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Paying tribute to Dr. Tiller

Suzanne Poppema is board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health. She used to run a clinic near Seattle that provided abortions and reproductive healthcare.

For the last 20 years, Dr. George Tiller and I were close colleagues and friends, members of a too-small community of physicians who say aloud that we perform abortions. Now he is gone, and I am furious.

But I refuse to let my anger become despair: We must turn George’s terrifying end into the beginning of a new era when doctors can save lives without risking their own.

George was killed because he was a family physician who had the skills to terminate a pregnancy after 25 weeks and was public about it. He helped thousands of women in the most horrifying circumstances: Some women had fetuses with malformations so severe they could not survive outside the womb; others had cancers that would have killed them unless they ended their pregnancies. And there were rape victims so young that it took months for them to recognize the signs of pregnancy.

Local police, state police, the FBI, the state government, the federal government -- they should have done more to protect George. We all saw it coming. Even though 36 years have passed since Roe vs. Wade, a small group of people still wanted George dead. These people started tormenting him back in the ‘70s, and they never stopped, egging each other on, calling him “Tiller the killer,” harassing his children at school, bombing his clinic, shooting him in both arms and, in recent months, planting crosses in his front lawn, KKK-style.

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All that cruelty targeted at gentle George, a mentor to so many doctors and a hero to so many patients. George knew that he might not die from natural causes. In a group e-mail to friends and colleagues, including me, he once wrote that “one should treasure his relationships with his co-travelers on the journey of life each moment and day, because they may be taken from you or you from them at any precise moment.”

Since I heard about George’s murder, I’ve found myself staring at a coffee mug from his clinic. On it is this list: Kindness, Courtesy, Justice, Love, Respect. Despite the constant clamor outside his clinic, George delivered on that motto.

George had another motto too: “trust women.” As he once told an interviewer, “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.”

We can all pay tribute to George’s legacy by treating abortion providers as physicians, not pariahs, and by explaining and openly supporting their work as doctors. He knew that abortion is an integral part of women’s healthcare. When physicians are afraid to provide it, women die. Wherever women’s access to abortion is in danger, our government, our medical institutions and the public must step forward to protect it. This might mean enforcing the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act and other laws on the books to safeguard abortion providers and their patients. Or insisting on new legislation to ensure that doctors can practice medicine without getting assaulted.

A show of strength and support will give courage to doctors who have the training to provide abortions but are afraid to use it. Long before George was taken from us, we providers worried about our shrinking ranks, watching colleagues retire without anyone taking over their practices. We must erase fear as the reason young physicians won’t enter the field that George found so rewarding. On top of the strenuous cases and the relentless harassment, George trained hundreds of doctors in abortion procedures. We owe it to George to let them practice.


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