On May 31, 2009, Kansas physician and abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was murdered in his local church. Since then, both Kansas and the nation have undergone a transformation when it comes to abortion care. Dozens of clinics have shut their doors, leaving access to legal abortion at a crisis point in some states. Multiple states, including Dr. Tiller’s own home state of Kansas, have banned abortion at 20 weeks post fertilization, at least two weeks prior to viability, despite the unconstitutional nature of the ban. Two states have mandated at least three days wait between initial appointment and an actual procedure, with one more three day wait awaiting a signature or veto, and six states are now one clinic away from having no legal providers.
That’s the bad news. There is good news, too. Dr. Tiller’s death inspired countless med students to add abortion care to their practice, or decide to work in a clinic. Doctors have vowed to continue his legacy to provide terminations in the most dire of pregnancy circumstances, refusing to back down in the face of violence against one of their own. His own clinic has reopened, not only bringing back abortion care to that area of the state but also full spectrum reproductive health for pregnancy prevention and trans health as well.
Five years can be a long period legislatively, especially when you consider the 300 bills to restrict abortion access just since 2010. When Dr. Tiller was alive there were no “Pain Capable Unborn Child” bills declaring erroneously that a fetus feels pain at 20 weeks. There were no “Women’s Safety” bills shutting down abortion clinics for reasons like doctors not having unnecessary admitting privileges to local hospitals, or because they didn’t have locker rooms for doctors to put their scrubs in or doorways wide enough for a full stretcher and not just a wheelchair.
Five years is a long time in the activist world as well. Since Dr. Tiller’s murder the Personhood movement has spread out of Colorado and into other states, and Abolish Human Abortion has popped up to be yet another sidewalk group intent on engaging and harassing patients wanting an abortion, and spreading their crusade to churches and schools as well.
Five years, meanwhile, has not been a long time for a reproductive rights movement that still mourns his death and the loss of his talents and his courage. It’s a loss you can still hear from Kate Michelman, former NARAL president, who wrote about her memories of Dr. Tiller in Salon. “Just a couple of weeks before his death, I heard from Dr. Tiller, and the reason for his call said so much about him. He was the one being stalked and escorted by bodyguards, but he wanted to know how I was doing. Today, George Tiller, I’m doing poorly. Our world is doing poorly for having lost you. But your courage will inspire us to draw on our own strength and carry out the work for which you gave your life.”
It’s an open, empty space you can feel when Carole Joffe, historian and friend of Dr. Tiller writes on the anniversary of his death about the legacy he left behind. “The bottom line, of course—the crucial question to ask about George Tiller’s legacy—is whether the women about whom he cared so deeply and whom he understood so well are currently able to receive high-quality, respectful care at later stages of pregnancy,” writes Joffe. “[T]he road ahead for providers and their allies to not only preserve George Tiller’s specialized service, but simply to stay open, is hardly an easy one. Nevertheless, many of those who knew Dr. Tiller as a colleague and friend are no doubt fortified by remembering one of his favorite sayings: ‘Attitude is everything.’” It’s a legacy you can feel in the hashtag on Twitter when reproductive rights advocates share their memories and their hopes for the future.
I never knew Dr. Tiller. I never visited the Wichita clinic when he was alive. Instead, I saw it for the first time in October of 2013, when it had been reopened for just six months. While I was there, clinic workers gave me a tour, and in the basement, put aside in a dark corner, was a box filled with hand knit baby hats and blankets, each in its own individual bag. They explained to me that when he was counseling those who were about to terminate the pregnancy of a wanted child that wouldn’t survive birth, each expecting mother would receive a blanket and hat, knit by a previous patient who had been through the same ordeal, and that later he would encourage each of them to knit a package for another mother to come to know she wasn’t alone.
I never knew Dr. Tiller, but I wish I had.
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