In Memory of Dr. Tiller: Reflections on the Death of An American Hero One Year Later

Julie Burkhart

On the one year anniversary of his murder, remembering the life and death of my friend and collegue, Dr. George Tiller.

This post draws from entries made in the author’s personal journal.

Over the past year, Rewire has extensively covered the murder of Dr. George Tiller, the ensuing trial of Scott Roeder, and related issues. You will find a compilation of those posts here.

31 May 2009; En Route from Washington, DC to Wichita, KS

Today began as a clear crisp sunny day in Washington, D.C. I was at a conference for a national advocacy organization. I found out at 12:30 pm that my recent boss, mentor and father-like figure had been murdered —gunned down at 10:15 am in the lobby of his church – Reformation Lutheran Church while waiting to return to where his wife was singing, as a member of the choir.

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This is a devastating day in American history.

I guess we were too successful – I could feel it in the months just before his assassination. The anti-choice, domestic terrorists couldn’t stand that the laws in this land gave him the right to practice medicine. They couldn’t stand that juror after juror wouldn’t kowtow to their beliefs and prosecute him and shut him down. They couldn’t stand that we defeated elected officials at the polls and could win races against their antiquated philosophies. They couldn’t stand it – so they murdered him in cold blood in the church where he worshiped his God.

Those forces of hate, bigotry and rigid ideology are just like the forces of the Taliban that so many Americans rail against, which are merely separated by culture and geography. These are the same people who say that “All life is sacred.”  This statement should be amended to say – “All life is sacred if and only if you prescribe to a certain ideology that defines our existence in very narrow terms. Then, life is sacred.”

Dr. George Tiller was a fine and wonderful man. He taught me a lot in the years that I worked with him. He was tough, a teacher and a remarkable leader. He taught me much about life and how to approach problems in a positive manner. He taught me to make lemonade out of lemons. He taught me how to find solutions to problems, how to make the best of any situation, to find the silver lining.

He didn’t sit around and wait for life to lead him around. He followed his passion and his dreams; he created his own reality. He did what he was led to do and that which he loved.

It’s interesting the path that we can find ourselves on in life and where those paths can lead. I never intended to end up, for a longer term, in the women’s rights movement. It’s amazing where life forces help us end up if we listen to them.

I’ve heard this story so many times from him – Dr. Tiller was in the Navy – a doc – and was going to do a dermatology residency. Members of his family, including his parents, were in traveling in a small aircraft when it crashed. He came back to Kansas to close his late father’s medical practice and then get on with his dermatology residency. He never made it – instead, he fell in love with the family practice, which then predominately grew into a predominately reproductive health care practice over the years. What he found out, was that his dad performed abortions for his patients. I think this fact, this notion, sparked what became his life’s mission.

Going back to life’s direction and mission. Maybe that was his life goal. If we believe in a God, which I do in a way that is derived from the energy of the world – an energy both good and bad – then the energy of the universe – God – led his life in that direction. He was born to, led to be an icon in the women’s rights movement. That was the purpose for him. He was built just for that – to provide reproductive health care services to women – he did that well, above and beyond the call – he practiced medicine in a loving, compassionate, tender, nonjudgmental manner.

He understood that women had to be able to welcome, each child into their family unit. It’s called understanding the “heart” of a woman. No one can understand abortion until one understands the heart of a woman. That is exactly why abortion will always be around for myriad reasons – women cannot always welcome an addition into their families. They make choices based on the current dynamic and what is right for that family.

This is exactly why the antis can NEVER win this battle. Women are intelligent enough to make the right choices for themselves AND they will continue to make these choices – with or without bloodshed. They could murder all the providers and women will continue to seek abortions – regardless.

This is why the killing of such a great man is so senseless – one of the many reasons – he did not control the decision-making of women. Abortions will still take place – it’s not Dr. Tiller acting as puppeteer of all these women – its women saying to him – I need this to happen.

I’ve been fielding numerous phone calls today from friends, family, colleagues and the media. F*$# the press – I swear – story hasn’t even been out for a couple of hours and they’re calling me – as if it’s not a personal loss – as if his death is of no consequence.

It angers me because they’ll go talk to “the other side” and get the “we don’t approve of that” speech, but they won’t do anything to condemn it. They just perpetuate the dynamic. If they would stop treating them like they’re legitimate. They aren’t legitimate – they’re the devil, they’re murderers, they lie and say anything to get their way. It’s said in the Good Book that the devil will come in sheep’s clothing. I believe, with all my heart that these people are the devil. It is evil that gathers energy from that source.

I never would have thought in a million years that I would have worked with him. This opportunity came up and I seized it. It was a wonderful decision. I’ve never regretted my work with him, it was a wonderful ride. We needed to do a job and we did it. We didn’t have any bad legislation pass, we didn’t let them win the court cases; we didn’t let them always win at the polls – at least in the big ones. They couldn’t f@#%!*& take it that they were losing – then, of course, Obama’s election and then he announces Sotomayor as an appointee to SCOTUS. They had to be very angry. Nothing was going their way. The country was going to hell. The wrath of God was eminent. It was the ultimate act of self-righteousness; to think you have some divine calling to take another’s life. 

One year later: 21 May 2010; St. Louis, MO

Dr. Tiller’s death has left the pro-woman community devastated and struggling to come to terms with his assassination. A vast hole was left in provider care after his murder. Additional physicians across the country have been stepping up, in an attempt to fill the gap that was left by his death. The pro-choice community has been struggling to determine how to best fend off anti-choice tactics meant to shut providers down and deny women access.

It has become apparent that the anti-choice have become emboldened by Dr. Tiller’s murder; which was also driven by vehement opposition to health care reform at the national level. The anti’s have moved swiftly in places such as Kansas and Nebraska to limit abortion care in those states. Anti-choice leaders have taken Dr. Tiller’s assassination, and the fact that other physicians would be stepping in to provide care, as an opportunity for passing more restrictive legislation and redefining our abortion laws in the states, with the intent of having a national impact.

The climate in state legislatures was frustrating, to put it mildly. Both Kansas and Nebraska tirelessly worked to ban late termination of pregnancy, Oklahoma cranked out a plethora of punitive anti-choice bills and Utah sought to criminalize certain actions of pregnant women – these bills only scratch the surface of restrictive legislation proposed across the country.

One thing has become clear over the past year, the pro-choice community has to reevaluate the way in which we approach activism across the country, especially states that are all too often written off as “red” states or “fly over” states,” when in fact, these are the areas of the country that need the pro-woman movement the most. We cannot abandon the women in any state, nor in any corner of this country if we’re going to have equal rights for ALL women in this great nation.

The time has come for us, as a movement, in our own collective ways, whether it’s through education or activism or political engagement, to meet the anti-woman forces on their “own” turf. We must not cede any section of this country.

As I write this, I’m reminded of a sign that Dr. Tiller put up against a truck in his clinic driveway the day after he was shot in 1993. The sign simply said, “Hell no, we won’t go.” That was his motto then and we need to make it our motto now.

Another saying of Dr. Tiller’s, that I’ve meditated on numerous times since his assassination is this, “The only requirement for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” This is why, in the darkest, bleakest hours, we must continue moving forward, one step at a time, one woman at a time, until we achieve equality for all people of this land.

We love you Dr. Tiller and thank you for being a leader and a beacon of light.

News Politics

Clinton Campaign Announces Tim Kaine as Pick for Vice President

Ally Boguhn

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (R-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.

“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.

“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.

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Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.

In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.

Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.