As is typical in the city of Seattle, the 2nd day of June revealed itself alternately cloudy, gray, rainy, and sunny. In many ways, the day and approaching evening matched my mood.
I had just entered Cal Anderson Park, a lovely green and lush spot in the center of Seattle named after Washington state’s first openly gay legislator. The park has seven acres with a large mountain-shaped water fountain that feeds three pools, and has walking and jogging paths and sports playgrounds. It is a place of both reflection and tranquility, of life and activity. I found it to be a fitting location for the second memorial and candlelight vigil of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington to honor the life and work of Dr. George Tiller. Like Dr. Tiller, Senator Anderson was a pioneer and was both respected and vilified during his life.
It is still very painful for me to remember that, slightly more than a year ago, so many of us lost so much: a beloved friend, an exceptional human being, a compassionate doctor, a skilled teacher and mentor, and an inspirational role model. I knew Dr. Tiller and was aware that he viewed his Wichita medical practice at Women’s Health Care Services as a reproductive health ministry. Truly a unique perspective from a unique man. Dr. Tiller was affectionately called St. George by the close-knit community of abortion providers who were constantly drawn to his ever-present and upbeat courage, conviction, and compassion. In fact, among so many other things, Dr. Tiller was known for his “Tillerisms,” phrases and reflections that demonstrated his views and attitudes about his life and work. These Tillerisms continue to inspire me and remind me that George Tiller was far more than an abortion provider and even much more than the humane physician who called himself a woman-educated doctor. He helped pregnant women in dire circumstances, desperate with nowhere else to turn. These include those women (and often their families), with wanted pregnancies that had gone tragically wrong, either because of damaging and/or fatal fetal anomalies, or life-threatening health conditions to the women or girls themselves. With his dedication, optimism, and commitment even through decades of relentless threats, harassment, bombings, arsons, and shootings, Dr. Tiller ultimately became a symbol of love, grace, and kindness that came to be larger than life. His Tillerisms truly reflect that; below are only a few.
- “Kindness, Courtesy, Justice, Love, and Respect.”
- “Attitude Is Everything.”
- “Courage is not the ignorance of danger; it is the management of our emotions in the face of reality and the ability to live sanely during heightened levels of opposition.”
- “Trust Women.”
- “Abortion is not a cerebral or reproductive issue. Abortion is a matter of the heart. For until one understands the heart of a woman, nothing else about abortion makes any sense at all.”
My own heart and head were brimming with my own memories and feelings about Dr. Tiller. I vividly remember a workshop we both participated in several years ago at a national conference and how fetal development was openly discussed with women having abortions. I looked around at the dedicated and determined crowd of about 100 people gathering in the wet and windy park to memorialize the good doctor. The remarks began with a warm welcome by Lauren Simonds, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington. She said that, earlier in the day, as she was preparing for the evening’s vigil, she reviewed others’ thoughts of Dr. Tiller, and she began to cry for this committed physician who “literally put his life on the line everyday for women…he was (often) the only hope for many…and he never judged.”
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Yes, so true. Dr. Tiller was a deeply warm, open, sharing, and kind individual. And as the sun struggled to come out and warm us, the way Dr. Tiller always warmed and nurtured his colleagues with his stories and his skills, Reverend Vincent Lachina, the long-time Planned Parenthood of the Greater Northwest chaplain who knew Dr. Tiller, reminded those gathered that George Tiller truly had meaning for everyone, whether you knew him or not. Reverend Lachina indicated that George never wanted to bring attention to himself, as he was a devoted and ideal husband and father, as well as an exceptional physician. George would not want to be regarded as a martyr or hero even though that is how so many know and remember him because he was a simple, yet also remarkable, man who went about his life doing what he felt called to do. And that is why today, we celebrate his life and his work. This celebration and vigil also means, the reverend warned, that we must remember to be ever vigilant and ever watchful for the cause of women and their rights, and the life-saving necessity of safe, legal, and loving abortion care as exemplified by Dr. Tiller.
Dr. Deborah Oyer, the medical director of Aurora Medical Services who also knew Dr. Tiller and worked with him, expressed her deep sorrow and anger about “the missed opportunities, both while George was alive, and that have continued since his death…
“One of the other things Dr. Tiller realized that many in medicine don’t is that ‘it wasn’t about him.’ It was about the women, his patients, and what they wanted and needed. Because of that realization, he was able to be totally there for them. He was truly selfless and humble…
“The medical establishment in our country missed the opportunity to learn from Dr. Tiller. He was an example of how to treat patients, of how to listen to them, of how to work as part of a team. The humanity that is often sadly lacking in medical encounters could have been taught to a much greater audience than the abortion providing community…
“He was my friend and so, I miss him. But even more, I miss the change he could have helped to bring about in the medical world. And even in daily encounters, if people just treated each other with the same compassion that Dr. Tiller brought to each encounter, the world would be a better place.”
Yes, yes. Dr. Tiller had so much more to share with the world, to change the world for the better. How do we make sense of the ongoing pattern of anti-choice violence that resulted in his cold-blooded assassination? How do we cope with our ensuing anger and grief?
Rabbi Zari Weiss next spoke to the now-chilled crowd and called Dr. Tiller’s senseless murder as the “desecration of the divine.” She said it is difficult, yet important, at this one-year anniversary to move forward, even with such a penetrating loss. That is, after all, what Dr. Tiller would undoubtedly have wanted. She urged that we continue our devotion to the right and dignity of women and girls to obtain safe and legal medical care, and use his model of courage and conviction in our own lives. “George Tiller reached out to life as we all must reach out to the risk of living and he paid the ultimate price. So today, let us again affirm that his cherished memory will always be for a blessing that will sustain us through the days, months, and years ahead as we remember this valuable human being” who was brutally taken from us far too soon.
Elaine Rose, the CEO of Planned Parenthood VOTES! Washington, ended the memorial by urging the crowd to honor Dr. Tiller with all that we do to defend women’s rights so that “Dr. Tiller will know that his life and work were not in vain.” Critical and timely words, as recent discouraging and frightening news from across the country demonstrates that “at least eleven states have passed laws this year regulating or restricting abortion, giving opponents of abortion …an unusually high number of victories.” Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arizona, Nebraska and Tennessee are only a few of the states that have passed laws ranging from insurance restrictions in the new federal health exchanges for abortion care coverage, oppressive questioning of women requesting abortions, and the banning of abortions after 20 weeks under the false guise of fetal pain.
But…what of Dr. Tiller’s pain? And the pain of the women who came from all over to seek out his important services? How about the pain of his beloved family, friends, and colleagues? Who writes laws about OUR pain?
No one, of course. We still suffer the pain of this shocking national tragedy and the ongoing fear and violent acts perpetrated by the fanatics of the anti-choice, anti-woman movement. So we somehow cope, learn to live with these losses, and we grieve, protect ourselves, and move forward for women. We work to end the silence and stigma around abortion and women’s lives, to demonstrate our humanity, and support each other through the dark times.
As William Ramos, MD, a long-time abortion provider in Las Vegas and close friend of Dr. Tiller, recently wrote to his colleagues:
“These past few days I have been spending a lot of time thinking about George Tiller. This is (also) a time for us all to think about each other. We have lost so many wonderful friends (Tiller, Glick, Koplick, McMahon, Finks, Slepian, Gunn, Britton, Sanderson, Lowney, Nichols, Barrett, Hill-I do not mean to leave anyone out), others are fighting serious disease (RR, Harrison), or attacks (Romalis, Fainman, Morgenthaler, Short, Karpen, Lyons), plus we are all fighting advancing age. This is a good time of year to send loving wishes to all of us in this community. Without us, there would be no choice. I will always remember the days of illegal abortion and the few of us who risked so much to provide safe care (Boyd, Hanson, Tiller Sr. and Jr., Glick, etc.). Stay Safe, Live Long and Prosper, and May the FORCE be with you.”
Dr. Tiller also used those last few Star trek missives and integrated them into his Tillerisms. And these will help us get though the pain of the dark and ferocious forces of anti-choice fanaticism as we continue to advance safe abortion care, respect, and reproductive justice for women and girls everywhere.
As the crowd slowly began to disperse and I hugged friends and colleagues on this cool Seattle evening, the sun peeked through in an attempt to drive away the darkness. I noticed that someone had written on one of the banners: “Dr. Tiller was a savior.” Yes, he was…and will always remain so in our hearts. I felt some comfort as I tuned my face towards the sun.