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Abortion Services Return To Town Where George Tiller Was Murdered

Five years ago, Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed at the Wichita, Kans., church where he was an usher. Tiller was widely known for performing abortions in late pregnancy and had become a target for protests.

It was the morning of May 31, 2009, and fellow usher Gary Hoepner remembers they had finished their greeting duties and had walked out into the waiting area to get a doughnut.

"I seen the figure coming out of my peripheral vision. I looked over like that, the gun was up to George's head," Hoepner says. "The gun goes off, and I go, 'Was that a real gun?' Then George fell; I said, 'Oh my God, oh my God,' in my head. And then he took off and I took off after him."

Several hours later, Scott Roeder was arrested as he was driving toward Kansas City, Kan. At his trial, Roeder admitted killing Tiller, insisting that what he did was necessary. "I did what I thought was needed to be done to protect the children. I shot him," Roeder said.

Roeder was convicted of first-degree murder and given an enhanced sentence of 50 years.

Tiller's Clinic, The Protest Epicenter

Tiller's clinic had been the target of protests for many years. It was bombed in 1986. In 1993, Tiller was shot in both arms.

Dr. George Tiller outside his clinic in 1992 after four people locked themselves to the entrance gates of his clinic.
Richard Hernandez / MCT/Landov
Dr. George Tiller outside his clinic in 1992 after four people locked themselves to the entrance gates of his clinic.

A massive effort organized by the Pro-Life Action Network and Operation Rescue descended on the city in 1991. Back then, there were three clinics that provided abortion services in the area. The protest epicenter was at Tiller's clinic. Thousands streamed in from across the country.

"They did everything, they laid down," says former district attorney Nola Foulston. "They wouldn't walk. The officers had to carry them. They cried that there was brutal treatment."

What activists called the Summer of Mercy lasted for six weeks and was repeated 10 years later in 2001. The presence of "sidewalk counselors" near the clinic's driveway continued almost on a daily basis.

But in the years before his death, Tiller did not shy away from the gates of his clinic nor from the media coverage, including from Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, who nicknamed him "Tiller the baby killer." Through it all, Tiller remained defiant and vocal.

"The good news is that in Kansas we are able to use the full implementation of the Roe v. Wade decision, which allows us to do post-viability terminations of pregnancy," Tiller said in a speech a year before his murder.

A Cedar Fence Divides Two Sides

After Tiller's murder, his clinic — the last place in the city providing abortion services — closed. Since 2009, Kansas has also banned post-viability abortions and tightened the laws regulating procedures.

But in April of last year, South Wind Women's Center opened in the very same building where Tiller's clinic was. Executive Director Julie Burkhart worked for Tiller for seven years. Her clinic now offers abortion care for pregnancies less than 22 weeks along.

"About 1 in 3 women are going to have abortions in their lifetimes — so we all know somebody. If you think about women who are having abortions, nationally about 60 percent of women who are having abortions are already mothers," Burkhart says.

Across a cedar fence and past the sidewalk counselors is a clinic called Choices, which offers alternatives to abortion.

"We are here next door to provide a visible, viable medical alternative to what they're considering," says Scott Stringfield, Choices' medical director.

"By God's grace we've influenced and impacted many, many women. There have been many who we haven't," he says.

Five years after Tiller's death, the cedar fence between the two clinics still splits the sides of the abortion debate. But now instead of chanting and protest, there is sometimes conversation.

Copyright 2020 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.

Aileen Leblanc