One Year After His Murder, Tiller’s Legacy Continues to Inspire Even in the Face of Violence

One year after Dr. Tiller's murder, a network has been created to expand availability of later abortions, and disseminate accurate information on this topic to both clinicians and prospective patients.

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Today, May 31 marks the one-year anniversary of the assassination of George Tiller, the Kansas abortion provider who was shot as he stood in the foyer of his church on a Sunday morning. The polarization that surrounded him in life—demonized by antiabortion extremists, cherished by his colleagues in the close knit abortion-providing community—continues after his death.

Those who hated him took no time off from their hating: On the day of his murder, Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, issued a statement stating that “George Tiller was a mass murderer.” The notorious Phelps family of Kansas, known for its rabid opposition to both homosexuality and abortion, and its high profile disruptions of U.S. soliders’ funerals, attempted to picket Dr. Tiller’s funeral. (But in a moving sign of the often unexpected alliances that Tiller evoked, the Phelps’ and other demonstrators were kept away by the Kansas Patriots, a phalanx of veterans on motorcycles, the Patriots were there to protect their brother veteran, as Tiller had served as a Navy surgeon.)

Immediately after Tiller’s murder, and continuing to the present moment, many of the country’s abortion clinics reported an upsurge in aggressive and threatening behavior by protestors. Physicians attending the annual conference of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in San Francisco recently were greeted by protestors carrying signs saying “George Tiller is burning in hell.”

As for Tiller’s former colleagues, they are still mourning their beloved “Saint George,” a nickname he was given long before his death, both because of his willingness to take on the hardest cases that no one else would do, and because of his willingness to stay the course in Wichita in the face of years of attacks by his enemies. But the provider community is also organizing to carry on his work.

One part of Tiller’s abortion practice—that which he was most reviled for—involved later (post-24-week) procedures, typically for women whose wanted pregnancies had gone horribly wrong, either because of serious or lethal fetal anomalies or grave health conditions of the women themselves. The closing of his Wichita clinic after his death made clear that there remained only a handful of places in the country in which women in these situations could go. In response, a group of physicians, researchers and advocates have created a network focused on expanding the availability of later abortions, and of disseminating accurate information on this topic to both clinicians and prospective patients.

Most notably, Dr. Curtis Boyd, a longtime abortion provider in New Mexico and a close friend of Tiller’s, decided to extend his practice to provide post-24-week abortions to women “on a case by case basis,” and two physicians who formerly worked with Tiller now work at his clinic. When I spoke with Dr. Boyd about this decision, he told me, “We felt we had to do this … both because of the women who needed this service and to honor George’s memory.”