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George Tiller: A Legacy of Trust

George Tiller

With jury selection complete, the trial of the man accused of murdering Dr. Tiller began Friday, on the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The author, an ob/gyn at the beginning of her career, here speaks for doctors who are inspired by the slain man.

As the trial of George Tiller's accused murderer begins, I feel a mix of emotions. There is anger as I recall the day I learned this heroic abortion provider was killed. Outrage at news that the presiding judge may allow a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter. Fear that other abortion providers could be targeted. Above all, however, is my determination to continue offering women the care and trust Dr. Tiller extended to his patients.

I first met Dr. Tiller in 2007, when, as an ob/gyn resident in New York City, I saw him accept a lifetime achievement award from Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health. I watched with awe as he approached the podium, knowing this was a man who had endured decades of harassment, threats to his home and family, and even bullets in each arm. I braced myself to hear firsthand what would drive someone to endure such public scrutiny and violence. What I heard was shockingly simple: trust women. Trust women to plan their lives. Trust women to make decisions that benefit their families. Trust women to handle complex decisions with equally complex emotions. Trust women.

As physicians, we trust our patients every day. We counsel patients about risks and benefits, the meaning of ambiguous test results, and options for how to manage their health. We trust them to weigh those options responsibly—or do we?

Thirteen years ago, I was a high school teacher, teaching my students science and good decision-making. I became close with Erica, a student who gave birth at age 15. With two more years of high school ahead of her, Erica knew her future would not be like that of her peers. Erica didn’t realize she was pregnant for some time, and she wasn’t sure where to go for abortion services. As a result, she had no options, and no one to trust her to make an appropriate decision about her health and her future.

Like food and water, options and trust are essential nutrients for building ethical and just relationships. Now that I am an obstetrician/gynecologist, I try to offer them to each of my patients. Take Caitlin, a 25-year-old single mother with an autistic son who came to see me a few months ago. She was using birth control, but got pregnant anyway. With tears in her eyes, Caitlin described her dedication to caring for her son, something she did with no help from others, no days off, no vacations. She was proud of how she cared for him, but knew another child would make it even harder to provide that care. While I was struck by the gravity of her situation, it was her positive attitude and her confident optimism that stayed with me. Did I have any idea of what her life was like? Could I put myself—even for a minute—in her shoes? No. But I could trust her.

The lessons from Caitlin’s and Erica’s stories are clear. While I was able to help Caitlin shape her future by trusting her, Erica had no options, and no opportunity to be trusted with a decision about her life. Denying women such options and trust is an exercise in time-travel back to a landscape of suffering and death. Dr. Tiller trusted that story and the women whose lives wrote it.

Fast forward to May 31, 2009. I had been practicing medicine for five years, and was committed to a career treating patients and doing research in family planning. The news of Dr. Tiller’s apparent assassination spread through our community as quietly as a Mack truck driving through a house of cards. We lost a hero who taught every provider essential lessons about patient care. We will always remember his words: trust women, and attitude is everything.

What was the immediate fallout from this most personal and inhumane act? Sadness about losing a revered colleague? Definitely. Anger that someone who so fiercely protected women and their families could be slain? Absolutely. Abject fear about what it means to be an abortion provider? For sure.

But there is a deeper, more meaningful, more Tiller-esque reaction emerging from his death. It’s the voices of many more physicians like me who are drawn to this field. We are ignited by doing what’s right, but fueled by the energy of those courageous providers who came before us, who fought hard for legal abortion, who trusted women. As I examine the road before me and consider my options as a physician, my path seems abundantly clear. Not straight, not smooth, but clear. I will walk that path, because despite its complexity, it is the right thing to do. I can think of no more meaningful way to honor Dr. Tiller than to join the new generation of abortion providers committed to preserving his legacy of trust.

In Dr. George Tiller’s Own Words

Two video clips, released on the eve of Scott Roeder’s murder trial, feature unused footage from a 2003 documentary, Voices of Choice, in which Dr. George Tiller describes how he became committed to providing women with abortions. In the taped interview, the doctor candidly discusses his personal risk and says he learned from his patients that “abortion is a matter of survival for women.” The clips—“I’m a Woman-Educated Physician” and “Abortion Services are a Heart Issue” — are made available by Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, which produced the documentary.

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