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A Death in Wichita: Abortion Doctor George Tiller and the New American Civil Warby Stephen Singular
DEATH IN WICHITA (Chapter 1)
What George Tiller remembered most about his father, he once said, was the admiration and respect, even love, he had received as a community physician. Born in Wichita in 1941, George spent his boyhood tagging along with his dad, Jack, who served patients around town or at his office near East Kellogg Street, a major business artery running through the city. The youngster liked to carry Dr. Tiller's black bag and watch him practice medicine, not just with instruments and pills, but with the manner and words required for someone who was ill or nearing death. His father had a general medical practice, delivering babies, performing major surgeries, and treating people with heart attacks and strokes.
"There was a very special and unique and very warm, close relationship between my father and his patients," Tiller recalled. "I liked that. I continued to see this doctor/patient relationship through high school and through college, and I decided that's what I wanted to do."
What could be better than making a living helping people who really needed you and playing a vital role in the health of your community? As a teenager, George swam competitively and played other sports, but he never lost his early ambition to enter medicine. After high school, he attended the University of Kansas in Lawrence on a swimming scholarship and earned the nickname "Tuna," while taking a degree in zoology. Following his graduation from the KU School of Medicine, he wanted to set up a practice in dermatology. It was a safe, lucrative, and fairly predictable field; dermatologists rarely got called into emergency rooms or worked late at night. George had been raised to pursue a secure career and taught the conservative Republican values of his family. After getting his MD, he joined the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute Flight Surgeon School and was on a tour of duty as a surgeon in 1970 the day the call came in.
His father, a trained pilot, was flying his family to British Columbia in a small turboprop airplane, when the craft smashed into a hillside in Yellowstone National Park. George's father, mother, sister, and brother-in-law were all killed. The Navy gave the young doctor a humanitarian discharge and he and his wife, Jeanne, returned to Wichita to take care of his ailing grandmother and to adopt his deceased sister's one-year-old son. With these affairs in order, he stopped by one morning at the office where his father had worked for decades, now kept open by nurses.
"On September 21, 1970," he recollected, "I spent my first day in my dad's office, and there were just dozens of people flooding in there. They said, 'You've got to stay and take care of us. There's nobody else to take care of us.' At that time, there was competition for physicians, not competition for patients. So there was nobody else to absorb this practice."
While agreeing to treat them, he explained that this was only a temporary arrangement. He'd stay for a year at the most, before moving on and pursuing his dermatology career probably outside of Kansas. But the patients kept coming, urging him not to shut down. They admired and respected him, just as they had his father, and he was becoming attached to them. He liked the routine of going to work at this familiar office each day and having a general practice--a year passed and he didn't leave Wichita. He was delivering babies and taking care of stroke patients, heart attack victims, and those with diabetes. To his surprise, he was drawn to family medicine because, he said, people "depended on you for their health care, not only for themselves, but for the rest of their families--their grandmothers and grandfathers. And being a member of that extended family, for the health care provider, was fascinating and engaging. It was exactly what I wanted to do."
As his female patients grew more comfortable with him, they shared stories and medical secrets. Back in the 1950s, women in Wichita had started coming to his father for abortions and Jack Tiller had performed them, at a time when this was illegal and dangerous for a physician. He'd taken the risk after refusing to help a patient who'd later died during her botched attempt to end her pregnancy through an unqualified abortionist. Very quietly, he'd become the local, healthy alternative to backstreet abortions; as his underground reputation spread, so did the gratitude women around town felt for him.
George Tiller had been practicing medicine for several years when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, making abortion legal. The patient and her doctor were now the sole decision makers regarding pregnancy. With the law in place, a new generation of females approached Dr. Tiller and asked him to carry on his father's practice. He begged off: this wasn't his mission or, for that matter, what he'd been trained to do. Still they kept asking. Some were desperate for help and others reminded him of the woman who'd died after his father had refused her treatment, their stories building up and carrying an emotional impact. Eventually, he said yes, and his immersion into this nearly unmapped medical field began. Unwanted pregnancies were a far more complex medical, and social, challenge than he'd ever realized.
Many years later, Tiller told the Feminist Majority Foundation about his early years in his profession:
"One of the first people who taught me about the devastation that can occur in a family as a result of alcoholism, drug addiction was Haddie Mueller. She's been dead for about thirty years now. But she was one of my father's patients, and she did have three terminations of pregnancy before it was legal. And she explained all of those things to me. She explained about poverty, and she explained about abuse, and she explained about alcoholism and drug addiction and how it impacted negatively the family. So, I am a woman-educated physician in every aspect of my understanding about abortion and about responsibility of women in the family, both socially and financially."
After performing his first few abortions at a prominent nearby hospital, Wesley Medical Center, Tiller learned he was good at this work. He found it to be an important service, and very rewarding to help women go through what was usually a traumatic experience, both before and after their operations.
If he was kind with his patients, he could be demanding of his staff and a bit vain, especially when he was drinking. No one at work was allowed to call him "George," only "Doctor Tiller." He drove a red Corvette he named Igor and wore a full-length mink coat around Wichita. He was curt with the nurses and assistants whom he felt were less than diligent. More than once he was heard shouting in the Wesley hallways at someone who wanted to cut a procedural corner or go home early. Medicine, he reminded them brusquely, wasn't a nine-to-five job, but a calling.
Like his father, he was learning things he'd never been taught in medical school. He was known for repeating a series of pet sayings, and two of them were:
"The woman's body is smarter than the doctor."
"I want to make the world better, one woman at a time."
Occasionally, after a patient's operation, he and his wife invited her into his home to recuperate. Some stayed for weeks. He expected other medical personnel to treat the women as he did, and his feelings became stronger as his practice expanded, and the controversy around his work grew. You were either loyal to him and his staff--"Team Tiller"--or you didn't belong in his clinic. He began recruiting and hiring mostly females, who called themselves "the sisterhood," and their mission was larger than abortion.
"We have made higher education [for some women] possible," he once said. "We have helped correct some of the results of rape and incest. We have helped battered women escape to a safer life. We have made recovery from chemical dependency possible. We have helped women and families struggle to save their unwell, unborn child a lifetime of pain."
Tiller offered abortions for about one-fourth the price ($250 as compared to $1,000) that other places were charging. And there was an ever-growing demand; Roe v. Wade had made public a practice that had earlier been handled in secrecy, and the United States would soon see about a million abortions a year nationwide. In 1975, Tiller hung a portrait of his father in his office, rechristened Women's Health Care Services. Patients from across the country heard about him and the word spread--a first-rate abortion doctor out in Kansas was willing to take on the most difficult medical challenges facing pregnant women: undeveloped fetuses; fetuses with cancer; disfigured infants; and genetic dysfunctions. But as talk of his skills grew, so did a different kind of word-of-mouth. By 1975, his clinic was attracting its first protesters, changing the atmosphere not just in his office but throughout Wichita, a small city proud of its history and heritage, not at all the sort of place that went looking for controversy or notoriety.
In 1541, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, searching for the mythical "golden cities of Quivira," had ventured into what would become south central Kansas. He didn't find any gold, but met up with the Wichita Indian tribe, living for centuries in grass huts on this flat and fertile landscape. Coronado moved on, and three hundred years later the first white settlers arrived, trapping and trading goods with the Wichita. The pioneer Jesse Chisholm lent his name to the famous trail that sent six million cattle north from Texas to Kansas between 1860 and the late 1880s. After the Civil War, the Wichita were "removed" to Indian Territory and whites took hold along the banks of the Arkansas River, naming their settlement after the indigenous tribe.
In 1900, Wichita achieved fame, or infamy, when Carrie Nation of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union took her crusade against alcohol to the fledgling city. On the night of December 26, she went to every bar in Wichita and demanded they shut themselves down. That didn't happen, so the next day she charged into the crowded Carey House tavern and smashed up the place with a pool ball and a rock. People later said that while all of the bars had upset her, the John Noble painting Cleopatra at the Roman Bath displayed inside the Carey House had pushed her over the edge.
In 1914, oil was found near Wichita and the money from this discovery provided the funds for local entrepreneurs to invest in another budding industry. In 1917, America's first mass-produced airplane, the Cessna Comet, was manufactured in Wichita, followed by the founding of Learjet, Beechcraft, and Boeing. The city became a test center for new aviation, and dubbed itself the "Air Capital of the World." The region had a knack for innovation and in 1932, the Wichita orchestra leader Gage Brewer helped bring the electric guitar into the world of concertgoing.
During World War II, a significant part of the domestic war effort was centered in Wichita, as Boeing was converted into a manufacturing base for U.S. military bombers, its factories running twenty-four hours a day. Money flowed into the city and nearly any adult could walk into one of these businesses and get a decent-paying job. Movie theaters, dance halls, and restaurants never closed, so that people leaving their shift in the middle of the night had places to unwind. By 1945, 4.2 bombers were being produced each day in Wichita. Following the war, the city became home to a number of successful start-ups: Pizza Hut, White Castle, Mentholatum, Taco Tico, Coleman, and Koch (oil and gas) Industries, the nation's second-largest privately held company. It was a modest, Republican town, yet had a strong union presence because of its thriving aircraft industry.
It was also a town that prided itself on its openness, friendliness, and affordability (in March 2010, NBC's Today Show named it one of the top five most affordable cities in America). Whenever you pass through the tight airport security in order to fly out of Wichita, the armed guards inspecting your photo ID thank you for your cooperation and call you by your first name. It's also a place where the Christian religion is pervasive and important in ways that would be difficult to overstate, ways that go beyond doctrine and theology. It's no coincidence that the two most famous local crimes--involving the BTK serial killer and the murder of Dr. George Tiller--both involved churches. Dennis Rader, aka BTK, lived in tiny Park City, a few miles north of Wichita, and as you drive into that village from the east on Sixty-first Street, you pass the Park City Baptist Church, the Park City Christian Church, the Church of the Nazarene, and the Calvary Temple Assembly of God, all within a few hundred yards of one another. Rader, who killed at least ten people starting in 1974, was president of his congregation at Christ Lutheran Church, just outside Park City. After murdering one victim, he carried her into the sanctuary of his church around midnight and took elaborate photos of her body in bondage. It was inconceivable to anyone in his congregation, and especially to Pastor Michael Clark, that Rader could have done these things, but in the summer of 2005 he confessed to all of them on live national television.
This kind of thing just wasn't supposed to happen in or near Wichita, Kansas, which in 1945 had been given the Grand Award from the National Safety Council for being the safest city in America. It won the same award in 1958, 1959, and 1960. How could it have been terrorized by a serial killer who'd maddened and eluded the Wichita Police Department, and the entire community, for more than thirty years?
Part of the answer was trust, and a great desire among the local population to think the best of others, even strangers. If this was true in general, it became ever truer inside the churches of Wichita and the surrounding area. Growing up in rural Kansas myself, I never heard people debate the finer points of their faith. They went to church because they wanted to be inspired by a sermon, to be connected to a realm beyond the mundane and the physical, and because it provided a special environment for them to show their care, even their love, for their neighbors. It was safe to open up a little more here, to throw back your head and sing hymns loudly, or to reveal your heart. On Sunday mornings, the sanctuary was a place of refuge from a more difficult or dangerous outside world.
A hundred years after its founding, even a place as bedrock conservative as Wichita was being shaped by new social forces. Between 1950 and 1970, the city's black population nearly doubled, from 5 percent to 9.7 percent. Change and division were coming to the nation everywhere and in the early 1970s a race riot broke out in the halls of Wichita's West High. During a meeting to discuss the violence, an African-American student confronted a white teacher and asked if she'd marry a black man. "She said she wouldn't do this because of the effect on the children," recalls the Wichita author Robert Beattie, who attended West High in the seventies and was injured in the riot. "Back then, in that time and place--Wichita in 1972--that was all that needed to be said. The children would have had great difficulty being accepted by either racial group."
A few years after the West High riot, nuns began showing up at Dr. Tiller's clinic, sent there by the Catholic Church. They were polite but intent on making a statement about Catholicism's view of abortion, which they considered an affront to both God and humanity. The nuns were about to find a lot of allies. As the evangelical movement swept across the country in the 1970s, millions of Americans reported having born-again Christian experiences, and this number would continue to grow. The official 2004 U.S. survey of religion and politics identified the evangelical percentage of the American population at 26.3 percent, or nearly 70 million people, while Roman Catholics were 22 percent and mainline Protestants made up 16 percent.
When the evangelical movement took off in the early 1970s, I was living in New Jersey and around a number of people who were deeply involved in it. Many were either too young to have lived through the social unrest of the 1960s or had felt alienated and left behind by the cultural upheaval of that decade. They wanted a countermovement of their own and were eager to join something larger than themselves, something they perceived as historically rooted and fundamentally good. If they were initially reacting to the student protests against the Vietnam War, sexual liberation, gay liberation, and the rise of feminism, they were also trying to define themselves and their beliefs in a country that had suddenly changed. The Jesus Movement, as those I knew called it, helped them feel connected to others and to core values of love, forgiveness, and filling their lives with a higher sense of purpose. It would take a while for these movements to turn fully political.
Many evangelicals felt that abortion, like homosexuality, was a mortal sin that would destroy the nation from within and had to be stopped. Politics and religion came together over the issues of human sexuality and reproduction, and doctors who performed abortions were now public enemies in ways Jack Tiller could never have imagined. Instead of being admired and revered in his hometown like his father, George Tiller's name had begun seeping out into Wichita's institutions in a very nasty and very public way. Protesters waved signs in front of his clinic, threats were phoned in to his business, and children in local middle schools took up a chant that had nothing to do with class pride or team sports: "Tiller, Tiller, the baby killer."
His life was going to impact total strangers, drawn into the same war he now found himself trapped in.
DEATH IN WICHITA. Copyright © 2011 by Stephen Singular
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