Tiller Leaves His Attitude, For Us to Carry On

By Cindy Cooper

Women’s E-News, June 4, 2009

Cindy Cooper met the slain Dr. Tiller during performances of her play, “Words of Choice.” Many people, she says, silently depended on him, but didn’t do enough to defend him from attacks. In his memory, it’s time for everyone to speak out.

Editor’s Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women’s eNews.

Dr. George Tiller and Words of Choice theater grou


Dr. George Tiller wore these words, in red, on a button pinned to his sports jacket when Words of Choice, the social-activist theater organization I formed in 2003, traveled to Wichita, Kan., eight months ago to perform at a local church.

After the show, Tiller slipped the button off and gave it to one of the actors, quipping that if he were a better speaker he would deliver the words in the play, too. Tiller was wry and unaffected; he had a way of making the people around him feel good.

“Words of Choice” is more than a performance, it’s also been a jumping off point for discussions about reproductive rights as it tours the country, often at hot button moments. The play traveled to South Dakota in 2006 and Colorado in 2008, for example, when abortion bans were under consideration on state ballots.

Twice we went to Wichita and both times Tiller attended and provided us with security detail.

That’s how bad things were in Wichita–a theater group performing in churches and dedicated to opening and expanding conversations about choice needed private security. But this is what daily life was like for people in Wichita–Tiller among them.

And it is the daily life of many reproductive health providers across the country who are demonized and harassed.

Tiller Wasn’t Alone

Since Tiller’s murder on May 31, many commentators have described his work and commitment to women’s health care; how he provided abortions despite personal taunts, vandalism, arson, vilification and violence.

Tiller was not alone. Clinic employees, and even volunteers, described waking up in the morning to find their car windows smashed or their tires slashed. No one was arrested. Anti-abortion vigilantes probed their lives and put personal details on the Internet.

Outside our performance in 2005, men arrived with two large vehicles–I call them intimidation trucks–decorated hideously with bloody images. The trucks were decked out with loud speakers and Troy Newman of Operation Rescue, which made Wichita its base, brought along young men. One of these men filmed everyone going into the performance; two other men shouted at audience members with handheld bullhorns. I tried to shake the hand of one man and he snatched it back as if I were a poison snake. These are not people interested in civilized conversation.

Only two weeks earlier, these same intimidation trucks had stalked the funeral of a woman who died of cancer. Why? She was a pro-choice supporter, and so these obsessively tasteless people descended on her family’s solemn goodbyes.

Outside our show, they continued their rowdy incitements while the police stood by. Finally, neighbors came out and told them to hit the road. They departed.

Thin Line of Security

We specifically performed in Kansas in 2005 to start conversations about reproductive choice because of the implications of subpoenas for women’s medical records issued by Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline. Kline had made a mission of using his position to harass abortion providers and clients. He demanded the records of nearly 100 women who had received services from Tiller. The stark intrusion by Kline would have had a chilling effect everywhere.

For these actions Kline was given honors by anti-abortion organizations across the country. But Tiller stood up for women. He refused to turn the records over, using his own resources and time to wage a legal battle, which he eventually won. He acted as he did day after day, serving as the thin line of security between women’s health, safety and privacy and those seeking to snatch it away.

The appearance of the ugly intimidation trucks in 2005 naturally startled the actors. The idea that a piece of theater could generate such hatred seemed inconsistent with everything they knew. Reproductive freedom had been a concept; that night, it became personal. But this was the daily life in Wichita.

It is also the daily life of doctors and workers in other communities. Emily Lyons, a nurse, suffered hundreds of wounds, including being blinded in one eye, at a clinic bombing in Alabama. Her experience is described in “Words of Choice.” We also tell the story of Dr. Susan Wicklund, an abortion provider now working in Montana. One late night in an empty airport parking garage, Wicklund was confronted by anti-abortion protestors who started calling her a killer. “Words were my only weapon,” Wicklund said. She screamed back: “How dare you! How DARE you. HOW DARE YOU!”

Raising Voices

The intimidation truck was sitting outside the Women’s Health Care Center, Tiller’s clinic, in 2008 when we performed there. Patients still came because they needed his help. In Fort Hays, Kan., three hours from Wichita, a woman pulled me aside after the show to say she had taken a niece to Tiller’s clinic and how nice everyone had been. “Attitude is everything,” I thought. But why had she not said this before the audience?

In New York I once sat in on a small group of city people who had traveled to Kansas to see Tiller because they had serious pregnancy complications and Tiller was one of the few surgeons in the country who provided the needed services. They also spoke about his kindness and wondered how to repay it. Why not a press conference, I wondered?

The screamers who drive the intimidation trucks don’t care about the women and don’t care about the medical workers. They also don’t care to hear the truth: Safe, legal and accessible abortion is a health care service that women seek and need; women have the right to make decisions about their health care without government or vigilante intrusion.

After I left Wichita, I thought every pro-choice organization in the country should open an office there to counter Operation Rescue, which whips up hatred on a daily basis. I thought that every leader of every pro-choice organization should fly to that flat, unassuming land and see what Tiller and his staff endured. Only two weeks ago, Tiller’s clinic was vandalized; it wasn’t even mentioned in the local newspaper, a contact in Wichita told me.

The media, police and community leaders stood by while Tiller was demonized. Now the good people who support choice need to begin raising their voices to stop the anti-abortion ranters who are infesting our communities with hate and propaganda, joined by echo chambers, conservative politicians and apathy. There is enough culpability for Tiller’s death to spread from coast to coast. It’s everyone who doesn’t stand up for women’s freedom.

The anti-abortion folks in Wichita are not going away. They may move to another town, pick another target. I’ve seen them in Rapid City, South Dakota, and in Denver, Colorado. They will show up at Wicklund’s clinic.

When will these communities–and the rest of us–learn to say: “How dare you? Keep your hate out of our town and out of our lives. Hit the road.” Leaders, media, organizations, communities and individuals have responsibilities–recognizing them requires a mental shift. When I reached for the button to memorialize Tiller, I began to deepen my understanding. Attitude is everything.

%d bloggers like this: