The Legacy of George Tiller

"It comes down to who is the patient. Is the woman the patient, or is the fetus the patient? One or other is the patient. I’ve never heard a fetus talk to me. I’ve heard thousands and thousands of women share their pain, their desperation, and their hopelessness."

These words were spoken to me some twenty years ago by Dr. George Tiller, as I was researching a book on abortion providers’ experiences before and after Roe v Wade. Tiller, who was brutally assassinated in his church on May 31, was one of the most compassionate– and feminist– individuals I have ever encountered. "Trust women" was his well-known motto, prominently displayed at his clinic in Wichita, Kansas.

He was asked repeatedly by friends how he could continue his work in the face of the unending violence and legal harassment that he endured in the years leading up to his murder: his home and office were frequently blockaded (I recall hearing that he and his wife had to be helicoptered out of their house to attend a child’s wedding, as antiabortion fanatics were surrounding his home); he was shot in both arms in 1993; and he was subjected to numerous lawsuits brought by a grandstanding anti-abortion Attorney General in Kansas and by Operation Rescue operatives, all of which he ultimately won, but which took a huge toll, financially and emotionally. His answer was always the same: "Where else can these women go?"

Tiller’s answer was not a rhetorical one. He was one of the very few physicians in the United States who provided abortion care well into the third trimester of pregnancy. It is this fact that made him so reviled in antiabortion circles, and unquestionably the most controversial abortion provider in the country. Operation Rescue relocated their offices to Wichita a few years ago, with the specific intent of closing him down. Each day, the women who came to him from all over the U.S., and from abroad as well, had to go through a gauntlet of protestors holding grotesque posters and screaming about "Tiller the baby killer."

It is hardly surprising that antiabortion zealots would find Dr. Tiller such a convenient target, focusing on his late term procedures. What has been more surprising, and disappointing, to me has been the inadequate coverage of Tiller’s work in most of the mainstream media in the days since his murder. I myself have spoken to a fair number of reporters, have read numerous stories from papers across the country, and consumed a great deal of television and radio reporting on this event. I have been struck that although all reporters mention that he offered late term abortions, as a way of explaining his notoriety in antiabortion circles, remarkably few of these print or radio and television journalists explained why Tiller did this, and who actually were the recipients of these procedures. The fact that so many of those reporting on Tiller were so oblivious of the circumstances of his patients is in itself a powerful indication of the marginality of both abortion providers and patients in American culture.

In simplest terms, many of those who came to George Tiller’s clinic for late second or third trimester abortions were women (and their partners) who were carrying much wanted pregnancies that had gone horribly wrong. These were women in many cases who had already set up cribs and had baby showers. Some of these women had fetuses with heartbreaking anomalies, that were discovered only later in pregnancy, such as anencephaly, a lethal birth defect in which most of the brain and parts of the skull are missing. Other women had themselves become very ill in the course of a pregnancy, such as the onset of cancer, which demanded a course of chemotherapy. Tiller, himself a practicing Christian, had set aside a space in his clinic — a Quiet Room — for grieving parents, who could if they wished, be counseled by a chaplain on staff, and participate in a baptism or other blessings for the lost pregnancy.

In a perceptive piece written immediately after Tiller’s death, the journalist Michelle Goldberg points out the irony that many of the procedures that he performed, for wanted pregnancies that had gone terribly wrong, "are as far away from the much-reviled concept of ‘abortion on demand’ that one could get… Almost anyone of childbearing age could end up needing Tiller’s services."

To be sure, not all of the abortions that Tiller performed were for difficult medical situations. Some were for wrenching social situations. Tiller was commonly referred to as "Saint George" within the abortion providing community, not only because he persisted in his practice for so long in the face of constant threats, but because he took on cases no one else would. To relate just one of numerous instances I have heard, a clinic director in the deep South was faced with a situation of a young girl, brought to the clinic by her mother: "a very pregnant eleven years, blond, blue eyes, and small… too far in the pregnancy for us to help." The girl had been raped by a relative. The solution chosen was a familiar one in the abortion providing world. The clinic staff donated money to the indigent family for travel expenses, sent them off to Wichita, and Tiller performed her abortion for free.

Why did Dr. Tiller receive a constant stream of referrals from his colleagues across the country? Why are there only one or two other doctors remaining in the U.S. who have a practice similar to his? The answer lies in a combination of highly restrictive state laws and hospital regulations governing later abortions, inadequate training opportunities for these more complex procedures, and, of course, the kind of unbearable scrutiny that likely awaits anyone willing to undergo this work.

In the wake of this horrific murder, many have rightly called for a more widespread condemnation of the violence that has plagued the abortion providing community for years. As Gloria Feldt, former president of Planned Parenthood aptly put it, "George Tiller needs more than candlelight vigils," and his death demands "massive outrage" from all sectors of society, particularly political leaders.

But I also believe that another response to this killing must be to demand that the mainstream medical community acknowledge the reality that there will always be some women who need abortions later on in pregnancy. Local medical institutions must make provision for these cases — especially since these women can no longer be sent off to Kansas, out of sight and mind of "respectable" doctors and hospitals. In the abstract, late term abortions are understandably distasteful to many. When considered in the context of real women’s lives, however, these procedures are essential. This is what George Tiller understood. This will hopefully be his legacy.

This piece was originally published in the Beacon Broadside.

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  • invalid-0

    Hi my best friend just had her son with Anecephaly and this is a very dificult thing to talk about.He was born May 1st 09 and only lived for 7 hours

    Every mother that has a baby loves her child NO MATTER WHAT!!!

    Well You have to think If you keep the baby you are going to go through so much when he passes away If you get rid of your baby that has a problem and have an abortion then you are going to save Soo much money and that sounds wrong and everything But It is a very difficult descision and when the baby was born he didnt even get to eat or anything he had trouble breathing and the site of having to see him that way was just horrible and I love him with my whole heart and was very Happy to meet him. I really wish some parents would think about it before this if the baby had a chance at living a life for awhile but if the baby is going to die shortly after birt just think you are going to have a Csection and deal with the pain and the exspense’s and not only you deal with it the babies father your children and you family.
    It was the hardest thing for me to do to see my friend go through this she was greiving for her son so bad and I wish that I didnt have to see them, I mean of course he went and became and angel baby and they have him in heaven watching over them and pretecting them but I wish that I didnt have to see anyone go through this it is a very hard descision to make adn Ihave pictures of the baby here are some when he was born I hope they show,

    So please think about this if you have one trust me I understand that you want your baby!! This is a very hard descision!

  • think4urself

    I am so sorry your friend, her family and you had to endure this great loss. The loss of a much wanted baby is tragic. I’ve been there, I miscarried right before entering into the 4th month of my first pregnancy almost 16 years ago. I do agree it would be a very difficult decision to make. A lot of the time finances play a part in what kind of decision we make in instances such as this. I will keep you all in my thoughts and prayers.

    Blessings to you all.


    ~Never let others do your thinking for you~

  • invalid-0

    This is something that has never crossed my mind. I don’t say this to be superior. I just never thought of it.

    I’ll be honest; I have to wonder if a faux pro-choice person with an extreme anti-choice agenda wrote the above in order to incite even more anti-choice fever by referencing it on other blogs as proof that pro-choice people are willing to bully the bullies. I apologize if it is a sincere plea, and nothing you say will convince me 100 percent that this is not a faux pro-choice comment because it’s just all too possible.

    With that said, I think we have to follow the rule of law. But I totally get your frustration (again–assuming you are not a faux pro-choice person). Violence is never the answer especially when dealing with radicals who believe “god is on their side.” We are dealing with people who deeply, deeply believe a worldview that women’s “sins” are the cause of all other sins. You know their rationale: “If you can kill in the womb, you can kill outside the womb.” Eve is the mother of sin. She was too weak to resist the serpent, and she pulled Adam into her web of original sin. Misogyny is built into every religion and philosophy except maybe Wicca, and you know what happened to witches—not just in Salem, Massachusetts but in Europe too. The need to control women and make them inferior to men is observed in the few hunter-gatherer cultures remaining on the planet. That tells me that it goes back a long way into our evolutionary paths. The need to subjugate women is nearly as instinctual as breathing. (But only nearly as instinctual because I know a few feminist men—real men, as I call them; and I know more than a few feminist women.) So misogyny a powerful impetus to keep terrorizing, especially if we retaliate. Our contribution to society is to protect and raise compassionate, loving humans. If we engage in violence, then we are teaching our children the same.

    It took us a long, long time to acquire the law that gives us the right to vote—not even 100 years ago. We can’t turn our backs on the law now. There are many deeply religious people who abhor abortion but do understand that it will never be eradicated even if it is made 100 percent illegal. I’m not religious in the traditional sense at all, but I do have faith in the democratic process. I have faith in upholding the law–which is on our side. I have faith in imagining a more just world that understands that women have actively tried to control the number of children they have since the Agricultural Revolution because only they understand their own circumstances as best as they possibly can and that the task of controlling the number of children they have is pretty daunting.

    Dr. Tiller believed and did help women who came to him, in spite of the threats on his life. I believe that if we resorted to the tactics of the radical religious fanatics, then we would be spitting on his grave. Let those who justify his murder, like Faux News, do that. They do it every time when they say “but” after declaring his murder as unjustified.

    Assuming you are a true pro-choice person, I understand your desperate feelings, but hang in there. Our hopefulness is their enemy. They revel in our feelings of hopelessness. Don’t let them control our bodies or our emotions.

  • invalid-0

    I feel that the Patient is the Mother and the Baby But In order to go through a birth defect is Horrible I have 2 Cousins that are mentally retarded and you cant understand anything they say, But the doctors said that they wont live past 8 or 9 years old and now both of them are 25 and 26 You have to be a very strong person to deal with the loss of a baby or a baby with a deffect, Even the Baby that had anecephaly I wrote about his mother and father wasnt but 15 and 18 when they had him Girls and Boys are starting way to early to have children and something needs to be done of course they love their children and Wouldnt change a thing about the child But the Consequenses and the Responsobility of having a child is very hard. (( Sorry for my spelling lol)) But even the baby in the pictures I put up That can be caused By Lake Of Folic Acid and Harm done when you are very early in your pregnancy But know that babies momma not even a month after she lost her son is Now Pregnant again no t giving her body time to heal from the csection or from the pain of it Her body isnt Eqquiped to handle another Child, TO make sure that child comes out right!!

    So it may sound hard and very unlikely to say this But I beileve That the real patient in this situation is THe mother!! If you think about it the doctors basically do nothing for the baby while it is inside of you, All they do is give YOU pills to make sure the baby has enough Nutrition and strength to live, They dont do all the test on the baby if your baby has a deffect or a problem they tell you they dont ask the baby what he or she wants. This is a very Hard subject to talk about because all the Different personalities that are going to have something to say, And basically in order to understand this subject You had to go thru it and deal with it all. I know when My Best Friend lost her son she went crazy Ripping her stitches out of her stomach and Hurting her Boyfriend and she didnt have anyone to help her at all, She didnt know what to do.

    And the way she feels is it isnt right Why does everyone else get a perfectly healthy baby and she just gets stuck with the Memories of only 7 hours her and her son had, It is a gift to have him blessed into this world but it didnt only affect her and the dad it affected all of us and I wanted him back to I cried every Night I went to his grave at like 3am and alaid on his grave with his mother, She has slept on his grave for nights at a time wanting him back she goes there every day and stays for no less than 3 hours and I am there with her Comferting her anyway that I can She has done so many things wanting her son Back she has even tried to dig him back up but she broke down and begged god For her son Back!!

    There are alot of Emotions and pain in this!!!

  • invalid-0

    Here is a page dedicated to the baby that just passed away and it tells you all about it and their journey with Anecephaly ( It is the baby I have been writting about)

  • invalid-0

    I understand why late-term abortions are repugnant. I also understand that they are not done lightly. People with the agenda to paint abortion seekers and abortion providers as casual and unfeeling just refuse to see the complexity. I honor the people who went through the torturous decision to terminate, the doctors who provide the service, and the people who decide not to terminate and the doctors who attend to those needs. These are all very difficult choices. I also honor Lil’ Tony and his young family and Amber for caring so much for them all.

  • invalid-0

    The above idea is interesting but we must do it LEGALLY.

    If we do to a target all the LEGAL things that were done against Dr. Tiller, that will be enough. Leave the crimes to the looney loners, as the right-to-lifers do.

    My religion says promoting right-to-lifism is murder and all right-to-lifers are murderers. That means killing one would be no worse than what they do. Swear it, believe it, and act on it.

    • invalid-0

      The patient: – Abortion is a murder.
      House: – it is true. It is a life and you should interrupt it.
      The patient: – Any life is sacred.
      House: – Cease. Speak with me, do not quote a label on bumpers.
      The patient: – Is a truth.
      House: – It is senseless.
      The patient: – Is means, that any life is important for the god.
      House: – But not for me and not for you. Judging by quantity of natural accidents, and not for the god too.

  • invalid-0

    “Swear it, believe it, and act on it” and “My religion says promoting right to lifism is murder and all right-too-lifers are murderers” do sound like religious and prostylizing comments to me. That’s exactly why I believe you are a faux pro-choice person. Maybe–just a teeny tiny maybe–your sentiments side with pro-choice philosophy, but your reasoning is that of a zealot. That makes you more like the extreme anti-choicers. I still believe you are highly most likely an imposter. If I say that with any more certainty, then I am like the extreme anti-choicers who insist that they can read the minds of anyone with whom they disagree; i.e., I become a zealot too. And since nobody can read the mind of anybody else or guess another’s intentions, I reserve the smallest amount of uncertainty. Say what you will herein. I won’t be entertaining your rantings with any more responses.

  • colleen

    That’s exactly why I believe you are a faux pro-choice person.

     This excellent blog is the subject of constant attacks from these morons. I believe that in this case (and from several other posts made here in the past week) they’re looking for ‘evidence’ that the pro-choice movement is just as violent and nasty and prone to murder and arson and bombings as they are. It’s the blog equivalent of the disgusting Lila Rose. 

    One of their own just messed up above when he/she argued for the murder of 3 people. Hopefully the FBI will be paying that idiot a visit soon.




    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

    Dr Warren Hern, MD

  • invalid-0

    Colleen, thanks for agreeing with my near 100 percent certainty that the above rants were written by a deceptive troll having a most cynical agenda. I hope that the people who express their sincere pro-life beliefs on any pro-choice blog really see how desperate not a few of the misogynistic and dangerous members of their movement have become. Perhaps the nonviolent kind sense that their lives are in jeopardy too if they call out the extremists in any way but a cursory and anonymous way. After all, extremists don’t tolerate any kind of disagreements from anybody.

    I understand that well-funded conservative organizations are paying conservative members on their listservs to go, with several assigned faux email addresses, on all the progressive sites devoted to a variety of issues to have auto arguments. The same con will make con arguments under one faux email address and offer weak progressive arguments under another faux email address, and after a few “exchanges,” the progressive cyber puppet cries uncle and cedes to the con cyber puppet’s superior logical and moral positions. It’s all a shell game intended to frustrate and demoralize progressives on their own websites. The cons obviously don’t believe in the strength of their own arguments. Maybe they think this little game they are being paid to play is clever, but it is nothing but shameful and pathetic.

    What is it that makes people lie, cheat, and some even promote killing all the while believing they are morally superior? It’s something deep seeded and perverted. Oh, and aren’t they the ones who decry moral relevance? Nobody is immuned from inconsistencies, but these people are swollen with hypocracies.

  • invalid-0

    I’m always making that mistake. I was trying to make the point that many con moralists like to puff up their chests and eschew moral relativism (as the tool of progressives), which is the belief that a sense of what is right and wrong varies between people and cultures so there is no certain right and wrong. Therefore, for them to behave as trolls in order to pose as pro-choice people who want to exact revenge for Dr. Tiller’s cold-blooded murder by one of the deranged domestic terrorists within the radical anti-choice movement is perpetuating a deceitful lie, a moral wrong, hatched to project onto pro-choice people the same desire to commit violence in order to force their will on all Americans like anti-choice radicals commit. They see no moral wrong in that lie as long as it is the convenient means to an end–to stop what they believe is murdering babies. However, lying by other people or for other purposes would be seen as wrong by the same radicals. That is moral relativism, not moral relevance.

  • paul-bradford

    This discussion shouldn’t be framed as a conflict between Pro-Life and Pro-Choice forces.  We should understand that the conflict is between people who engage in irresponsible, reckless and violent speech and those who are victimized by that speech.  Tillers question, "Is the woman the patient, or is the fetus the patient?" is one that ought to be discussed by people who are willing to speak respectfully and listen attentively.


    People who engage in intimidation and coercion are not contributing to the discourse, but the discourse needs to be engaged because the issues are so vital.


    The hideous, anti-life event that was the shooting death of Dr. Tiller is simply the culmination of a long history of name-calling, finger-pointing and noise-making.  Pro-Lifers need to renounce those tactics if they are to be effective advocates for the very young.



    Paul Bradford

    Pro-Life Catholics for Choice

  • invalid-0

    I have clearly separated the radicals from the rest in the anti-abortion movement because peaceful anti-abortion folks are victims of their radical counterparts if the peaceful ones aren’t aware of the malevolence in their midst.

    Your frame is valid and worthy of expression. Amber’s poignant comments above are also valid. So there is no one frame. Coming onto a progressive, pro-choice website is one place people don’t have to be corralled into someone else’s conformity. And this is exactly the place to talk about how far the radicals are willing to go as evidenced by the third comment entered above. It is much worse than a far-right zealot’s screed against abortion.

    This deceptive tactic isn’t just random; it is a well developed strategy. I don’t give much attention to conspiracies like, for example, those surrounding 9/11, but comments like the one I’ve indicated set off alarm bells in my head. Conspiracies like COINTELPRO are not just perpetrated by governmental entities.

    Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty (Thomas Jefferson).

  • jodi-jacobson

    We have just deleted a comment that suggested an act of violence against another person.

    RH Reality Check does not tolerate nor condone calls for acts of violence against any person, no matter their political views or affiliations.

    We will delete all such comments.


    Jodi Jacobson