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Working with Dr. Tiller: His Staff Recalls a Tradition of Compassionate Care at Women’s Health Care Services of Wichita

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Written by Carole Joffe for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

This article is cross-posted with permission from the forthcoming issue (September 2011) of Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.  We are grateful to the Guttmacher Institute for facilitating this exchange.

While attending Sunday church services in May 2009, Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Wichita, Kansas, was assassinated by an antiabortion extremist. The doctor’s murder led shortly to the closing of his clinic, Women’s Health Care Services (WHCS), which had been the best known of the handful of U.S. facilities to openly provide abortions at 24 weeks of gestation or later for women with serious health conditions and those carrying fetuses with severe or lethal anomalies. One of the most polarizing symbols of the U.S. abortion conflict, Dr. Tiller was reviled by abortion opponents. Among abortion rights supporters, and especially among his colleagues in the close-knit abortion provider community, Dr. Tiller was a beloved hero, legendary for the kindness and compassion he extended to desperate women who came to him from all over the United States and abroad.

Dr. Tiller’s murder and the closing of his clinic brought renewed national attention to the problems facing women who need abortions late in pregnancy. Fewer than 2 percent of the 1.2 million abortions performed each year in the United States occur after 20 weeks of gestation. [1] An unknown number occur after 24 weeks; in most states, such procedures are permitted only under highly restricted circumstances. At the time of Dr. Tiller’s death, only two or three other clinics were known to openly provide third-trimester procedures for qualifying women. Some hospitals provide these services on a case-by-case basis for patients of attending physicians, but the fact that WHCS served women from all over the country indicates that many women had difficulty finding the care they needed close to home.

WHCS’s closure raised important public health concerns; chief among these was what would become of women carrying wanted pregnancies that go horribly wrong late in pregnancy. For abortion providers wishing to offer similar specialized abortion care, and for scholars of the nation’s longstanding abortion conflict, the closure raises other important questions: What services were developed for this unique segment of abortion patients? How did staff cope with working in a facility that was continually under attack by antiabortion activists?

This report draws on interviews the author conducted with seven former WHCS staff members to address these questions.

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