Obituary: Dr. Tiller remembered as committed and caring

03/01/2011 1:23 PM

03/01/2011 1:23 PM

Beloved by some, hated by others, Dr. George Tiller died Sunday a central figure in the nation's emotional, fiery and sometimes violent debate over abortion.

Dr. Tiller -- recently acquitted of violating the state's late-term abortion laws -- was shot and killed Sunday morning in the lobby of Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita.

Since first performing abortions after the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, Dr. Tiller had been threatened and shot, and his Women's Health Care Services clinic bombed.

Despite the assaults against him by people who believed what he did was murder, he continued to make available what he thought was right, friends say: a woman's right to choose.

"He was far too committed to what he did to let all of those situations -- and there were many and they were constant -- stop him because he had a commitment to his patients," said Peggy Bowman, who served as his spokeswoman in the 1990s.

Bowman said one only had to read the hundreds of thank-you letters lining the walls of his clinic to know how he helped people facing decisions that others never face.

"Dr. Tiller always used to say that women are under the most stress at two times in their lives: when they are pregnant and don't want to be, and when they want to be and can't," Bowman said.

A career in medicine

Dr. Tiller hadn't planned to practice in Wichita.

But he returned after a 1970 plane crash killed his parents, sister and brother-in-law, according to a 1986 story in The Wichita Eagle.

Following in his father's footsteps, Dr. Tiller studied medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. He joined the Navy, working as an intern for four years in aerospace medicine and spending more than a year as a Navy flight surgeon.

"I'd never planned to come back to Wichita. I'd never planned to be a family physician," Dr. Tiller said in the 1986 story.

Tiller returned to Wichita to take over his father's clinic and care for his grandmother and his late sister's 1-year-old child.

An Associated Press story said that one of his father's patients asked Dr. Tiller whether he planned to perform abortions like his father had. He said he hadn't known that his father had provided that service, which was illegal at the time.

He hung a portrait of his father at Women's Health Care Services, which he opened in 1975, with the inscription "Our Fountainhead."

Over the years, Dr. Tiller served as a team doctor for the Wichita Wings, medical director of Women's Alcohol Treatment Services at the Sedgwick County Health Department and president of the medical staff at Wesley Medical Center.

The National Abortion Federation honored him with its highest award, the Christopher Tietze Humanitarian Award, and the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights gave him its Faith and Freedom Award.

Dr. Tiller also taught and presented dozens of lectures about abortion -- from those with a medical focus to presentations about the gripping emotional side.

Dr. Tiller had stopped doing media interviews in recent years. He made sizable campaign contributions to those who supported his work -- contributions that became as controversial as the service he provided.

His political donations to former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius were a sticking point in her appointment as President Obama's Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Family and patients

When the lobbying group ProKanDo asked Miriam Kleiman to come to Kansas to speak to legislators about abortion, she agreed on one condition: that she finally get to meet Dr. Tiller.

He had changed her life, she said.

Kleiman, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, fought back tears Sunday as she talked about meeting Dr. Tiller, whose Wichita clinic she turned to when she learned in 2000 while in her 28th week of pregnancy that her baby was malformed and that he would die before birth or shortly after.

Kleiman and her husband, Jason Steinbaum, chose to terminate the pregnancy of their first child. They have since had two healthy sons, whose pictures Kleiman sent Dr. Tiller over the years.

Dr. Tiller and Kleiman hugged when they met a few years ago.

"It was extremely emotional and extremely personal," Kleiman said Sunday. "To finally be able to meet the person who changed our lives and thank him was just incredible."

His clinic, she said, allowed her baby to die "with dignity."

His family and patients always came first, said Peter Brownlie, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri.

"He was a great person," Brownlie said. "He was both passionate and compassionate."

He managed to have a great sense of humor and remained positive despite constant conflict about his work.

Bowman worked for Dr. Tiller for about a decade, beginning in 1989.

She had been executive director of Planned Parenthood in Wichita and said she called him one day "and told him that I was thinking about leaving that position and asked him to call me if he heard of anything that he thought might interest me. He called me back in about 30 seconds and said, 'I've always thought you should be working for me.' That's how it happened."

Dr. Tiller served women from all over the world, Bowman said.

He was close to his family, always supported by his wife, Jeanne, Bowman and Brownlie said. His community at church, where he was serving as an usher Sunday, was "very important to him," Brownlie said.

A clinic employee said Sunday that her heart went out to his family.

"He was a great man," said the medical assistant, who did not want to be named out of concern for her safety. "It isn't for any of us walking around Earth to pass judgment."

Sally Burgess, chairwoman of the board of the National Abortion Federation and executive director of the Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Ill., said Dr. Tiller was "absolutely one of the most generous people of his time and of his resources that I have ever met."

"He was fun, he was funny, he was humble," she said. "He had such respect for the patients he served and the staff he worked with. He was just truly one of kind."

Bowman said she and Dr. Tiller would touch base a few times a year.

"But I'm not sure I had talked to him this year," she said, "and I hate that."

Like others, Bowman said Dr. Tiller wouldn't give up on what he believed was a woman's right to choose.

"It would have been so easy for him to have turned his back and said, 'This is more than any human being can take,' " she said. "He wouldn't do that."

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