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.

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