For years anti-abortionists tried to stop Doctor Tiller. Finally a bullet did

George Tiller was shot dead inside his church in Wichita, Kansas Link to this video

The clinic is low-rise and cream ­coloured. There are no windows. Video cameras are posted on all corners. The walls bear large "No trespassing" ­posters warning violators they will be prosecuted. A police car idles at the entrance day and night, and the back fence is patrolled by armed guards. As patients enter the facility, they pass through a metal detector.

The building is a medical centre in Wichita, Kansas, one of only three in America that serve women seeking abortions in late stages of pregnancy. But it doesn't look like that. It looks like a fortress, or a high-security prison. Inside, it is designed to help patients. Outside, it is custom-built to thwart an ever present threat.

But its hi-tech security measures were not enough to save George Tiller. His name is still printed above the front entrance of the clinic alongside the words "Women's health care". But after 30 years of almost constant harassment, intimidation and death threats, on ­Sunday he finally succumbed.

He was gunned down at his place of worship a mile from the clinic. He was attending morning service at ­Reformation Lutheran church, which had accepted him as a member after he was expelled from his previous church.

At 10.03 am, Tiller was standing just inside the church. He was taking his turn to be an usher, and was handing out leaflets on church events. The ­service had just started inside where his wife, Jeanne, was sitting.

A man, identified after his arrest as Scott Roeder, 51, allegedly walked up to Tiller as he stood alongside three or four others and aimed a gun at his head. He shot once. Worshippers described the sound as like a balloon popping.

Reverend Lowell Michelson had begun to take the service when he heard the shot. He'd known Tiller for many years and had come to respect his calm endurance. They had talked about the dangers he faced, though Michelson declined to reveal the details of their conversations on pastor confidentiality grounds. "He endured so much. He was committed to women's health issues. He made that a ­priority in his life even though he knew of the risks," Michelson said.

A fellow congregant, who asked not to be named in order to protect his wife who worked with Tiller at the abortion clinic, said people were shocked and startled. "He believed in what he did. He really believed it, and that's what gave him strength," he said, crying silently outside the church.

He said those who attacked Tiller over the years had misunderstood his work. "He saw many women who had tried so hard for children, but then suffered the agony of having foetuses with ­terrible deformities. The picture the anti-abortionists show is always of a ­perfect beautiful baby, but that's not what he was dealing with. He did what he did out of love."

Sarah Coe was one of the 250 to 300 women with late-stage pregnancies who seek help every year at Tiller's fortress-clinic. Coe, who talked to the Guardian using a pseudonym, had an abortion in Wichita two years ago this week. The confluence of the anniversary of her baby's and Tiller's death was, she said, very hard to bear.

At 22 weeks of gestation it was ­discovered through ultrasound and other tests that the foetus of her first child had hydrocephalus – an excess of fluid on the brain. Its head was enlarged, and Coe and her husband were told that it would be born without brain function and would have no conscious life.

"We made a difficult decision that that wasn't the life we wanted for our child," she said. No doctor on the entire east coast of the US would accept her as the baby was beyond the 20 weeks needed for a foetus generally to become viable outside the womb. They were referred to Wichita and to Tiller.

She says the care they received at the clinic was exceptional. There was ­counselling and support. "We were able to see our little boy after he was ­delivered, no longer alive, and to touch him and say goodbye. They handled the cremation for us and we have his ashes in our home. It was the worst ­experience in our lives and they made it so much easier to bear."

The process took four days. During that time Coe and her husband ran the gauntlet of anti-abortion protesters. "We were mobbed. They were banging on our car window. My husband wanted to explain and tried to talk to them but quickly backed off. Just by winding down the car window he was putting himself at jeopardy."

Tiller knew intimately about that sense of jeopardy. His father had a ­medical practice at the same spot the clinic now occupies, and George entered the family business, studying at the University of Kansas school of medicine in the 1960s. Graduating, he took up a medical internship in the US navy and served as a flight surgeon in California. The training stuck with him: he retained the look of a military man, with close cropped hair and rimless glasses, until his death on Sunday aged 67.

It was just as well: practising ­medicine for Tiller had many of the features of combat. His clinic was bombed in June 1986. In 1991 anti-abortionists descended on Wichita from all over the country to picket it. During the course of that summer, some 2,700 protesters were arrested and federal troops were sent in to keep the mob under control.

Two years later, Tiller was leaving the clinic in his car when a woman, Rachelle ­Shannon, shot at him. He was hit in both arms, but survived. As she walked away, Shannon looked back and said: "Did I get him?" She is still in prison, serving time for the shooting and for having fire-bombed other clinics across the US. The next day Tiller was back at work. "I'm a healthcare provider, we had patients to take care of. Really, I feel very good," was all he would say of the incident.

In 1998, after a doctor in New York state was killed by a gunman in his home, Tiller was told by the FBI that he was No 1 on the violent anti-­abortionists' hit-lists. That did not deter him either. His only concession was to wear a flak jacket to and from work. He was wearing one such jacket on Sunday when he was shot in the head.

Protesters continued to gather outside the clinic every day, though from 1994 they were forbidden by federal law from blocking the entrance. They would hurl obscenities at anyone entering. Sometimes they would follow pregnant women and nurses to their hotel rooms or homes and push leaflets under the door. The leaflets showed gruesome ­pictures of aborted foetuses – their severed limbs and heads prominently displayed.

Most Sundays protesters would gather outside the Reformation Lutheran church, heckling him and other worshippers as they assembled for prayer. Every day large crowds would appear outside his abortion clinic, chanting "Killer Tiller!" "Babies Killed Here!" and "Tiller's Slaughter House!"

On top of all that, there were almost incessant prosecutions. In March this year Tiller was put on trial in a case brought by anti-abortionists who claimed he had broken Kansas state law that requires all terminations beyond 22 weeks to be approved by two ­"independent" doctors. Tiller was charged with having used an employee to provide the second opinion, but the jury rejected the claims and he was acquitted on all charges. Within moments of the verdict, the state's health board announced that it was launching its own prosecution – a case still ongoing when Tiller was killed.

Over the years, Tiller gave very little away. He would turn down requests for interview, saying he did not want to inflame the situation. "He was a quiet man," says Ruth, who lives around the corner from the clinic. "He rarely talked about his problems." In March, he gave a tiny insight into how he coped with such extraordinary pressure. He told the jury at his trial that: "Quit is not something I like to do." He said his wife, Jeanne, his three daughters – two of whom are doctors – a son and 10 grandchildren were all sources of comfort.

Then he recounted to the jury one particular conversation that he said had given him great succour. "My daughters came into my study. I was reading. And they said: 'Daddy, if not now, when? If not you, who? Who is going to stand up for women with unexpected and badly damaged babies?' I had the support of my family, and we were able to proceed ahead."


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For years anti-abortionists tried to stop Doctor Tiller. Finally a bullet did

This article was first published on guardian.co.uk at 21.51 BST on Monday 1 June 2009. It appeared in the Guardian on Tuesday 2 June 2009 on p1 of the Top stories section. It was last updated at 15.50 BST on Tuesday 2 June 2009.

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