In Memory of Dr. George Tiller: A Tireless Supporter of Women’s Dignity

On May 31, 2009, Dr. George Tiller was murdered. When I think of Dr. Tiller and his clinic I think of compassion. What Dr. Tiller and his staff did each and every day was to give women their dignity. 

Barely two weeks ago, when President Obama gave the commencement address at Notre Dame he said, "As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?"

Upon Dr. Tiller’s death, Randall Terry, the founder of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue who led protests against Tiller’s clinic in 1991, issued a statement saying in part, "I am more concerned that the Obama Administration will use Tiller’s killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions." This rhetoric includes describing Dr. Tiller as "a mass-murderer" and abortion as a kind of "slaughter." It also includes describing Dr. Tiller, as Bill O’Reilly has, as "guilty of Nazi stuff."

This rhetoric of "mass murder" and "slaughter," killing and genocide, all commonly used by a variety of religious and political organizations that oppose abortion, is language that is demonizing and dangerous. Is this really how we think of women who have abortions, some lucky enough to do so with the support of caring doctors? Do we really believe that pregnant women who end their pregnancies and the health care providers who help them are no different from Hitler or Pol Pot? Do we really think that the individual decisions of pregnant women are the same as, or as claimed by some groups, worse than, government-sponsored genocide?

This rhetoric, largely unchecked over the last 30 years, distracts attention from key facts about the women who have abortions.  Sixty-one percent of women who have abortions are already mothers. By the age of 44, 84% of all women have become pregnant and given birth. American women, many of whom have had or will have abortions, do 80 percent of the child care and two-thirds of the housework. They do this work without any form of formal compensation, without any guaranteed pensions, and without any form of insurance or healthcare should they need it.

One of the amazing things about Dr. Tiller,  in addition to his determination and his extraordinary courage,  was the fact that he knew and appreciated who his patients were. He knew them as loving women, daughters, and mothers who are the backbone of their families and, to a large extent, our country.

Many of the women who traveled to Dr. Tiller’s clinic were not women who wanted to have abortions, or who even support the right to choose to have an abortion. Many were women with wanted pregnancies who learned that their baby had no brain, or kidneys growing on the outside of their bodies or things their doctors described to them as "severe fetal cardiac malformations." They were women who could not face two or three more months of pregnancy with people patting their bellies and saying, "Oh honey you must be excited. When are you due?" Some women deal with such crises by continuing to term even knowing the baby cannot survive. Others find that their dignity depends on being able to end the pregnancy.

Some women who went to his clinic were extremely young. Some who went struggled with health problems and disabilities that they felt would be exacerbated by a pregnancy they did not recognize until late. All together they represented women with the least desired and rarest abortions – ones late in pregnancy.

Dr. Tiller was extraordinary. When I met him he talked about why women have abortions and how they understand them in terms of their religious faith and spirituality. He described his efforts to serve them with respect, making possible rituals that would allow them to say goodbye to fetal life that they in fact valued.

Some women who returned from his clinic actually felt that they had been treated better through an abortion they wished they had not needed, than through a birth that they had anticipated with joy.

Today and the days that follow there will be some who will explicitly or subtly endorse Dr. Tiller’s murder as a matter of necessity, justified to stop what they will claim is worse killing.

I am tired of a public debate that treats seriously the claim that pregnant women, mothers, and the people who support them are killers. I am tired of a debate that trivializes genocide by saying that what women do to deal with their reproductive lives is worse.

What I want instead is to honor George Tiller, a man who honored women. And I want instead to honor those who value fetal life, but who do not lose sight of the women who give that life, and who would never dream of murdering a doctor who was among the few to give those women the services, respect, and dignity they deserved.

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  • invalid-0

    I was very disheartened that the news media covered the story about Dr. Tiller’s murder without any insight into the range of healthcare services he provided women including those faced with the heartbreaking choice of terminating their late-term pregnancy due to severe fetal anomalies and cases where there would be irreperable harm to the mother. I was helped by Dr. Tiller and am deeply mourning his loss.

    Ironically it is very near the June anniversary of my loss in 1997–I was very excited to go to my OB for my 26-week ultrasound(beginning of 3rd trimester and home stretch of the pregnancy)but something was very wrong–the baby was measuring at 18 weeks and my OB sent me to a major hospital where they held a team late to conduct a high resolution ultrasound. The confirmed diagnosis was the most severe form of osteogenisis imperfecta (brittle bone disease) and my poor little one had broken bones throughout his body and was severely underdeveloped. I was told my baby was “incompatible with life” and if I went through labor and delivery, I would most likely kill my baby as he passed through the birth canal.

    I felt the most loving and humane informed choice I could make for my baby was to end his suffering; every move I made I was worried I was hurting him. My OB arranged for me and my husband to fly to Kansas to Dr. Tiller’s clinic. We felt like fugitives having to leave our own state and could only use a certain travel agent, hotel, and cab service because of the pro-lifers stalking Dr. Tiller’s patients. We had to pass through protestors on our way into the clinic who were yelling at me that I had a choice. I wanted my baby, and I wanted him to live–that would have been my choice, but that is not the situation I was in.

    We could not have been treated with more dignity, compassion,love, respect, caring, etc. by Dr. Tiller and his staff. He was by my side the whole week and took personal responsibility for every step through the process. Before we left Kansas at the end of the week, as part of the healing process he showed me my angel boy and why he wouldn’t have been able to live on this earth. I held my baby and remember his perfect tiny little feet and his mop of black hair.

    The other couple there that week had a baby with 1/2 a brain–incompatible with life. Dr. Tiller told us of a 9 year old girl whom he’d recently helped–she had been molested and impregnated by her father and if she had carried the baby to term her body as well as her psyche would be destroyed. There are countless other heart-wrenching stories that support there is a true medical need for the services that Dr Tiller provided. I am aching for those couples who flew to Kansas this Sunday after making a very difficult choice…..where do they go now? Who would want to take on Dr. Tiller’s work and put themselves and their families at life risk? Dr. Tiller had to take extraordinary measures for his safety as well as that of staffers and patients, and anyone associated with Dr. Tiller (including their families, friends, and even businesses in the community that served them) were targets of unbelievable harassment by supposed “godly” pro-lifers. Bill O’Reilley targeted Dr Tiller for the last few years calling him “Tiller the Baby Killer.” What would Bill say if he had a daughter in such a difficult predicament?

    Dr. Tiller kept doing the work he was doing because he was such an advocate for women and their health and well-being. He was a brave hero and it’s a huge loss to this world. He was also a husband, father of 4 and grandfather who was ruthlessly murdered. The press and pro-life people will dismiss the killer as acting independently, but many of them are cheering the fact that Dr. Tiller is dead, and the majority of people in the US would not even think of supporting late-term abortion. I am hoping by sharing stories like mine, a greater education and understanding of the need to maintain women’s rights to choose as well as there being a true medical need for those grey areas of choice including late term abortions is critical. Dr. Tiller’s death cannot be in vain.

  • invalid-0

    Dear Anonymous,
    I want to thank you so much for sharing your story about Dr. Tiller and your own very sad experience of having to decide the best thing for your baby. Please have the courage to keep telling your story in as public a way as possible. The media is not covering the reasons for late-term abortions, and everything you can do to make this know will help the women who find themselves in situations similar to yours in the future.

  • invalid-0

    I think the Tiller family should sue fox news & bill o’reilly for wrongful death. Four other doctors had been killed, the slander they were doing was deadly. They knew or should have known that this would lead to a crime against him.

  • invalid-0

    What a courageous and caring man to help families in the most tragic of situations. He had a love to human life that “blind” by hatred pro-lifers will never understand until they themselves are faced with such a tragedy. I wish peace and strength to his family.

    Thanks to the others who have written in here.

  • invalid-0

    A few years ago I read a quote from a local pro-choice advocate in the newspaper. When referring to the anti-choice extremists she said “It’s not about the life of the fetus, it’s about the control of women”. These same extremists who oppose abortion, also oppose any form of birth control other than abstinence. A woman’s health and lifespan are directly affected by her ability to decide if and when to have children. When you remove all the choices, you condemn a woman to a life of poverty, poor health and sometimes early death. Dr. Tiller did the opposite. He gave women options and dignity, and encouraged them to take control of their own lives.

  • invalid-0

    Unbelievable…… So sad for this man and his family…….

  • invalid-0

    george was not a killer if we chose to abort our child it was our decision he didnt pull me in ,i do it on my owm choice ,at least im not using the welfare system like you ass wholes are doing. George rest in peice enjoy life with my mom and dad, sisier you did me wright ,I would of always had to see the looser that beat me .

    love and respect to you the

    tiller family love ya,

    Lori Kane

  • invalid-0

    These are American “not consent” which feel the powerlessness concerning the law resolved abortions. Physical attacks to clinics and doctors occur for a long time already. There is also a whole current in the politician – “for a life”. Whether they are got mixed up in these attacks, I do not know. So Americans not too easily reconcile to abortions as many think.

  • saitb

    Dont know what he actually did but taking a life from anybody is wrong. When considering taking life from somedoby even if it is a tiny fetus inside a tummy it’s wrong to take that precious thing away.

  • invalid-0

    Always sad when a good people dies, murdered is even worst.