Mourning Dr. Tiller’s murder

June 3, 2009

Reports from vigils and demonstrations around the country in memory of an abortion provider murdered in Kansas.

IN AN outpouring of anger and grief, hundreds of supporters of abortion rights came out in several cities for vigils marking the death of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider who was gunned down in Wichita, Kan., May 31.

In Wichita, on the evening of Dr. Tiller's murder, 400 people gathered on just a few hours' notice in the city's Old Town Square. Some in the crowd held signs reading "Catholics for Choice," "George Tiller: American Hero" and "Killing doctors does not make you 'pro-life'" as they mourned for Dr. Tiller and honored his life's work helping women to exercise their right to choose abortion.

"Another human being lost his life simply because he lived by his conscience," vigil participant Connie Pace-Adair told KWCH television.

Dustin Deckard, who didn't know Tiller personally, said he felt compelled to organize the event--posting an announcement by Twitter. He said he was overwhelmed by the outpouring of sympathy and grief that followed.

Diana Becker, a friend of Tiller's, said the doctor was always aware of the danger to his life from anti-abortion zealots, but he chose to dedicate his life to helping women. "He appreciated life, even though it was very dangerous at times," said Becker.

Across the country, vigils have been held to honor Dr. Tiller as a hero who stood up for women's rights
Across the country, vigils have been held to honor Dr. Tiller as a hero who stood up for women's rights (Melissa Gira)

Peggy Bowman, the director of a fund for women in need of reproductive health care, told reporters through tears, "I worked for Dr. Tiller as his spokeswoman for about 10 years. I loved him like a brother...He was a fabulous human being. He cared about his patients with the depth and sincerity that few people could ever imagine."

Despite the crushing loss of Dr. Tiller, his clinic has already announced that it will reopen this week and carry on his work. "He wasn't afraid," Willow Eby, a clinic escort, told the Wichita Eagle. "We won't be afraid."

In New York City, about 500 angry and sorrowful people came out to Union Square the following day, June 1, for a vigil and demonstration. Called by NARAL Pro-Choice America, the event paid tribute to Tiller's legacy as a man who saved and improved the lives of thousands of women by providing them with much-needed late-term abortions.

Many speakers who knew Dr. Tiller personally paid tribute to his kind nature, his tireless commitment to women's health and his professional expertise, which other abortion providers across the country called on when their patients faced late-term complications. The sense throughout the demonstration was that the attack on Dr. Tiller and the demonization of abortion providers was meant to further intimidate and shame women out of getting abortions.

Many women heard of the demonstration from a Planned Parenthood listserve, which is made up of many of the women who get abortions at their clinics. More than one women said that PP helped them get an abortion with dignity, and that they wanted to come out to ensure that more women would be able to do the same.

Zgizelle Cozart defiantly carried a sign at the protest that read: "Abortions on Demand, No Apology! (And Birth Control, too!)." Cozart said we need a movement that takes the shame out of abortion:

I had an abortion, a healthy abortion. And I don't feel ashamed. When I had my abortion, I felt safe, and the staff gave me choices. I was born in 1963. My aunt had an abortion in the seventies when abortion was illegal. It was an illegal, back-alley abortion. After that, she couldn't have more children because she used a clothes hanger. That's why I'm here.

Unfortunately, while the demonstration was spirited and a much-needed response to the murder of Dr. Tiller, NARAL didn't provide the crowd with next steps to defend abortion rights. But we need to defend our right to get a safe, guilt-free abortion, now more than ever.

In Washington, D.C., approximately 150 people met for a vigil outside of the White House on June 1. Many shared personal stories about how Dr. Tiller had been a mentor and an inspiration for them.

While speakers expressed pain at his murder, it was pain tempered with an anger at the politicians and hate groups who have created a climate in which acts of violence like this take place.

Many of those who came out to remember Tiller also expressed a desire to fight for the cause to which Tiller gave his life: protecting women's right to safe and legal abortion. One 18-year-old speaker said she had never been politically active around the issue of abortion because she felt too young. Now, she argued passionately, the current generation needs to take up the fight to keep abortion legal.

Several other speakers added that we should not feel ashamed or marginalized over supporting the right to abortion, but reproductive rights are a fundamental component of women's health that should be linked with demands for universal health care coverage.

In Chicago, a crowd of about 65 demonstrated outside the State of Illinois building. Students, activists, community organizers and outraged citizens all spoke of the tragedy and the attack on women's rights.

Some pointed out the weakness of the Democratic Party in backpedaling on abortion rights and catering to conservative anti-choice forces. "[The Obama administration] should be accountable for their promises," said a student named Jennifer. "It seems like there is a conservative take over, we're rolling back."

Protester Stacie Robinson said: "I was really hopeful about Obama's health care promises. I came out here because I couldn't just stay angry at home. We need to do something."

Activists in Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, Minneapolis, Bangor, Maine, and other cities around the U.S. also held memorials for Tiller, or had plans to hold them in the coming days.

Monique Dols, Mario Garcia and Jesse Zarley contributed to this article.

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