Four years ago today, Dr. George Tiller was killed as he greeted people coming to Sunday services at his church in Wichita, Kansas by anti-choice terrorist Scott Roeder. Prior to his murder, Tiller's clinic in Kansas was one of only four in the country that provided late-term abortions, and was often the target of anti-choice activism.
Dr. Tiller had been a frequent target of violence from anti-choice activists since 1986, when a pipe bomb exploded in his Wichita clinic. In 1993, Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon shot him in both arms as he was getting into his car. He was forced to live in a home surrounded by high walls, drive an armored car, and wear a bulletproof vest.
After his murder in 2009, his family closed Women’s Health Care Services. In April 2013 Julie Burkhart, a colleague and close friend of Dr. Tiller, reopened his clinic, the only one in Wichita. “We can’t let fear rule our lives,” Burkhart told the New York Times as she discussed plans to turn Dr. Tiller’s clinic into a comprehensive reproductive health care facility for women.
There is a steep hill for reproductive-rights activists to climb in Kansas. As of now, there are only four abortion clinics in the entire state. According to the Guttmacher Institute, over 97% of Kansas counties are without an abortion provider. Women in Kansas don’t have easy access to abortion, and the legislature is doing all it can to restrict access to the procedure.
Kansas has been a battleground for reproductive rights issues, particularly in recent years. In April of this year, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback signed into law one of the toughest abortion-rights bills in the country. The bill specifically excludes abortion providers from receiving tax breaks, requires that doctors tell patients about a (heavily disputed) link between abortion and breast cancer, and defines life as beginning at conception.
These obstacles to abortion access in Kansas hurt women. At present, if you're a woman who doesn’t live in a county that has an abortion provider, you have to travel to Topeka or Kansas City or another large city in Kansas or a neighboring state. You would have to see your doctor for an ultrasound, receive incorrect information intended to discourage you from getting an abortion, and get a hotel room for the night — Kansas has a 24-hour waiting period for abortion.
For many women, particularly those who are poor or without transportation, the legal and geographic barriers to abortion access can be insurmountable. Thankfully, there are a number of excellent organizations in Kansas that are working tirelessly to provide abortion services and funding to women in the state.
Abortion funds, grassroots organizations that provide financial assistance for abortion, are an important part of maintaining access to abortion in states like Kansas. Currently, according to the National Network of Abortion Funds, there are two abortion funds in Kansas, the Women in Need Fund and the Peggy Bowman Second Chance Fund.
As we remember Dr. Tiller on this anniversary of his murder, we must consider what he died in pursuit of — safe, accessible abortion. When he could’ve shuttered his clinic after being bombed, he continued to do the work that he knew was necessary for the women of his state. Abortion access, no matter what the legislative reality in a state, is the most important part of reproductive freedom.
If abortion is not accessible because it is too expensive or too far away, what is the point of it being legal? As pro-choice activists, I think it’s important for us to consider how to put rhetoric into practice. It’s easy to make phone calls to legislators and write letters, but giving to an abortion fund has real-world implications.
If you give to an organization like the Women in Need Fund, you know that your money is going directly to a woman who is in need of an abortion. You know that you’re directly affecting the life of one or more people who are in desperate need of help. It’s reproductive justice in action.
Consider how your donation to an abortion fund continues his legacy. His dedication to reproductive health access can’t be snuffed out by one extremist with a gun. We honor his memory and commitment by doing what he can’t anymore — helping women get access to the life-saving care that they need.
To locate an abortion fund, check out the National Network of Abortion Funds. And as you consider where to give, remember that Arkansas, North Dakota, and Mississippi have all enacted extremely restrictive abortion laws just in the last year.