

Early Motivations

In 1970, George Tiller was a Navy flight surgeon when his parents, along with other family members, were killed in a small plane crash. He returned home to Wichita, Kansas, intending to close his father’s family medicine practice — but ended up staying and taking over the practice. He was shocked to learn that his father had quietly been performing illegal abortions for many years. In a 2001 interview, he told the story of how his father began performing abortions, and how his own feelings changed over time:

A young woman, for whom Dad had already delivered two babies, came to him pregnant again right away. And she said something to the effect that “I can’t take it. Can you help me?” That is apparently the way you ask for an abortion from your regular doctor before abortion was legal: “I can’t take it. Can you help me?” Dad said, “No.” Big families were in vogue. “By the time the baby gets here, everything will be all right.” She went out, had a non-health-care-provider abortion, and came back 10 days to two weeks later and died.

That first-hand, gut-wrenching experience of the consequences of criminalizing abortion inspired Dr. Tiller’s father to change his policy. He became a trusted resource for pregnant people who needed discreet abortion care from a skilled physician. So George Tiller learned about his father from his patients, as well as about what women need.

I am a woman-educated physician. I don’t know [how] many abortions he did, but the women in my father’s practice for whom he did abortions educated me and taught me that abortion is not about babies, it’s not about families; abortion is about women’s hopes and dreams, potential, the rest of their lives. Abortion is a matter of survival for women.

Eventually, abortion made up so much of his work that his family medicine practice became Women’s Health Care Services, where he and other doctors performed abortions, including second- and third-trimester abortions. His was one of only three clinics in the country that performed abortions after 24 weeks’ gestation.

In spite of what abortion opponents would have you believe, women do not simply decide more than halfway through their pregnancies to have an abortion. These abortions are only performed when there is something horribly wrong with the fetus, or when the mother develops an illness that will be made worse by continuing the pregnancy, or something like cancer that requires treatment such as chemotherapy that she can’t have if she remains pregnant, or in cases of a child victim of rape or incest. Nobody ever described this decision better than Molly Ivins at a forum moderated by Gwen Ifill.

A Steadfast Defender of Reproductive Rights

Because he was very open and public about his work, Dr. Tiller was particularly targeted by anti-abortion activists. His clinic was bombed in 1985, and became the target of massive “Summer of Mercy” protests in 1991; he was shot in both arms in 1993. In this Democracy Now! show from the day after his murder, you can hear him tell about his work and all this abuse beginning around 31 minutes. (Most of the show is interviews with five women who worked with him; the whole thing is worth watching.)

Reminding us that there are real people and real stories behind every decision to end a pregnancy, Dr. Tiller recalls his first post-viability abortion:

There are pivotal patients in everyone’s practice. This girl on my left is 9-and-a-half years old. She [came] from Southern California with her mother and her aunt for a termination of pregnancy. There were some stories in the newspaper about Dr. Tiller is getting ready to kill babies for a 9-year-old. I was trying to explain to my daughters, who were 10 and 9 at the time, about why I had planned to do this procedure. My 10-year-old daughter said, “Daddy, a 9-year-old girl shouldn’t be pregnant, and simply not by her father or her grandfather or her uncle.”

A Compassionate Physician

Sociologist Carole Joffe describes the compassion Dr. Tiller showed to patients and couples whose fetuses were found to have lethal anomalies after 24 weeks’ gestation. Shortly after Dr. Tiller’s death, Joffe conducted lengthy group interviews with seven staff members at WHCS in a research project for the University of California at San Francisco.  As I read this article taken from that study, I was amazed at how closely his procedure followed what have been found to be best practices for the care of women and families who have stillborn children. The quotations that describe the clinic’s treatment in these tragic late abortion cases come from Joffe’s article.

Typically there would be several couples who arrived together for the four-day process, and during the first two days of preparation there would be group as well as individual meetings for information and support. Dr. Tiller believed the support these couples got from each other during this painful time was an important part of their treatment. One husband described his first experience at the clinic:

“Dr. Tiller had an understanding of [our] pain, perhaps better than anyone who has never gone through it personally. As a doctor he was up‐front about everything he was about to do and everything we needed to do to make things go well. When we arrived, he sat all four couples down and told us everything that was going to happen. He showed us the instruments he was going to use. He told us how the drugs would make the women feel. He told them flat out that it was going to hurt and she needed to be ready … He also asked about us. He wanted to know who we were, what we did, and how we lived as couples and families.”

There was a chaplain on staff, and Dr. Tiller had arrangements with local Jewish and Muslim clergy, who came in when needed. On the afternoon of the first day, the group met with Dr. Tiller and the chaplain in a setting where the patients could tell their stories and get support from each other.

A Latina staff member hired as a Spanish translator told a moving story of a patient who spoke no English and listened quietly to the others: “She sensed the empathy that was occurring among the others in the room and whispered to me that she wanted to tell her story … and proceeded to do so in Spanish.”

Couples were offered a chance to see and hold their babies the day after labor was induced. “Baby plans” made during the first two days included this opportunity, as well as the option for a baptism or other religious ceremony, or to obtain hand- and footprints of the baby — options that gave the woman or couple as much control over their experience as possible, recognizing the loss they had no control over.

According to staff, “We’d light candles and have soft lighting.” Dr. Tiller, accompanied by the chaplain and often by the head nurse, would tell the parents what to expect (such as babies with organs outside their bodies, misshapen heads, and other potentially disturbing sights) and ask them if they wanted to see and hold the baby. If they did, the baby would be brought in wrapped in a blanket. “Sometimes we would hold hands and say a prayer with the parents,” recalled one nurse.

I was amazed that the gentle, compassionate man, who showed such sensitivity and empathy to his patients, was the target of such hatred. I thought of Bill O’Reilly accusing Dr. Tiller of performing late abortions without any reason, such as fetal anomalies or danger to the mother’s health or life, as in this clip from the Democracy Now! program cited above.

Let’s be more blunt: Tiller is executing fetuses in his Wichita clinic for $5,000. And records show he’ll do it for vague medical reasons. That is, he’ll kill the fetus, viable outside the womb, if the mother wants it dead. No danger to the mother’s life, no catastrophic damage if the woman delivers.

Forget that such behavior would be illegal in Kansas, and Dr. Tiller was found in more than one lawsuit to perform only legal abortions. He performed a public health service almost no one else could provide, and he did it with skill, sensitivity, and commitment, in spite of the hardships he faced caring for these patients.

Of course, most of the abortions performed at WHCS were early abortions. But Dr. Tiller was known around the world for his skill and compassion, and patients needing abortions late in pregnancy did come from around the world. He also provided services at low or no cost to patients who could not afford the care they needed. And he was one of very few doctors who would perform abortions for children as young as 9 years old in incest and rape cases. Doctors around the country would send such patients to him.

A Lasting Legacy

And he trusted women. Dr. Sally Sella, in response to Bill O’Reilly’s vicious claims, replied, “I’d like to respond by quoting Dr. Tiller, and what he has often said was, ‘Women are spiritually, morally, and intellectually capable of struggling with complex, ethical decisions and arriving at the correct decision for themselves and their family.’”

Dr. Tiller’s family had to close his clinic after his death. Four years afterward, Julie Burkhart, who had worked with Dr. Tiller for eight years, reopened it as the South Wind Women’s Center, which is still in operation.

In 2016, Scott Roeder, who murdered Dr. Tiller, went back to court to have his sentence reduced. He originally would not have been eligible for parole for 50 years. His eligibility for parole was shortened to 25 years. Roeder, who was 51 when he murdered Tiller, was sick with prostate problems, and it seemed unlikely he would live long enough for the difference to matter. The Tiller family did not oppose this change.

Ten years after this murder, the loss of Dr. Tiller still saddens. With all the turmoil about the laws passed in Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, and elsewhere, and speculation about what the Supreme Court will do about them, learning about Dr. Tiller and his work has been calming as well as sad, perhaps an aura left from his clinic.

His murder shows all too clearly the crux of the late abortion controversy. People who know nothing about the real and complex medical and personal needs that lead to late abortions tell stories with no basis in fact that sow mass hysteria among those who oppose abortion — and even among people who believe that abortions should be legal but would even more severely limit late abortions —  which can and does lead to violence. And so this good man, who cared so deeply for the patients he treated, was vilified and murdered, and other abortion providers and their patients face harassment and violence every day.

I will give the last word to Dr. Tiller.