Ten years ago today, Dr. George Tiller — an abortion provider in Wichita, Kansas — was murdered by an anti-abortion zealot. We remember Dr. Tiller’s courageous work as both a doctor and an advocate who stood up to violence for decades in the name of women’s health.
Growing Up in, and Returning to, Wichita
George Tiller grew up in Wichita seeing his father care for their community as a prominent family physician. George got interested in medicine while going with his dad to make house calls around town.
When George was in junior high school, he met Jeanne Elizabeth Guenther — who later became his wife. The pair got married in 1964, the year after George graduated from Kansas University with a degree in zoology.
George followed in his father’s footsteps and became a doctor himself, graduating from the University of Kansas School of Medicine in 1967. He joined the U.S. Navy and became a flight surgeon at a Marine Corps base in California.
In the summer of 1970, George was planning to start a dermatology residency — but his parents, sister, and brother-in-law died in a plane crash. He returned to Wichita to temporarily take over his father’s family practice, as well as adopt his late sister’s baby and take care of his ailing grandmother.
His Father’s Legacy
Soon after taking over his father’s practice, patients came to Dr. Tiller with shocking news: His father had been providing illegal yet safe abortions in his office for decades. At first, Dr. Tiller was appalled. But then he learned that his father started providing abortions after one of his patients died from an unsafe abortion elsewhere. The women of Wichita told Dr. Tiller that his father was a hero for providing safe abortions to desperate people who had nowhere else to turn — people who might have died without him.
“The women in my father’s practice for whom he did abortions educated me and taught me that abortion is about women’s hopes, dreams, potential, the rest of their lives. Abortion is a matter of survival for women.”—Dr. George Tiller
The women of Wichita still needed abortion care. Once the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutional right to abortion in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, Dr. Tiller decided to follow in his father’s footsteps once again and become an abortion provider. Dr. Tiller soon came to specialize in abortion care, and he named his practice Women’s Health Care Services.
In addition to providing abortions, Dr. Tiller’s career in Wichita included serving as a physician for the Wichita Wings indoor soccer team; medical director for the county health department’s women's alcohol treatment program; and president of the medical staff at Wesley Medical Center, where he was born.
Unlike his father, who helped his patients in secret, Dr. Tiller became a well-known provider of legal abortions. Women from all over the country sought Dr. Tiller’s abortion services. For nearly 40 years, Dr. Tiller served as Wichita’s only abortion provider, always trusting women to know what was best for themselves and their families.
Over the years, Dr. Tiller and his clinic faced increasing threats and acts of violence. By the 2000s, Women’s Health Care Services was enduring daily protesters who sometimes numbered in the thousands and blockaded the doors. Relentless protesters used aggressive tactics with graphic messaging not only at Dr. Tiller’s clinic, but also at his home and at his church — harassing him; his wife, Jeanne; and their four children.
Dr. Tiller fought off countless lawsuits that stretched on for years at a time. And in 1993, he survived an assassination attempt that left him with bullet wounds in both arms. He returned to work the next day.
A Religious Man Murdered in Church
Dr. Tiller was known to be deeply religious. He was a Bible study regular at Reformation Lutheran Church, one of Wichita’s biggest houses of worship. He struggled with alcohol abuse, and turned to the spiritual program of Alcoholics Anonymous. In his health center, supporting the spiritual needs of his patients was a high priority — he had a chaplain on staff and a “quiet room” where patients could sit after their abortions.
Meanwhile, the anti-abortion movement claimed another sort of religiosity that had one mission in Wichita: shut down Dr. George Tiller's clinic by any means necessary.
On May 31, 2009, anti-abortion zealot Scott Roeder came to Reformation Lutheran, where Dr. Tiller was serving as an usher, greeting parishioners and handing out church bulletins. Roeder knew Dr. Tiller often wore a bulletproof vest, so Roeder shot Dr. Tiller in the head. Jeanne Tiller was a member of the choir and in the sanctuary when Dr. Tiller was shot.
In his trial, Roeder cited talking points from the anti-abortion movement to explain why he thought he was justified in committing murder. He was found guilty.
It is my fundamental philosophy that patients are emotionally, mentally, morally, spiritually and physically competent to struggle with complex health issues and come to decisions that are appropriate for them.—Dr. George Tiller
Standing Up to Anti-Abortion Violence Today
Ten years on, Dr. Tiller’s loss is still felt. His murder is a reminder that there is no place in our society for the terrorizing intimidation directed at reproductive health care providers and patients.
We share his story during a massive surge in threats and violence against abortion providers. That upsurge comes as inflammatory messaging from politicians and a rash of abortion bans across the country have demonized abortion providers. Anti-abortion officials haven’t just politicized health care — they’ve weaponized it. Their incendiary words and harmful policies are emboldening extremists to intimidate abortion providers, disrupt services, and terrorize patients.
Picketing, trespassing, vandalizing and obstructing entry at health centers that provide abortion are escalating at alarming rates. In 2015, a man invoking anti-abortion rhetoric murdered three people at a Planned Parenthood health center in Colorado. In 2017, we saw the first attempted bombing of an abortion provider in many years. In 2018, a man crashed a truck into a Planned Parenthood health center in New Jersey.
A True Hero
Dr. Tiller remained committed to providing care to women and their families in the face of ongoing terrororism. His courage against unbelievable odds will never be forgotten. His compassion and faith in women to know what’s best for them remains an inspiration.
Despite anti-abortion politicians who incite violence, we will not back down. We will not give up. We will carry on Dr. Tiller’s work and continue to fight for access to safe, legal abortion. And we will always trust women to make their own decisions — no matter what.