Eight years ago today—May 31, 2009—we lost one of the greatest friends and one of the greatest defenders of abortion rights in the long, hard struggle to guarantee them. George Tiller, MD dedicated his life to helping women who had nowhere else to turn. And on this day, he gave his life—gunned down in his church by a representative of the so-called “pro-life” movement.
Dr. Tiller performed abortions, including late-term abortions, in the face of constant threats and harassment. Over the course of more than 30 years, his clinic was picketed, blockaded, and bombed. He was attacked with lawsuits, legislation, and targeted regulations. He was the subject of constant death threats. Before he was murdered, he had already been shot in both arms in a brutal attack in 1993. Yet still, he persevered.
And he fought back.
He lived in a gated community with a top-tier home security system. His clinic had metal detectors, bulletproof glass, and security cameras. He used armed guards, drove an armored SUV, and wore a bulletproof vest. And just as importantly, he hired the finest lawyers to defend himself and his clinic from legal bombardment. All of this for the freedom to perform medical procedures recognized as a Constitutional right by the U.S. Supreme Court.
One of those who hounded Dr. Tiller most rabidly was disgraced Fox News mouthpiece Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly attacked Dr. Tiller on at least 29 episodes of his show, calling him “Tiller the Baby Killer” and accusing him of “executing babies about to be born.” The atmosphere created by O’Reilly and haters like him contributed to George Tiller’s death.
That foul atmosphere is still with us. If anything, it has gotten worse since the Supreme Court AGAIN reaffirmed the legal right to abortion care. Three people were killed and nine injured at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood in 2015. The National Abortion Federation reports on an increase last year in intimidation tactics “including vandalism, picketing, obstruction, invasion, trespassing, burglary, stalking, assault and battery, and bomb threats.”
The courageous providers who follow in Dr. Tiller’s footsteps have to face down those types of threats every day. And they and all of us can draw inspiration from his example. He insisted on returning to work and performing procedures the day after he was shot in both arms.
Even his tormentors gave George Tiller credit. Troy Newman of Operation Rescue told the New York Times “His is the only abortion clinic we’ve never been able to close.” And although Dr. Tiller’s clinic did close after his murder, a new clinic opened last year in the very same building—staffed with people every bit as heroic as George Tiller.
But the heart and soul of Dr. Tiller’s legacy lies with the people he helped and inspired. His dedicated staff called itself Team Tiller. During his lifetime, the walls of his clinic were covered with hand-written thank-you notes from patients. It’s what he did for them that mattered most to Dr. Tiller. He once said in a speech ““We have made higher education possible. We have helped correct some of the results of rape and incest. We have helped battered women escape to a safer life. We have made recovery from chemical dependency possible. We have helped women and families struggle to save their unwell, unborn child a lifetime of pain.”
Helping people is what George Tiller did, and what everyone who takes up the struggle to guarantee abortion continues to do. Dr. Tiller’s legacy reminds us that we’re in this for each other.