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Thursday, May 31, 2012

In Memory of Dr. Geoge Tiller, Warrior for Women

If you mention George Tiller in conversation, many won't have any idea who you're talking about. Many people don't know that a little more than three years ago, George Tiller was one of only 3 doctors in the United States that would perform late term abortions. If you google him, you will find far more horror stories than raves. But peppered among those horror stories are stories from women who went to him. Women who were desperate. Women who were (and are still) devastated. Women who are grateful. 

For Dr. Tiller's family and these patients and their families, today marks a very sad day. Today is the third anniversary of Dr. Tiller's death. And what makes it worse is how he died. He didn't die peacefully in his sleep. He didn't have a heart attack. He wasn't killed in a car accident. No, Dr. Tiller was standing in the lobby of his church, with his wife just on the other side of the auditorium doors, when Scott Roeder walked up to him, and shot him in the head at point blank range.

I first learned of Dr. Tiller in 2010, while doing research for a pro-life paper that I was writing for a psychology class. At first, all I found were the horror stories. As a mother, I was appalled. I just kept thinking, why would a mother abort her child, much less if the pregnancy is in a later stage?!. I was naive. And after everything I read started to sink in, I thought that there must be positive stories about Dr. Tiller somewhere on the internet. I decided that I needed to find and read those before deciding how I really felt about this. This was too big of a deal to be so black and white. So my research shifted. Soon, I found websites with pages like "Kansas stories", stories of women who had traveled to Wichita for Dr. Tiller to end their pregnancy. I came across a Terminations for Medical Reasons board on a parenting website. The stories were truly devastating. One woman talked about the ultrasound where she and her husband found our that their very planned, loved, and wanted baby had no brain. She talked about the pain of letting her child go. Another woman talked about finding out that her baby had a devastating case of spina bifida. These were things that I could never imagine dealing with. As a mother, my heart broke for them. I started contacting women from that board. Most of them were happy to share their experiences with me. I went to the Operation Rescue website and did a little research on George Tiller and came up with information on his former employees. I looked those ladies up and tried contacting them, as well. These people had no reason to talk to me. For all they knew, I could have been a pro-life extremist phishing for information. And let's be honest, I was just a student doing a paper. But one lady took a chance on me. Bonnie Moss-Rhodes accepted my friends request on Facebook. I was extremely nervous to reach out, but that didn't last long. Bonnie was very willing to answer my questions and shed new light for me. With the things she told me, along with the women I had spoken to and the stories I had read from patients, my mind was made up. My views had changed. Suddenly, I couldn't feel anything but sympathy for these mothers and their families, and respect for Dr. Tiller. I was officially pro-choice. But I was also left with about 1,000,002 questions.

For the third anniversary of his death, Bonnie Moss-Rhodes agreed to answer some questions for me, that will hopefully shed light on this issue for everyone, regardless of what side of the fence you stand on. I, in no way, wanted to be intrusive to her memories or over-step my bounds. I would have been happy with answers to one of my questions, but I asked 10. She gave me detailed answers to every question I asked and was happy to do so. I'll post the Q & A below, with a description of what is being talked about in bold, if I feel it needs further explaining to others. I would also like to say that Bonnie answered these questions while only speaking for herself.

Q. What is one memory of Dr. Tiller that sticks out in your mind?
A: My most intense memory is of the Doctor sitting next to the bed of a patient all night talking to her and her husband. I had called to tell him that he was needed back in around midnight. This was after a long day at work. He was so caring and sweet with this couple. He could not have been more concerned if it was his own family.

Q: Was there any particular case that strengthened your feelings about a woman's right to choose while you were working with Dr. Tiller?
A:  There were so many cases where patients just tore at your heart. Especially where rape was involved or the cases where the patient had already watched a child die from a genetic condition over months or years and simply could not see another face the same fate. There were also those families that had tried so hard to become pregnant and then had to deal with having to terminate. So many of them had made their decision out of love for that baby they so longed for, choosing to terminate the pregnancy instead rather than to cause it more suffering. Every week there were reasons to recommit and they strengthened the fact that women and their families must have an option of what is best for their families.

Q: Do you and the other former workers keep in touch? Is there a type of comradery between all of you?
A: Not just from working at Dr. Tillers. I have friends I made thirty or so years ago when I first started in clinic defense. There is a comrade in arms feeling. We were under siege and under attack daily. When the anti went to my co workers houses with bull horns it would just make you so angry for them. There is also the very real fear that every time you say good bye at the end of the shift something terrible might happen to these good folks. Yes, I keep in touch with most of those I worked with. I think we went through something that only we can really understand.

Q: Do you have good memories from working with Dr. Tiller, or is it possible to have good memories when you're working in such a traumatic environment (protesters, threats, harassment, sad women and families, etc.)?
A: I have very good memories of working at Women's Health Care. Good memories of the staff and the patients and their families. The protesters are an irritant but not really very noticeable beyond the gate. You are aware that they are there and as I worked all night and watched the monitors, often you are not focused on them. I felt good that I was there to help these women and their families in a time of need. I enjoyed working with different doctors and their different ways of doing things. It is a good feeling to be where you are needed for a reason you believe in.

Q: Is it true, as Operation Rescue (an extremely prolife organization) has reported, that Dr. Tiller was getting ready to retire?
A: I do not know for sure, but that is very likely. He had been a target of so much hatred and harassment for so long. I know how deeply he loved his family and I hope he was planning to spend more time with them away from the crazies (the "crazies" being the pro-life extremists). He certainly had earned it.  

Q: Was there any sense among you, and the other workers, or Dr. Tiller that the work was coming to an end?
A: No, I did not get that impression. We had several other very good doctors. Dr. Tiller's retirement did not mean closing the clinic. It took a cold-blooded murderer to do that. Even with that being done, our other doctors and some of the nurses are still providing services for the patients in other states.

Q: Do you remember how work was handled on the Sunday (or few days after, for the women who had already started the process) that Dr. Tiller was murdered?
A: I did not work in the office, but I believe that all patients were called and told the circumstance and then directed to where they could receive service.

Q: Do you think the decision to close the clinic permanently (Dr. Tiller's family decided to permanently close the clinic in the days following his death) was the best idea? Do you think that in some way, the other side "won" when the clinic closed?
A: I do not think the other side won anything when the clinic closed. I think the clinic closing was the best thing for the family. They had lived under threat for so long and had had their husband and father murdered in cold blood. Dr. Tiller remains a force in the pro-choice movement. His murder, once again, showed how little the other side has accomplished in the debate. They could not bully the Doctor into closing, so they, for the sixth time (Dr. Tiller was the 6th abortionist murdered by pro-life extremists), chose to murder.

Q: Do you think, that at this point, fighting for women's rights is a losing battle?
A: Absolutely not. Birth control, abortion, women's health...I grew up with this fight. We cannot go back to the way it was when I was a young woman. Women are more important than any political candidate. I have daughters and granddaughters that I will fight to the death for. We may have setbacks and we may relax and let the other side get control of the conversation, but we have way too much to lose to ever give up.

Q: If you could tell pro-lifers who were willing to listening, ANYTHING (about Dr. Tiller, women's rights, your own experiences at the clinic, etc.), what would it be?
A: In regards to Dr. Tiller, I would tell them that the fact that so many lies were readily believed by the anti-choice (pro-life) side about this good man, that the attempt to portray him as some demon only shows how little truth the anti's had on their side of the debate. I would tell them that if they were really concerned about babies, they would be promoting policies to make sure that not a single child in this country went hungry or lacked all educational opportunities and an equal chance at achievement. I would say that if they really wanted to prevent a great many abortions, that they would support access to birth control and make sure that women were supported while pregnant so that they (pregnant women) did not have to choose between feeding the children that they already have and keeping a roof over their head over carrying a pregnancy to term. They would fight for subsidized, safe childcare for poor, working women and for the education of women that enables them to become truly self-supported. To just insist on a woman carrying to term without these things shows that the real agenda of the anti-choice movement is not saving babies, but controlling women. I would tell them that when a woman's life and health is on the line, it is not up to them to decide that the woman must sacrifice herself. I would tell them that there are cases where a fetus is so damaged that if born, it will only live a few minutes or hours or days, in pain and suffering, and that for the parents to be forced to endure the suffering of a baby with no hope is just immoral.

After I asked her these 10 questions, I asked Bonnie one more thing. I asked her if she, like so many pro-lifers like to believe about her and the other workers, was pro-abortion. This is an idea that has always irked me because, really, who thinks, "Hey! Let's see how many women we can talk into having abortions today!"....yeah, no one. Abortion is no one's ideal. Bonnie's response was simple:
"I honestly believe that it is the decision of the woman, and her's alone to make". And then she went on to explain that she would love to see a world where abortion was a rare thing, where birth control improved to the point where unintended pregnancy was rare. She said she would love to see genetic anomalies treatable, if not a thing of the past. A world where women were not impregnated through rape, where women were supported to the point where they could choose to carry this child, while supporting that child. She said that even in a perfect world, abortion would still be necessary, but rare while readily available to those who need it. 

Through our conversation, she also added that in all her years, she has never met anyone who was happy about having an abortion. Relieved and grateful, maybe, but never happy. (I have to agree, I have often said that no girl or woman ever aspires to have an abortion.) She said that all of her patients had put considerable time into making the decision to terminate, often with the support of family and friends. Something very interesting to note is that she said all of the doctors and counselors that she worked with were able to weed out patients who were there because someone was forcing them to be, or when they were there, but clearly didn't want an abortion. The staff was able to give these women resources and send them on their way, as Bonnie puts it. She even says that the staff at Women's Health Care (The Wichita clinic that Dr. Tiller ran) was probably able to weed out more of these kinds of woman in a month than the amount of people standing at the gate to protest. And if you've ever looked up pictures from any of these ((daily)) protests, you will see that that is quite a bit. 

I hope that you walk away from this post with valuable insight. And that even if you don't agree with the work that was done, you can still respect the man, those who worked beside him, and the families that sought his services. One thing that I have learned through this research, along with my own experiences in motherhood, is that baby-making is not a perfect science. In fact, it can be pretty catastrophic, and when it is it's devastating. No one can ever say whether or not they'd go through with an abortion (whether it be an early or late term abortion) until they are in the position to. I hope none of my readers are ever in that position, but if they are, I want them to have access to safe, legal, and compassionate care. I do not want them to face judgement from people, let alone people who have never been in their shoes. I want them to receive the counseling before and after the procedure that is so essential to the healing process. 

I hope that today, on this somber anniversary, Dr. Tiller's family is able to look back and remember their father...their husband...the hero, without giving a second thought to Scott Roeder. He doesn't deserve their brain space. I hope they are able to look past the awful way he died, to remember the amazing work that he did. I hope they can push the hateful memories out of their minds, and remember the women who are so grateful to have been able to go to Dr. Tiller. 

As Bonnie told me, we have to keep the conversation going. We have to keep this issue present in people's minds. Women who have had abortions, for whatever reason, need to speak out so that we can start to erase the stigma. Women who haven't had abortions should be thankful, and support the ones that have. If you are pro-choice, work for the cause. Even if that means all you can do is blog about it, or vote for pro-choice politicians...DO IT! Don't think that because you aren't working 5 days a week at a clinic that what you are doing is any less important. 

Please, pass this post along to your friends and family. See what everyone has to say. As always, any view is welcome, as long as it is presented respectfully. I would also like to give a HUGE thank you to Mrs. Bonnie Moss-Rhodes. This post wouldn't have been nearly as important or moving without her input. 

In Loving Memory of Dr. George Tiller
August 8, 1941-May 31, 2009
"Attitude is Everything"


  1. I think that your ability to change your opinion is extremely gutsy. To be open-minded enough to do so is amazing.

  2. Thank you. One thing I am very proud of is my ability to keep an open mind.

  3. THATS MY GIRL!!!!!!

  4. Tough topic, thank you for the post. It's such a hard issue for many people and unfortunately it's difficult to make it black and white once you start looking at the real lives involved and the anguish of the decisions. The idea that abortion is used as a form of birth control is a myth and people don't choose late-term abortions because they just couldn't get their act together earlier in pregnancy. I see both sides, but I have a lot of compassion for the people who have to make this choice because it's never an easy one. And unfortunately I think American society is trying to take things back to a time in which there was no choice.

  5. Holly, you're right. Once you take into account that these are real people and their lives are in the is no longer a black and white issue. Thanks for taking the time to comment!