Being Dr. Tiller: What It Takes To Step In Where No One Else Will

Illustration for article titled Being Dr. Tiller: What It Takes To Step In Where No One Else Will

Witnesses have begun testifying in Scott Roeder's trial, and a GQ profile of the doctor he killed raises a question: what does it take to perform late-term abortions in a country where people like Roeder run wild?


GQ's Devin Friedman portrays Dr. George Tiller as idiosyncratic, and not without hubris. He writes,

When he was younger, George Tiller had been difficult to work with. He could be vain. He wore a floor-length mink coat sometimes. He was never mean, but-he was a fan of Star Trek-he could seem slightly Vulcan, confused by certain human characteristics but also fascinated by them. For a while there was a sign in his office that read GOLDEN RULE: THE ONE WITH THE GOLD MAKES THE RULES, and he didn't consider how that might seem, a man who made his income by providing abortions. He was demanding and unforgiving of mistakes. It was worse when he was still drinking. He was more temperamental and unreliable. He drove a red Corvette then that he called Igor, and sometimes he would call Cathy at the clinic and say, Igor and I will be a little late. Even after he became sober, in the '80s, for a long time he was still headstrong, authoritarian. He fired his entire office staff once because he'd become obsessed with efficiency systems and they wouldn't consent to having their phone calls recorded. Even at the end, when he was a changed man, he was still very serious about maintaining and respecting a clear chain of command. Staff were never to call him by his first name. Cathy and Joan still referred to him simply as Doctor, even after he'd been murdered.

It's not necessarily a surprise that Tiller might have been "headstrong" — you'd almost have to have outsized confidence in order to keep going amid the death threats and actual violence that Tiller experienced. What's perhaps more upsetting about Friedman's article is its suggestion that Tiller's quirks were nothing compared to those of the late-term abortion doctors who survive him — Leroy Carhart and Warren Hern. Friedman writes, "Warren Hearn [sic] in Colorado and LeRoy Carhart in Nebraska may have been fine doctors, but people said they were both a little wonky as humans." It's not clear what "wonky" means here. In a recent NPR interview, Carhart made some surprising statements — like "I've always defended the back alley providers because most of them do a really decent job" — but he generally seemed pretty sane. However, Friedman notes that "the small community of people around George Tiller knew the first rule was to deny the enemy any source material. Once they got their hands on something, they could do anything they wanted with it" — and the same may go for those close to Carhart and Hern. The temptation on the left — a temptation I share — is to portray these doctors as saints, because so many anti-choicers try to paint them as devils.

In reality, of course, they're men, and as far as I'm concerned they could wear scuba suits as long as they remained committed to providing the reproductive freedom women need — a commitment that, according to the video above, Tiller got from his father and the women his father treated. It's interesting to learn about Tiller's personality and views — somewhat surprisingly, Friedman describes him as a "a don't-tread-on-me Republican" — but perhaps his most important quality with respect to women's rights was his willingness to perform late-term abortions in the heart of a red state. Friedman closes his profile with these disturbing lines:

There are no more abortion clinics in Wichita, or for 200 miles around. You could say Wichita is more Wichita now than it was when George Tiller was alive, a conservative small city in the middle of Kansas, at least one connecting flight away from either coast. Maybe this is the way people want it. Keep abortion to the places where it makes sense. Divide the country up, and let people move to the parts they like. Leave everyone else in peace.


The thing is, small town America isn't all conservative, just as, say, Southern California isn't all liberal, and to say that Tiller's death made Wichita more Wichita is to misunderstand some of the best things about America. The fact that a Republican was once our country's premier late-term abortion doctor shows that we used to have a lot of room for ideological diversity — and we would still, if extremists hadn't taken control of the conversation. Scott Roeder and those who support him have deeply hurt both liberals and conservatives by turning what could be a debate into an all-out war, and by forcing Americans even farther apart from one another. Abortion "makes sense" to all kinds of different women in all kinds of places, but as providing it becomes more dangerous and fewer young people enter the field, the only women with choices are going to be those who happen to live in blue states or major cities. Whoever else he was, Tiller was the kind of person who would stand up and do an unpopular thing in one of the places where it was most unpopular — and that kind of courage is now punishable by death.

Savior Vs. Savior [GQ]
Usher Testifies He Saw Kan. Abortion Doc's Slaying [Breitbart]
Abortion Doctor Upholds Legacy Of Fallen Colleague [NPR]
Dr. Tiller: The Lost Tapes [Broadsheet]


Earlier: What Scott Roeder's Voluntary Manslaughter Defense Really Means
After Tiller: Operation Rescue Picks New Target
Abortion Doctor Warren Hern Isn't "The Only One Left" - But He Is In Danger
"If Anyone Wants Hope For The Human Species, Don't Talk To Me": The Loneliness Of An Abortion Doctor
How The Anti-Abortion Movement Demonized George Tiller
Dr. Warren Hern: "It Is Terrifying And It's Infuriating. There's No Excuse For This."
What's Next For Tiller's Clinic, Scott Roeder, And Abortion In Kansas?



My takeaway: It's hard to be personally vilified and hated for so many years without a little of the crazy rubbing off on you.

So Dr. Tiller ran the place like a military institution. HE WAS UNDER CONSTANT ATTACK, so goddamn right he should run the place like a fortress. That conclusion is bolstered by the fact that his killer got to him in the one place where he let his guard down: church.

Dr. Tiller made the conscious decision every single day, in the face of heated and unreasonable opposition, to get up and go do his job. THAT, friends, is a hero.