In Memoriam: Susan Hill

Amie Newman

The women's health community lost a courageous, dedicated leader in Susan Hill today. But her legacy of commitment to women's reproductive rights lives on.

Sadly, the women’s health and rights community lost a courageous, loving advocate. Susan Hill, a women’s clinic owner and reproductive rights advocate, died today. Hill was the President and CEO of the National Women’s Health Organization in North Carolina. From the web site of the National Organization of Women:

"She went on to open the first abortion clinic in the state of Florida
and was a founding member of both the National Abortion Federation and
the National Coalition of Abortion Providers."

In fact, at one time, Susan Hill owned five health centers around the country, including the now famous Jackson Women’s Health Center – the last remaining health center providing abortions in Mississippi. For this, she was targeted mercilessly and violently by anti-choice activists.  In fact, in October 2009 Rewire contributor Carol Joffe wrote about Hill’s mission to share the anti-choice movement’s latest strategies against women’s health centers: suing the cities in which the centers reside, along with the police chiefs in these regions often times. Hill was particularly afraid, Joffe wrote, because simultaneously, violence against clinics and staff at clinics seemed to be escalating in the wake of Dr. Tiller’s murder:

“In the old days, at least we knew what they were up to. If they were
blockading us or firebombing us, we knew it. This is more insidious,
more like a stealth strategy. And it is making life a living hell for
the providers.” 

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Hill was close friends with Dr. Tiller and remained extremely active working on behalf of clinic owners continually harrassed by anti-choice protestors:

Hill served as plaintiff in over 30 federal and state lawsuits concerning abortion rights, and was a key plaintiff in the NOW v. Scheidler case that charged abortion opponents with using violence, intimidation and extortion to put women’s clinics out of business. 

In an article on Salon’s Broadsheet right after Dr. Tiller was murdered, Hill expressed a realistic sadness about where women who needed later term abortions would end up with Dr. Tiller gone:

Hill last spoke to Dr. Tiller two weeks ago, not long after the Women’s Health Center was vandalized,
and she asked the 67-year-old why he didn’t retire in the face of
increasing harassment, after already having been shot in both arms and
seen his clinic bombed. "Because I can’t leave these women," he told
her. "Those are the words I’m always going to remember from him. He
just believed that when he left, they wouldn’t get any kind of care."
Unfortunately, it seems he may have been right. I asked Hill where
women who need late-term abortions can go now, and her response was
bleak. "There’s Warren Hern,
out in Boulder, Colorado, but he doesn’t go as far as Dr. Tiller went."
When it comes to those "really tragic cases," Hill said the harsh truth
is, "We don’t know where we’re going to send them."

Despite anti-choice activists "praying for her death" in the weeks following Dr. Tiller’s murder, Susan Hill’s dedication to ensuring women’s access to abortion services and the rights of all women to access safe and legal reproductive care never dampened. In March 2009, the Southern Oral History Program recorded a series of interviews with Susan Hill on choice, her life and abortion access. Gratefully, Hill’s words and her legacy of courage and devotion to women’s health live on. 

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