Amid abortion debates, activists remember Dr. George Tiller's murder 10 years ago

Dr. George Tiller was fatally shot while he was serving as an usher in church.

May 31, 2019, 4:57 AM

The spate of abortion restrictions that have passed in various states in recent months have some abortion advocates fearful, but Friday marks a different emotional low point.

May 31, 2019, is the 10th anniversary of the assassination of one of the country’s best-known abortion doctors, who specialized in performing later abortions.

Dr. George Tiller was fatally shot while serving as an usher at church in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas.

The shooting was widely condemned, including by then-President Barack Obama, who released a statement saying he was "shocked and outraged" by the shooting.

"However profound our differences as Americans over difficult issues such as abortion, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence," Obama said in his statement at the time.

Dr. George Tiller talks to state legislators during a "clinic experience" at his Wichita, Kan. facility in 1997.
Dave Willliams/The Wichita Eagle via AP, FILE

Tiller's attacker, Scott Roeder, was caught hours after the shooting and in 2010, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

For those who knew Tiller, the legacy of the controversial doctor, who was known to some as "Saint George," lives on.

Carole Joffe, a professor in the department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences at University of California-San Francisco, knew him because she said "the community of abortion providers is quite small."

Joffe told ABC News how there was an email listserv among abortion providers, and when a doctor had a troubling case or asked for advice of their peers, the answer for some of the most difficult cases would be to send a patient "to St. George."

"That is how he was referred to," Joffe said, "because he was so generous, because he would accept these patients, because people [doctors] who referred [patients] to him knew that he would treat them with extraordinary kindness and compassion."

"A really important part of his legacy is he pioneered techniques of how women coming for abortions in the third trimester needed to be treated, not only medically but also emotionally," Joffe said.

One person who saw that up close was Julie Burkhart, who worked with Tiller for eight years, most of which she served as the doctor’s spokesperson.

Tiller was a controversial figure and had been subject to threats for years before his murder. In 1986, his clinic, Women’s Health Care Services, was firebombed, and seven years later, Tiller was shot in another assassination attempt by a different anti-abortion extremist.

South Wind Women's Center executive director Julie Burkhart stands in the entryway of the Wichita, Kan., Aug. 23, 2013.
Charlie Riedel/AP, FILE

Burkhart said that after the 1993 shooting, Tiller was "laser focused" on his work.

"He did a really good job of not letting the outside noise and all this static take up rent in his head, or at least he did not express that," she said.

Burkhart also remembers something of a defiant stance that Tiller took against his critics and those threatening him.

"He did have a sign that he put up at one point in the parking lot, that you could see from the street, that said 'Women need abortions. I’m going to do them, George R. Tiller, M.D.,'" Burkhart recalled.

PHOTO: Children and anti-abortion protesters gather at a Wichita, Kan. abortion clinic operated by Dr. George Tiller, July 21, 2001.
Children and anti-abortion protesters gather at a Wichita, Kan. abortion clinic operated by Dr. George Tiller, July 21, 2001. Kansas has long been a lightning rod in the abortion issue.
Charlie Riedel/AP, FILE

She said that while the protests and threats could be disturbing and distracting for some, she knew that Tiller believed his work was necessary.

"I know he expressed this to me personally at one time, that providing abortion care for him -- and especially in the middle of the country -- it was a matter of principle," she said.

"He was one of the country’s abortion providers of last resort. If you were a person with a maternal health indication or if you were carrying a baby that had a fetal abnormality, he was one of the very few people that you could come to from across the country ... and around the globe," Burkhart said.

And in one way, he is helping to still do that. The National Network of Abortion Funds, which coordinates groups and maintains funds that give grants to women who call in asking for help paying for a procedure, named one fund after Tiller shortly after his murder.

Lindsay Rodriguez, communications director for the NNAF, said that the George R. Tiller Fund has been "very impactful" and they try to focus on the patients that Tiller would have treated while he was alive.

A memorial is seen outside Women's Health Care Services in Wichita, Kan., June 2, 2009.
Charlie Riedel/AP, FILE

"What the Tiller fund has done is really prioritize those patients who are seeking later abortions, because they can be incredibly expensive. It’s not unusual to have an abortion for $10,000 if it is later [in the pregnancy]," Rodriguez told ABC News.

"Dr. Tiller was an incredibly important person in our movement and his compassion and importance is still felt every day," Rodriguez said.

Tiller was "one of the few people who was providing later abortions, and as we see the wave of legislative bans that are happening that are putting these incredibly cruel limits on how early people need to get abortions, we think that his legacy is more important than ever," she said.

Tiller's clinic closed immediately after his death, first out of respect for his murder and then as a somewhat permanent decision. After the deadly shooting, Burkhart founded Trust Women, a non-profit that provides reproductive health care services including abortions to under-served communities. She bought the building that previously housed Women's Health Care Services from Tiller's widow and reopened the facility under her new group's name in 2013.

Burkhart said that while the recent passage of various abortion bans is like a legislative "firestorm," Burkhart said that there is a "different feel and a different dynamic" today.

"We didn’t see that fever pitch [of legislative actions] 10 years ago but we saw the direct targeting of one man, one person who was looked at as enemy number one to the anti-choice movement," she said.

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