The Bravery of George Tiller

What Women Really Think
May 31 2009 10:09 PM

The Bravery of George Tiller

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The killing of George Tiller on Sunday is a reminder, as if we needed one, of why so few doctors dare to become abortion providers outside big cities, why even fewer perform late-term abortions, and of the bravery it takes to be a member of these small bands. Tiller, 67, performed late-term abortions in the rare cases in which his state, Kansas, allows it. (Two doctors have to say independently that a woman would be irreparably harmed by giving birth.) For his willingness, Tiller was hounded throughout his career. In 1986, his clinic was bombed. In 1993, he was shot in both arms. This photo gallery from the Wichita Eagle chronicles those travails and more; the video below shows Dr. Tiller describing these unfortunate incidents. The Kansas attorney general's office went after Tiller almost as often as anti-abortion protesters did.

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Each time, Tiller was exonerated. In 2005, after a patient died after having an abortion at the clinic, the medical board in Kansas cleared him of any wrongdoing, as did a grand jury. A former Kansas attorney general then tried to subpoena the medical records of Tiller's patients in an effort to indict him for performing late-term abortions illegally. The Kansas Supreme Court said no, because the attorney general had no "reasonable suspicion" that Tiller was breaking the law. The group Kansans for Life tried to get Tiller's records by turning to an 1887 state law that gives citizens the power to convene a grand jury. The point, of course, was to scare women out of going to Tiller's clinic out of fear that their privacy would be violated . The grand jury subpoenas, too, got thrown out of court. The next state attorney general filed 19 new misdemeanor trials against Tiller, alleging that he'd taken referrals from a doctor to whom he had financial ties. He stood trial in March. As the New York Times put it after the jury deliberations, "After years of investigations and four days of testimony, jurors here took 45 minutes on Friday to acquit a controversial abortion doctor."

In a 2006 editorial about the lack of availability of abortion in large swathes of the country, the New England Journal of Medicine wrote, "Each year, 1.3 million women in the United States undergo an abortion, but in 2000 only 3 percent of rural areas in the United States had an abortion provider, and 87 percent of U.S. counties had none. Eighteen states had fewer than 10 doctors willing to perform abortions." George Tiller was killed inside his church today. What does it take to live in legal and physical peril because of the work you do, and then to lose your life in your house of worship? Much more than almost all of us have to give. Or should be asked for.

Photograph of pro-choice protesters by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.