Four years ago today, a man walked into his church, his family in front of him, his friends and fellow parishioners beside him. As his wife walked into the blessed sanctuary of their church family's home, this man struck up a conversation with a friend in the lobby as he prepared to usher the service & hand out church bulletins. Perhaps these two men were discussing how their week had been. Perhaps they discussed this man's trip in the previous weeks to Disneyland with his family. Perhaps they simply found themselves talking sports and scores and who would be heading to the World Series later in the year. But these two men, one who had watched his loving and devoted wife walk to their usual pew in the safety of the church they had grown to know and love before he began his duties as church usher that morning and the other a long time friend of their family seeking out a brief hello before their church service started, began to talk about something, and did so for a few minutes. With his wife sitting quietly in the pew, waiting to be accompanied by her husband, he was enjoying the camaraderie of his church home and he was preparing to worship the God he loved so very much.
In hindsight, perhaps someone should have noticed the stranger lurking outside, the stranger who had been there at that church weeks before when this man, talking to his old friend of several years whose wife awaited him in the sanctuary of their church, had been vacationing with his family elsewhere. Perhaps in hindsight, someone should have noticed that this stranger, pacing the outdoors, wasnt a familiar face, wasnt a parishioner they'd ever seen before. Perhaps in hindsight, someone should have noticed that he was oddly dressed, hands in his pockets, sweating slightly but clearly preparing to enter the lobby of this church. Perhaps in hindsight, someone should have known that Dr George Tiller, talking quietly with his old friend and preparing to go worship God with his wife by his side, was about to be shot in the head at point blank range by a man who had plotted his murder for weeks and months and finally found the opportunity to do so that Sunday morning, four years ago, in the lobby of a house of God.
There's a certain morbidity when one addresses the anniversary of a death, and in this case, the assassination of a doctor performing safe and legally protected procedures for women. There's a certain macabre sensibility to the idea that we memorialize anyone based on HOW they died, instead of how they LIVED. And yet, when we talk of Dr George Tiller, we tend to focus on the murder & murderer more than the substance of the life before it. And so today, four years after his assassin shot him in the head in the foyer of Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, KS as he handed out church bulletins, I propose we remember the man before the murder, instead of the man after.
Dr Tiller graduated from the University of Kansas School of Medicine and went on to serve in the United States Navy as a flight surgeon. After the tragic death of both his parents, brother in law, and sister in an airplane crash, Dr Tiller have up his plans to begin a dermatology practice to take over his father's private medical practice and began raising his 1 year old nephew, orphaned by his parents death. It was at this time that Dr Tiller discovered that his father's practice had secretly offered abortion care to its patients. Dr Tiller made the brave choice to continue this practice and went on to become a focal point in the anti choice movement, enduring daily vigils & threats to his life and his family's lives by anti choice groups at his clinic. In 1986, his clinic was firebombed. In 1993, he was shot five times while leaving his clinic in his car. The shooter in this case later said the gunshots were aimed at Dr Tiller's hands so that he would no longer be able to provide abortion care to the women who sought him out for, often times, life saving abortion procedures. Before his death in 2009, Dr Tiller was the focus of 28 episodes of a Fox News program that placed special emphasis on his practice, resulting in even more protests and threats to his clinic and life, as well as to perpetuate the nasty name calling that began with a Congressman on the floor of Congress and was continued until his assassination in 2009 by several conservative talk show hosts, one in particular. And just two months prior to his death, Dr Tiller was acquitted of ALL charges (19 in all) in a case that many compared to the trials at Nuremberg and which prompted NYU Professor Jacob Appel to be quoted as saying that Dr Tiller was "a genuine hero who ranks alongside Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr. in the pantheon of defenders of human liberty."
But Dr Tiller's life was not and is not defined by the vitriol that preceded his death. To the women helped by Dr Tiller and his clinic staff, he was a kind, compassionate man with a soft & gentle demeanor who worked tirelessly to free women who chose abortion of the stigma that, sadly, still exists today. He was known for using the phrase, "Trust women.", an assertion that women are perfectly capable of choosing what's best for themselves, their families, and their bodies. Perhaps most importantly, he didn't just advocate for trusting women, but he also actively trusted women, never judging and always carefully considering the best line of care for each patient individually.
I was in an emergency room in St Louis, Missouri on May 31, 2009, experiencing excruciating abdominal pain. At the time, I was employed as a recovery room nurse in abortion care services at Planned Parenthood of the St Louis Region (PPSLR). My best friend, also a nurse at PPSLR, entered my room that morning with tears in his eyes, and when I asked what was wrong, he said only, "They killed him. They finally killed Dr Tiller. They finally did it." It was an impossibly sad moment and morning and it was one filled with fear. We entered our clinic, a clinic that Dr Tiller had visited, a clinic that was under the care of another well known doctor who had frequently been the target of threats and attacks, past vicious protesters every single day. We were sometimes followed home by protesters, we were sometimes witness to signs that carried our personal information and were meant to shame us out of providing safe and legal abortion care to women. And while historically, violent protesters in the anti choice movement choose to target doctors, our safety was always hanging in the balance. And yet every day we walked through that line of protesters in order to continue providing the care women so desperately needed. We, like Dr Tiller, would not be stopped.
If I had started this by telling you the story of a man shot at point blank range in the foyer of his church, handing out bulletins and talking quietly to an old friend while his wife waited quietly in their usual pew for him in the sanctuary, but instead of using Dr Tiller's name I'd used someone else's, it's doubtful anyone would feel anything but shock and complete disgust for such a heinous crime. Which calls to mind this contradiction we continue to live with, even 4 years later. There exists in our society an idea that some murder, some death at the hands of those who claim to be doing God's will, is acceptable. There exists in our society a concept that shaming women, stealing their right to hold dominion over their own bodies, is an acceptable manner in which to legislate. There exists in our society an exception - almost a forgiveness - for the vicious murder and assassination of someone who does something others don't like. And if we have learned anything about Dr Tiller's life AND death, it is that there's nothing less "pro life" than that.
Anaïs Nin once said, "I, with a deeper instinct, choose a man who compels my strength, who makes enormous demands on me, who does not doubt my courage or my toughness, who does not believe me naïve or innocent, who has the courage to treat me like a woman." For me, and for so many women who were his colleagues, patients, family, and friend, Dr Tiller was and remains that man. His passion for empowering women to make their own choices, to demand being trusted by all those who surround them, is a legacy that transcends deeply the type of death he endured and which we talk about every May 31st. It is a legacy that cannot be assassinated by a bullet but instead, can only die out if we let the light shine less brightly. So today, as we remember not the murder of a great man but alternately, the life of a remarkable and magnificent advocate & caregiver, let us lift our voices and insist his legacy be who we ARE and not who we COULD be, if not for the oppression we seem to find such trouble escaping.
Rest in peace, Dr Tiller. Always.