America Is a Place Where Doctors Need Bullet Proof Vests to Protect Themselves from Christian Fundamentalists
Members of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) protest outside in Washington, DC on March 22, 2012. A bill setting strict limits on abortions in Texas was thwarted early Wednesday after a lengthy filibuster and a voting session interrupted
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In 2009, Dr. George Tiller, family doctor and abortion provider, was shot and killed in his Wichita, Kansas church by an anti-choice extremist. Before the murder, Julie Burkhart worked side by side with Dr. Tiller for eight years. Afterwards, Ms. Burkhart vowed to carry on his vision of safe, accessible abortion care for the women of Kansas. She founded Trust Women PAC and Foundation. This year, after a long fight she hired a clinical team and opened South Wind Women’s Center which provides abortion care on the site of Tiller’s old clinic. It is the only abortion provider in Wichita, serving women from western Kansas and Oklahoma. Burkhart has withstood harassment and death threats to make this dream a reality.
The Seattle Film Festival just showed, After Tiller, about the last remaining late term abortion providers in the country. I was struck by how profoundly George Tiller had inspired each of them. Here are these doctors who knew and loved Tiller risking their lives to carry on the mission. What was it about that guy?
Burkhart: He had so much compassion. He felt that women were capable of making their own decisions about each and every pregnancy. Also, he was a very solutions oriented person. Within a very hostile environment in the Midwest he set this path of being solution oriented and listening to women. His clinic was firebombed in 1986. He was physically attacked. He was shot in both arms in 1993 and the next day he was back on the job.
You know, Tiller didn’t plan to become an abortion provider; he planned to be a dermatologist. But in 1970, his parents and sister were killed in an airplane accident. He returned to Kansas to settle their affairs and felt called to carry on his father’s family practice. He started doing abortions because his patients asked him. The same with late term abortions. Tiller said that he was woman-taught. For him it was a matter of compassion and justice for women in need.
What was it like for you when he got killed?
Burkhart: It was one of the worst days of my life. At first I thought someone was playing a cruel joke. It couldn’t be real. . . . I mean, we all knew at some level that it was a possibility. In his office he had a couch, and sometimes when I walked in, his bullet proof vest was on the couch. He drove an armored jeep and had a body guard that went a lot of places with him. Living around that you know that potential violence is real but in order to function you can’t think about it every day.
When did you decide that you wanted to re-open his clinic?
Burkhart: I started first with a focus on politics, thinking that would be the most helpful. I founded Trust Women PAC and Trust Women Foundation. But what good are politics if there are no providers and clinics? From the beginning, we had a desire to offer services but experiencing a tragedy like that, it takes a while to sort things through. We bought the old clinic building from Dr. Tiller’s wife, Mrs. Jeanne Tiller, in August 2012 and started remodeling. Before the murder, I had moved to St. Louis, and when Dr. Tiller was shot I thought I’m never stepping foot in Kansas again! But I moved back in August of 2011. I couldn’t live somewhere else and reopen the clinic.
So, you’re now running the only abortion clinic in Wichita, and it is in the very building that used to belong to Dr. Tiller.