Friday marks the fourth anniversary of Dr. George Tiller’s murder. Specifically because of his work providing women with reproductive health care, the Kansas-area abortion doctor was shot and killed by an anti-choice activist in 2009. His killer is currently serving a life term in prison.
Dr. Tiller — who was one of the few medical professionals available to perform late-term abortion services for the women who desparately need them — has become one of the most prominent symbols of the anti-abortion harassment leveled against members of the reproductive rights community. After a period of heightened violence against abortion providers in the 1990s that left seven people dead, Tiller’s murder was the first for more than a decade. In the years since his death, abortion rights activists have invoked his name as a testament to the brave work that all abortion providers do, often even at the risk of their health and safety.
Several years after Tiller’s murder and his killer’s conviction, violent anti-abortion harassment has hardly subsided. The handful of remaining late-term abortion doctors in the nation still face serious threats and intimidation, and are forced to tighten security as their health clinics with metal detectors and security cameras. The reproductive health clinics that don’t provide late-term services aren’t necessarily safe, either. Women attempting to enter health clinics — sometimes, even Planned Parenthood sites that don’t provide any type of abortion care — routinely have to face shame-based taunts, chants, and signs from anti-abortion protesters. Sometimes women are doused with holy water. Once, a woman whose baby died in utero had to walk past a group of protesters singing “Happy Birthday, dead baby” to enter the doctor’s office to have it removed.
Julie Burkhart, the women’s health activist who purchased Tiller’s old clinic building, is all too aware of the reality that abortion providers face. Over the past several months, as Burkhart has worked to re-open the clinic so that Wichita women will have access to nearby abortion services for the first time since Tiller’s death, she’s had an uphill battle. Her home has been picketed and she’s been referred to as a “killer” in anti-abortion pamphlets. Several of the contractors working on the building’s renovations were harassed. Increased security at the new clinic is Burkhart’s top priority, especially after radical anti-choice activists — including Tiller’s murderer himself — suggested she’s made herself into a shooting target by taking over Tiller’s property.
The hostile environment surrounding abortion services has contributed to a serious shortage of doctors who can provide women with the reproductive care they need. Over the past several years, abortion opponents have been able to successfully intimidate doctors away from abortion care with tactics other than violence (although the violence is still happening, too). By enacting harsh state-level abortion restrictions, there’s so much red tape around reproductive health care that medical professionals often don’t want to wade into the area at all. Rather than risking their practice in a state that might prosecute them for providing health care to women, many doctors simply choose to move to a different place or stop providing abortion services altogether.
The states with particularly restrictive abortion laws tend to have the greatest levels of harassment against abortion clinics and providers. That creates a vicious cycle in places like Dr. Tiller’s home state of Kansas — women’s access to reproductive care is first limited by restrictive laws, and then curtailed even further by a lack of providers willing to risk their safety by practicing there. Ultimately, as Dr. Tiller’s legacy lives on, so does the legacy of his killer.