A Man of Quiet Determination

By Rabbi Michael Davis - June 3, 2009
Photo by Steve Herbert/Atlas Press

The plane landed at Mid-Continent Airport in Wichita, Kansas. Among the passengers disembarking was a young couple; he was 32, she was 29 and pregnant. Very pregnant. They traveled alone; their two young daughters were at home with their grandparents. Unlike other passengers, there was no family waiting to greet them. They weren't returning home nor were they here on vacation. They had come to see a doctor.

Back home in New Jersey, their doctor had recently given them the terrible heartbreaking news. Following a slew of tests, he told them the fetus had a problem that almost guaranteed a stillbirth. Even if the baby survived the birth, he/she would certainly not live more than a couple of tortured days even with the best of medical care. And the delivery would put the mother at great risk as well. After much discussion with their doctor, their rabbi, their family and friends, the young couple made the agonizing decision to terminate the pregnancy.

So, here they were in Wichita, Kansas, of all places. They came to see Dr. George Tiller, one of only three or four doctors in the country who would perform a late-term abortion. They passed the lines of protesters, screaming, holding signs, taking pictures and writing down license plate numbers. They passed through the metal detector, a necessity following the bombing of the clinic 20 years earlier, and the shooting six years ago in which Dr. Tiller was wounded. They passed the guard and security cameras feeling like they were entering a high-security military bunker.

Once inside, they found welcoming, caring and knowledgeable people who understood what they were going through and were committed to helping them through it. The procedure was painful - in so many ways - but through it all they felt the support of the staff, the volunteers and especially Dr. Tiller.

Dr. Tiller has been called "outspoken," he has been called "a lightning rod." But those who knew him saw compassion and strength and dedication to the cause of Women's Rights. His was a voice in defense of women's health and women's choice. Tragically, on Sunday morning, May 31, as Dr. Tiller was preparing to usher at his church, he was shot and killed in cold blood.

Our nation has been split over the issue of abortion rights and Wichita has also been split. For many, the question is black-and-white: life begins when sperm penetrates ovum and any obstruction of that process is tantamount to murder. For those people, Dr. Tiller was a mass-murderer; Randall Terry of Operation Rescue said as much when responding to the news of Tiller's death.

But for many of us, Dr. Tiller and those who worked with him were performing a difficult service for people in desperate straits and doing so with professionalism and compassion. I saw it myself. I saw it in the eyes of the chaplain always there to help. I saw it in the energy of the nurse who flew out from the West Coast to help. I saw it in the volunteer escorts who accompanied patients through the harassing protesters. I saw it in George Tiller's quiet determination to help these frightened families in spite of the threats against his life and his family's.

On Sunday evening, several hundreds of Dr. Tiller's friends and supporters gathered in Old Town Square around the fountain. Old and young, male and female. There were long-time fighters in the struggle for Women's Rights. There were former patients. There were even pro-Life advocates who came to show that murder is not pro-Life. There were ministers and rabbis. One by one, individuals spoke from their hearts of their grief. In small groups, people wept and embraced. As a large, almost spontaneous community, the crowd stood together to find and to offer strength and comfort.

One young woman said Dr. Tiller saved her life. A Catholic woman stood and recalled how she had been called to bless an aborted fetus when the priest would not. She decried that it seemed priests would bless weapons of mass destruction but not an aborted fetus. One man marveled aloud what a strong community Wichita was, that it would come together at a time like this and not be torn apart. I stood and reminded them that people like that couple from New Jersey and others whom Tiller had helped were part of that community, too, that they were suffering the loss, too, but unlike us, they probably had no one with whom to share their sorrow. One common thread that flowed through almost everyone's words: "Thank you George Tiller."

And then there were the protesters. Representatives of the Westboro Baptist Church (Topeka, KS) were there just as they have picketed and disrupted funerals. They stood across the street shouting their hateful message made most plain by one of their many signs: "G* sent the shooter."