On May 31st, 2009, Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Wichita, Kansas, was shot and killed while he was serving as an usher at a church in his hometown. A grandfather of 10 known as “Saint George” in some reproductive rights advocacy circles, Tiller was known as a gracious, generous health care provider who was deeply devoted to protecting reproductive rights; he was also notorious in anti-choice circles for being one of the few providers to perform late-term abortions. His murderer, an anti-abortion extremist named Scott Roeder, was arrested and sentenced to life in prison in 2010.
Tiller’s violent death was a stark reminder of “the risk that abortion providers face every day just to provide health care to their patients,” as his former colleague Taylor Rose Ellsworth, MPH, director of education, research, and training at Physicians for Reproductive Health, wrote in a blog post commemorating his life and work. It also shone a light on the bitter divide between the pro- and anti-choice contingents in the United States, a chasm that has only grown larger with the appointment of anti-abortion Supreme Court Justices Neal Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, as well the recent passage of restrictive abortion legislation in Alabama, Georgia, Missouri and Louisiana.
Ten years after Tiller’s death, the debate over reproductive rights has never been more charged, and the risk to providers and clinicians themselves has never been more great. We spoke to Calla Hales, executive director of A Preferred Women’s Health Center, which oversees four women’s health clinics that provide abortion care in the Southeast, to learn more about what has changed for abortion providers following Tiller’s death — and what’s stayed the same.
The daughter of a clinic director and an abortion provider who both knew Dr. Tiller, Hales was raised to be hyper-aware of security issues and the risks that could arise from providing abortion care. She was 19 and still in college when she received a call from a friend that an abortion provider had been murdered. “I didn’t know who it was. I thought it could potentially have been my dad,” she told Rolling Stone. When she finally got in touch with her mother, she learned it had been Tiller.
Although Hales had never personally met Tiller, she had heard much about him from her father. According to her father, Tiller “was a little bit antagonistic at times, but generally he was incredibly kind and wanted the best for people.” She knew of him as a man who “really set the bar high….just reminding us we are lucky enough to do this job because we care about people, and it takes a special kind of person to do that.” Apparently, Hales’ father was so shaken by Tiller’s murder that he decided to retire a few years later. “With the death of Dr. Tiller, it was more personal at this point,” she remembers.
It was also Tiller’s death that prompted Hales to become an abortion provider to begin with, something she had not planned to do when she initially entered college. “I thought I’d work for some sports teams and live like they did on Ballers,” she says. “Things radically changed after Dr. Tiller was murdered. I wanted to be there for my dad. I wanted to be there for my mom. I wanted to be the kind of person Dr. Tiller was.” So she became an assistant clinic director after graduating from grad school in 2014, eventually rising to the ranks of executive director.
As an abortion clinic director in the Southeast, Hales has long confronted anti-choice protesters outside her clinics. Yet she said that in the years since Trump was elected, she has seen a tremendous increase in the number of protesters outside her clinics. (This is borne out by data from the National Abortion Federation, which found in one 2016 report that reports of picketing, vandalism, assault, and threats of violence targeting abortion clinics were at an all-time high.) At first, Hales says, she’d see “10 a day, on weekends maybe 30.” These days, it’s not uncommon to see as many as 300 people protesting outside the clinic on Saturdays.
In 2016, Hales says, she was sexually assaulted by a person who identified himself as an anti-choice protester, an experience that she documented in Cosmopolitan the following year; ever since the assault, she says, she has carried a loaded gun which she keeps in her office at all times, something she says her parents also did as a form of self-protection. In the past few years, she says, not only has the number of anti-abortion protestors outside her clinic increased, so too has their level of vitriol. “It’s become a different thing than it used to be,” she says. “Folks used to tell me it was little old ladies counseling on the sidewalk, or old religious folks trying to help patients in need. That’s not who we see. I see militant men on the sidewalks every day, late 20s, early 30s.” She refers to the nature of the language used by the protestors as “a lot more hostile, a lot more violent.” The latest flurry of anti-abortion legislation, such as the “heartbeat bill” that was recently signed into law in Louisiana, has done little to quell the outrage.
Following Tiller’s death, it has become increasingly difficult for abortion care providers to do their work anonymously, without attracting the attention of extremists or anti-choice protestors. “I think it’s always been dangerous no matter what,” says Hales. “I don’t know if the danger level has increased or decreased, but the threat is a lot more visible than it used to be. Although physicians, nurses, and clinic staff members used to shy away from publicly discussing their work for security reasons, the advent of social media has made this far more difficult; the fact that anti-choice protesters are arguably better organized than they ever have been makes it even more terrifyingly easy for them to disseminate personal information, says Hales. Even her parents are worried about her safety. “They are more concerned now than they were when I first started,” she says. “They never wanted me to do media requests, they never wanted me to do social media or tweeting….but people are gonna come for you whether you do that or not.”
That knowledge, compounded with the work of Tiller and other abortion providers who have lost their lives due to political extremism, is what fuels the work of Hales and doctors, nurses, administrators and clinic escorts like her. She keeps a number of his buttons featuring his “Tillerisms,” such as “Attitude is everything” or “Trust women,” in her office as a reminder of his legacy.
“I used to only think about him once in a blue moon, and now it’s probably monthly,” she says. “The increasing hostilities — it’s a cause for pause. You have to think ‘Do you say enough’s enough? I’m tired, I’ve done my share, I’m done?’ Or do you sit down and say, ‘I can still help patients. I can keep fighting.’ And I do think of Dr. Tiller in those moments.”