Five years ago today, Dr. George Tiller was murdered.
In my family’s church in Wichita, the church we’d been members of since…’92? Something like that. Before they moved into the newly built church at 13th and Rock, back when it was a smaller building on Kellogg next to Hooter’s.
My parents knew George and Jeannie Tiller, but I didn’t really. The Tillers initially came to Reformation Lutheran because they had been rejected from their previous church, and the Reformation leadership wrestled with the issue a bit but the church population accepted them…in spite of the years of protestors showing up outside the church with their signs, and trucks emblazoned with pictures of bloody fetuses sourced from who knows where, and their bullhorns, shouting at people attending services….on Christmas Eve, in the snow. They were there, every Sunday. For years.
After George Tiller was killed, this stopped. I try not to think too much about how much of a relief that might’ve been to some. The church now has a playground dedicated to Tiller’s memory, but there is no plaque proclaiming such. I think they’re concerned that it might be destroyed or defaced by vandals. They’re probably right about that.
On that Sunday morning, I was in town visiting my parents. They were at church, and I was at home moving a bed that was upstairs and needed to be downstairs (I’d stopped attending church regularly while in college).
My mother was in choir, and my father was serving as an usher. George Tiller was serving as an usher too, and it was in doing so that he was killed—he was in the lobby, the narthex, on handing-out-bulletin duty when Scott Roeder (who’d begun attending services at Reformation some weeks before, specifically to scout out the territory) stepped outside the sanctuary, pulled a gun, and shot Dr. Tiller in the head.
Roeder then ran out, pursued by a couple of ushers who fell back when he threatened them with the same gun. (Approximately three hours later he was apprehended outside of Kansas City. He was later charged with first degree murder and two counts of aggravated assault. The jury deliberated quickly and declared him guilty on all three counts—the judge gave him the “hard 50,” fifty years without parole. )
My father came home from church and described what happened, how he’d guided members of the congregation out of the building past the blood on the floor. I sat down on the stairs and cried.
Later that day, my parents went to a service at Reformation which the Tiller family also attended. I went downtown to attend a candlelight vigil.
That’s how that day went.
The so-called Summer of Mercy happened in 1991, in Wichita….of course. I remember it, but at the time I was in middle school and not exactly sure what abortion was or how it worked, making me not too dissimilar from the majority of adult idiots sprawling themselves out on Bleckley Drive in front of Tiller’s clinic.
I had the defense of barely being a teenager, but wish I’d been more aware nonetheless. I was a freshman in high school in 1993, when Tiller was shot by a protestor for the first time, in both arms. I didn’t remember that he went to work the next day, citing a need and dedication to serve.
But he did.
I learned about this while watching the After Tiller documentary, which I’ve been simultaneously yearning and dreading to see since first hearing about it. I learned that Tiller had founded, and Julie Burkhart built and ran, a political action committee called ProKanDo when I attended the first anniversary party for South Wind Women’s Center recently.
South Wind is the women’s reproductive clinic started by Burkhart in Tiller’s former clinic. I had never seen the inside of the clinic before, but had the opportunity to do so during the event, and…it’s beautiful. It’s an attractive, welcoming place, and quite extensive. You can see some of the clinic, and some of the first anniversary party, in these short videos at MSNBC.
Anyway, you’re probably thinking “ProKanDo? What about Trust Women?” That’s the name of the PAC that Julie Burkhart started in 2009, and echoes a button that George Tiller used to wear.
I shared in this confusion wandering through the vigil downtown on that night five years ago, seeing people in Trust Women t-shirts. “Yes,” I thought, “You should trust women to make choices for themselves, but…where is this going?
Maybe you share my distrust of slogans. Maybe you don’t. Point being, I needed something more.
I found it watching After Tiller.
After Tiller tells the stories of four doctors—LeRoy Carhart, Warren Hern, Susan Robinson, and Shelley Sella—who all knew George Tiller, prior to his death, in various ways, and continue on the controversial practice of performing third trimester abortions—the kind Tiller performed. Few than 1% of abortions are performed in the third trimester, mind. This is not how most abortions happen. But these are arguably the most mythical, because of abortion proponents’ biggest lie: that women who abort don’t think or care about their pregnancies, and doctors who perform abortions don’t care about them either.
Boy, does After Tiller dispel that myth.
“Because we’re sort of a court of last resort here,” says Robinson at one point. “If we’re not going to help her, she’s not going to get an abortion, really.” And then we have to watch an aide, who is clearly not enjoying the experience any more than we are, turning a prospective patient away.
After Tiller is maybe 1/4 homage to George Tiller, 1/4 discussion of the harassment and antagonism (legal and otherwise) that the four doctors have experienced in the process of trying to cover the needs of women throughout the country—and outside of it, in some cases—who find themselves past ordinary limit but in dire need of an abortion, whether by threat to the fetus or potential mother or both, and ½ coverage of meetings with actual patients, discussion of their particular situations, and comments from the respective doctors on why they do what they do and the cases in which they will and won’t do it.
This half of the documentary is informative, and brutal, and necessary.
Here’s the thing—if you are stridently pro-life, allergic to nuance, and want to mine this documentary for material which will support your position...you’ll find it. You’ll find doctors expressing moments of indecision and doubt. You’ll find desperate gambles, and patients trying to do the right thing for themselves that they might regret later. You’ll find people acknowledging that all available options “suck,” and all they can do is pick the one that seems the best to them now. You’ll find uncertainty. You’ll find a distinct and considered lack of stridence and dogmatism.
That’s the point, actually.
As Dr. Sella says at one point, it’s hard to understand or defend these abortions unless you can hear these womens’ stories and know what they’re going through.
You need to know the amount of suffering they and their children would experience, if the child were born. You need to understand how many women are aware of the fact that they will be unable to give a child up for adoption once giving birth, no matter how it might ruin them physically or financially to do so. You need to listen to a few women talk about the tremendous physical challenges their children will face if born, abnormalities you likely have never heard of, and hear them concluding that it’s better to end it now, before getting to know the child and having him/her ripped away from life at a very young age. In tears. In pain.
As Dr. Robinson says, "We can't protect people from regret."
It’s torture, honestly. It’s what these doctors deal with as a profession, and they deal with it carefully and consciously, every time. Again from Sella:
“I think for some providers, what’s difficult about third trimester abortion (and not just providers) is that a woman delivers a baby…and it’s a stillborn. And that’s hard to deal with. I think the reason I’ve struggled is because I think of them as babies. I don’t think of that as a fetus. To me, I think of that as a way to distance myself from what I do. I mean, it’s one thing when it’s a first trimester abortion and what you see is a little bit of tissue.
But if you go all of the way to the other extreme, you can’t say that’s a some tissue, that’s not tissue….that’s a baby. Then you have to think it. About what you’re doing. And, why are you doing it?
Well, it’s inside the mother, and she can’t handle it. For many many extremely desperate reasons. What drives women to seek a third trimester abortion—unless people understand what’s going on for the woman—it’s impossible to support it. How could you, really? I mean, it’s barbaric, isn’t it?”
Unless people understand.
Empathy is required.
"Women come here having decided that this is not a pregnancy that they can or want to sustain. And where do I get to say 'Oh yeah, well, why? Why do you want an abortion? You've got to explain to me!'? What if you're just not a very good storyteller? Why would it be okay for me to say 'No; you've got to tell me a better story than that'? Because what I believe is that women are able to struggle with complex ethical issues and arrive at the right decision for themselves and their families. They are the world's expert on their own lives."
That’s what “trust women” means.