I was raised in an abortion clinic in the South. After school, I waited to get buzzed in through the side door by the security camera. I did my homework in the recovery room, and remember hearing stories about Dr. George Tiller. He provided compassionate abortion care to women in Wichita, Kansas, many of whom needed an abortion later in pregnancy, traveling long distances to get the health care they needed after exhausting all their social and financial resources. It was stories like these that normalized abortion for me at a very young age as part of regular health care. I also understood that not everyone agreed with a person’s right to abortion. And some of these people committed terrible acts. I was 13 when a fellow abortion clinic in Georgia was bombed by an anti-abortion extremist, killing a police officer and maiming a nurse. I was afraid every morning when my mom left for work, until it just became part of our family’s reality. I never thought I would go on to work in abortion care, but it turns out I would follow in my mom’s footsteps.
“I was afraid every morning when my mom left for work, until it just became part of our family’s reality.”
Once I left for college, I provided counseling and appropriate referrals for people seeking abortion services on the National Abortion Federation (NAF) Hotline. The training was rigorous, the security concerns were palpable, and for the first time I got a glimpse of what it was like for my mom. For the abortion providers I knew and loved. It would be a few years until I coincidentally became the NAF Hotline Case Manager for Dr. Tiller’s clinic. From many states away, I coordinated complex action plans with his clinic staff for their patients to receive care and funding. The stories I heard in my childhood became my reality; many of these young girls and women had driven hundreds of miles, asked friends and family to borrow money, sold items they owned, lost jobs, missed school, slept in their cars just to make it to the clinic.
I spoke with the nurses, administrators, and front desk staff to finalize appointments, payment, transportation, housing, and post-care logistics. Every so often, Dr. Tiller got on the phone to speak with me about a patient’s history and situation. I still remember the giddy feeling I got when hearing his gentle yet assured voice; this provider who I knew of for much of my life and was now working alongside. In the break room at the Hotline, a list of “Tillerisms” hung on the wall; sayings that he said guided his behavior, temperament, and advice to others. One of them read, “You can change the world – if you do not have to take credit for it.” Another, “Don’t let the protesters live rent free in your head.”
A few years later, I would finally meet the source of the “Tillerisms” in-person at a conference. I half-expected him to look like a super hero, some sort of a celebrity, but he looked so…normal. Round, wire-brimmed glasses and an 80s track suit.
No suit, no tie. He was warm and sincere, thanking me for everything I did to help women get the care they needed and deserved. He listened intently and presently. I could imagine how comforted, seen, and heard his patients must have felt. We spoke about me coming out to Kansas and visiting the clinic, meeting the folks I spoke to everyday on the phone. It was a brief conversation, but I remember it vividly.
“I could imagine how comforted, seen, and heard his patients must have felt.”
I would never make it to Wichita for that visit. Dr. Tiller was murdered in his community church just a few weeks after our conversation. Most people don’t know Dr. Tiller had been shot in both arms eight years prior by an anti-abortion extremist and went on to provide abortion care that same week. This time, the attack was fatal. I was at home in Atlanta when I got the call that would shake my world forever. My knees buckling out from under me, my mom there to catch my fall. We held a memorial service for him that night in the backyard. Neighbors, clinic workers, and all our friends who knew, worked with, and were inspired by Dr. Tiller came together to light candles and mourn the loss of this amazing individual. Our friend, a husband, father to four children, a grandfather to 10 grandchildren.
“In the aftermath of this death, I understood more deeply the risk that abortion providers face every day just to provide health care to their patients.”
In the aftermath of his death, I understood more deeply the risk that abortion providers face every day just to provide health care to their patients. I have a renewed sense of empathy and respect in my continued work with abortion providers. I understand the power of community, and the importance of showing public support for the work that abortion providers do. I believe it is our collective responsibility to create environments where abortion providers can live without fear and provide full-spectrum reproductive health care to their patients, free from stigma, harassment, and violence.
“…we will never stop fighting until abortion is available and accessible for everyone.”
Families of providers should not have to live in fear, and we will never stop fighting until abortion is available and accessible for everyone. Dr. Tiller inspired and motivated us to treat all people with dignity and support their decisions as agents of their own reproductive lives to have an abortion. I will never forget his kind spirit and positive attitude. For in the words of George Tiller, “Abortion is not a cerebral or a 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.”