For three decades, U.S. abortion provider George Tiller (1941–2009) fought off the anti-abortion protestors who made his clinic in Wichita, Kansas, the epicenter of the nation's abortion debate. Protestors picketed, blockaded, and bombed Tiller's clinic as well as sending him death threats with regularity. Tiller's battle came to an end in 2009 when antiabortion foe Scott Roeder shot him to death, thus silencing the United States’ most infamous provider of late-term abortions.
George Tiller was born August 8, 1941, in Wichita, Kansas, to Catherine and Jack Tiller. Jack Tiller, a family-practice doctor, was well-loved in the Wichita area. As a child, Tiller accompanied his father on house calls and came to admire the doctor-patient relationships his father built among his clients. Inspired to pursue medicine, Tiller would pursue a successful career, although the relationships he built with his patients impacted him far less than the choice he made to undertake a controversial medical specialty.
After Tiller graduated from Wichita East High School in 1959, he earned an athletic scholarship at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. In addition to competing on the swim team, where he earned the nickname “Tuna,” Tiller earned a zoology degree in 1963. He married Jeanne Guenther the following year, and together they would raise four children, two of whom would also became physicians. In 1967, Tiller earned his M.D. at the University of Kansas and completed a residency at the U.S. Naval Hospital at Camp Pendleton, California. At this point he became a U.S. Navy flight surgeon.
In August 1970, the Tiller family endured a tragedy that forever altered the course of George Tiller's life. While Jack Tiller was flying family members in a small, turbo-prop plane near Yellowstone National Park, the aircraft crashed and Tiller's parents, sister, and brother-in-law died. The young flight surgeon received a “humanitarian” discharge from the U.S. Navy and returned home to Wichita to close down his father's medical practice. Adopting his sister's one-year-old son, Tiller planned to leave Kansas and pursue dermatology once his father's patients transfered to other physicians.
Many of Tiller's new patients quickly became his friends, and when they learned about his plan to end the practice, they begged him to stay. As a general-practice doctor, he provided routine health care, delivered babies, and helped patients manage their diabetes and other chronic diseases. Over time, Tiller learned to appreciate his father for his work as a physician. He was shocked when he learned, through the confidences of patients, that Jack Tiller had provided abortions to women during the 1950s, when the procedure was illegal. “I was horrified,” Tiller recalled during a video interview transcribed and posted on the Physicians for Reproductive Health website, “because the only thing worse than a woman that would request an abortion was the physician that would do the abortion.”
As Tiller dug into the story, however, he learned that his father had initially refused to perform abortions, but then he was called in to save a patient who had undergone an abortion performed by an ill-equipped doctor. The woman died and Jack Tiller felt moved to provide an option to the dicey, backstreet abortions that were then available. Word spread, and for the rest of his career, he ran an underground abortion clinic.
The protests outside Tiller's clinic escalated as the country's evangelical Christians was mobilized, and during the mid-1980s the pro-life, Christian-inspired organization Operation Rescue focused on its goal of trying to shut down abortion clinics. As passions ignited, some anti-abortion activists opted for a more militant form of protest, and in 1986, a pipe bomb exploded at Tiller's clinic, damaging two-thirds of the building. A few days later, Tiller hung a sign outside the clinic that stated, “Hell, No. We Won't Go!”
Through the late 1980s, the demonstrations at Women's Health Care Services continued and protestors dubbed the clinic's head physician “Tiller the baby killer.” Despite the acrimony, he held steadfast to his belief that he provided an important service, sometimes wearing a lapel button that read “Trust Women.” According to New York Times reporter David Barstow, Tiller once discussed the importance of his work in a speech, explaining that “We have helped correct some of the results of rape and incest. We have helped battered women escape to a safer life. We have made recovery from chemical dependency possible. We have helped women and families struggle to save their unwell, unborn child a lifetime of pain.”
In 1991, members of the activist group Operation Rescue occupied three Kansas abortion clinics for a seven-week protest. Tiller's clinic served as the focal point of the demonstration. During what was described as the “Summer of Mercy” campaign, protestors from across the United States flocked to Wichita to blockade Tiller's clinic. Both day and night, people gathered at the entrance to Women's Health Care Services and harassed both staff and patients. Some 2,000 protestors were arrested before federal marshals were called in and the protest ended.
From 1973 to 1992, the State of Kansas did not pass any laws restricting abortion procedures, making everything Tiller was doing legal. Undeterred, Operation Rescue parked its “Truth Truck” outside Women's Health Care Services, placing it so that the larger-than-life colored photos of aborted fetuses displayed on its side were clearly visible. Protestors handed baby blankets to women entering the clinic and hung a banner at the clinic entrance that read “Please Do Not Kill Your Baby.” Anti-abortion activists also photographed Tiller's employees and posted the pictures locally, hanging them telephone poles next to pictures of aborted fetuses. The stress took its tool on Tiller and in 1984 he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. When the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts required that he seek treatment to keep his medical license, Tiller complied and later served on the impaired physicians committee of the Kansas Medical Society.
In August 1993, anti-abortionist Shelley Shannon shot Tiller in the arms as he drove away from the clinic. According to Wichita Eagle reporter Gail Randall, who covered the subsequent trial, the physician testified that one bullet glanced off the steel door handle on his vehicle and would have hit him in the chest had it not been deflected. “I was angry when I first got shot,” Tiller said during his testimony. “I was angry and I was mad …. I thought I was going to get killed.” Shannon was convicted of attempted murder, aggravated assault, and contempt of court and received a ten-year, eight-month sentence.
After the shooting, Tiller acquired an armored SUV and wore a bulletproof vest. He varied his route to work each day and drove in the right-hand lane to diminish the number of sides he could be attacked from. He also hired armed guards for Women's Health Care Services, removed all the building's windows, and installed a gate. On the political front, he donated money to pro-choice politicians and helped found the ProKanDo political action committee. Despite being vilified, he also continued to serve the Wichita community, serving as medical director of the Sedgwick County Health Department's alcohol treatment program for women. Tiller became active with the Reformation Lutheran Church and served as the team doctor for the Wichita Wings indoor soccer team.
Efforts to force the closure of Women's Health Care Services continued, unabated, through the early 2000s, eventually moving into the courts. In October 2006, an Operation Rescue affiliate filed a complaint against the physician, alleging that he performed illegal late-term abortions and aborted viable fetuses without the consent of a second, independent physician, as Kansas law required. Although Tiller did consult a second physician, the complainant charged that this consulting physician was not independent. When this case proved flawed, Operation Rescue filed a second complaint, in October 2007, and this time a grand jury issued a subpoena for Tiller's patient records. In March 2009, the Kansas physician stood in the courtroom facing charges that he had performed 19 illegal, late-term abortions. He was acquitted of charges, but the attorney and legal fees took their toll.
At the time of the 2009 trial, Women's Health Care Services was one of three in the United States that performed late-term abortions. A late-term abortion is defined as one that occurs after 20 weeks of gestation. When Tiller was in practice, Kansas law permitted the late-term procedure on a viable fetus if two independent doctors agreed that giving birth would cause the mother irreparable harm. In other words, if the mother's life was in danger, the procedure was deemed legal. Tiller also performed lateterm abortions on women with fetuses that showed genetic defects. He kept photos of aborted fetuses with hydrocephalus, spina bifida, misplaced limbs, and absent brains.
On May 31, 2009, Tiller arrived at Wichita's Reformation Lutheran Church to usher at the morning services. As he stood in the foyer, anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder walked up and shot him in the head. As Stephen Singular wrote in an account of the murder for The Wichita Divide, fellow usher Gary Hoepner witnessed the murder. “I was standing close enough to George to touch him,” Hoepner recalled, and Roeder “brought out a gun, but I wasn't sure if it was real. I saw his hand on the trigger. I saw the barrel go up to Dr. Tiller's head—very close. I heard a loud pop!—like a pop gun. George fell and I thought, ‘Oh, my God!’ I stood there for a second and the man exited out through the foyer toward the parking lot …. I heard him say, ‘Lord, forgive me.”’
Authorities arrested Roeder a few hours later; during his trial, he would claim that he was protecting the lives of the unborn. Convicted of Tiller's death, he was convicted of first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated assault. In 2010, a Kansas district judge sentenced Roeder to a “hard 50” prison term, which meant that he would not become eligible for parole until he had served 50 years. The sentence was thrown out three years later, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that only a jury—and not a judge—could order a punishment harsher than the mandatory minimum. In lieu of a new trial, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed in November 2016 to let Roeder's sentence default to a life term with a chance of parole after 25 years. Tiller's family closed his clinic shortly after his death.
The national abortion debate has continued in the wake of Tiller's death, and the polarization of opinion seemed to yield no clear possibility of compromise. After Tiller's death, the Physicians for Reproductive Health began issuing an annual George Tiller, MD, Abortion Provider Award to a physician who offered unwavering support for abortion rights. According to Washington Post writers Peter Slevin and Rob Stein, the Tiller family issued a statement at the time that read: “We are proud of the service and courage shown by our husband and father and know that women's health care needs have been met because of his dedication and service.” The documentary After Tiller was released in 2013 and won an Emmy Award for best documentary.
Singular, Stephen, The Wichita Divide: The Murder of Dr. George Tiller and the Battle over Abortion, St. Martin's Press, 2011.
Los Angeles Times, November 24, 2016.
Wichita Eagle, March 24, 1994, Gail Randall, “Tiller Emotionally Describes Shooting,” p. A1; June 5, 2009, Tim Potter, “Former U.S. Marshall Says Tiller Took Steps to Keep Himself Safe,” p. A1.
Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1993, “Doctor Is No Stranger to Physical Threats.”
New York Times, July 26, 2009, David Barstow, “An Abortion Battle, Fought to the Death.”
Physicians for Reproductive Health website, https://prh.org/physicians-story/ (January 20, 2010), “George Tiller, MD: Video, ‘I'm a Woman-Educated Physician.”’
Washington Post, June 9, 2009, Peter Slevin and Rob Stein, “Family of Slain Doctor George Tiller Shutters Abortion Clinic.”❑