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8:35 am
Sat May 31, 2014

Abortion Services Return To Town Where George Tiller Was Murdered

Originally published on Sun June 1, 2014 12:24 pm

Five years ago, Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed at the Wichita, Kans., church where he was an usher. Tiller was widely known for performing abortions in late pregnancy and had become a target for protests.

It was the morning of May 31, 2009, and fellow usher Gary Hoepner remembers they had finished their greeting duties and had walked out into the waiting area to get a doughnut.

"I seen the figure coming out of my peripheral vision. I looked over like that, the gun was up to George's head," Hoepner says. "The gun goes off, and I go, 'Was that a real gun?' Then George fell; I said, 'Oh my God, oh my God,' in my head. And then he took off and I took off after him."

Several hours later, Scott Roeder was arrested as he was driving toward Kansas City, Kan. At his trial, Roeder admitted killing Tiller, insisting that what he did was necessary. "I did what I thought was needed to be done to protect the children. I shot him," Roeder said.

Roeder was convicted of first-degree murder and given an enhanced sentence of 50 years.

Tiller's Clinic, The Protest Epicenter

Tiller's clinic had been the target of protests for many years. It was bombed in 1986. In 1993, Tiller was shot in both arms.

A massive effort organized by the Pro-Life Action Network and Operation Rescue descended on the city in 1991. Back then, there were three clinics that provided abortion services in the area. The protest epicenter was at Tiller's clinic. Thousands streamed in from across the country.

"They did everything, they laid down," says former district attorney Nola Foulston. "They wouldn't walk. The officers had to carry them. They cried that there was brutal treatment."

What activists called the Summer of Mercy lasted for six weeks and was repeated 10 years later in 2001. The presence of "sidewalk counselors" near the clinic's driveway continued almost on a daily basis.

But in the years before his death, Tiller did not shy away from the gates of his clinic nor from the media coverage, including from Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, who nicknamed him "Tiller the baby killer." Through it all, Tiller remained defiant and vocal.

"The good news is that in Kansas we are able to use the full implementation of the Roe v. Wade decision, which allows us to do post-viability terminations of pregnancy," Tiller said in a speech a year before his murder.

A Cedar Fence Divides Two Sides

After Tiller's murder, his clinic — the last place in the city providing abortion services — closed. Since 2009, Kansas has also banned post-viability abortions and tightened the laws regulating procedures.

But in April of last year, South Wind Women's Center opened in the very same building where Tiller's clinic was. Executive Director Julie Burkhart worked for Tiller for seven years. Her clinic now offers abortion care for pregnancies less than 22 weeks along.

"About 1 in 3 women are going to have abortions in their lifetimes — so we all know somebody. If you think about women who are having abortions, nationally about 60 percent of women who are having abortions are already mothers," Burkhart says.

Across a cedar fence and past the sidewalk counselors is a clinic called Choices, which offers alternatives to abortion.

"We are here next door to provide a visible, viable medical alternative to what they're considering," says Scott Stringfield, Choices' medical director.

"By God's grace we've influenced and impacted many, many women. There have been many who we haven't," he says.

Five years after Tiller's death, the cedar fence between the two clinics still splits the sides of the abortion debate. But now instead of chanting and protest, there is sometimes conversation.

Copyright 2014 KMUW-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kmuw.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. For three decades, the antiabortion movement tried to drive Dr. George Tiller out of business. Five years ago, the doctor who performed late-term abortions was shot and killed in his church. His clinic was closed, but Aileen LeBlanc from member station KMUW in Wichita, Kansas, reports a new clinic now stands in its place.

AILEEN LEBLANC, BYLINE: It was Sunday, May 31, 2009, and Dennis Webb was driving past the Reformation Lutheran Church in his neighborhood.

DENIS WEBB: I drove by and saw traffic and emergency traffic and had no idea - but I had that haunted feeling 'cause I knew who was here.

LEBLANC: Former District Attorney, Nola Foulston, answered the phone at her house. It was the police.

NOLA FOULSTON: And I arrived at the church before the police did. And so I sat with Jeannie Tiller and her daughter and with Dr. Tiller's body right there.

LEBLANC: Dr. Tiller was an usher at church that morning along with Gary Hoepner. They finished their greeting duties and walked out into the waiting area to get a doughnut.

GARY HOEPNER: I seen the figure coming out of my peripheral vision. I looked over like that, the gun was up to George's head like I'm pointing my finger at you now. The gun goes off and I go, is that a real gun? Then George fell and I said, oh my God, oh my God - you know, in my head, you know. And then he took off and I took off after him.

LEBLANC: Several hours later, a man was arrested as he was driving towards Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE)

POLICE: Driver, step out of the vehicle and face away from me. Driver, stop - where's the gun?

LEBLANC: At his trial, Scott Roeder admitted killing George Tiller, insisting that what he did was necessary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT ROEDER: I did what I thought was needed to be done to protect the children - I shot him.

LEBLANC: Roeder was convicted of first-degree murder and given an enhanced sentence of 50 years. Dr. Tiller's clinic had been the target of protests for many years. It was bombed in 1986. In 1993, Tiller was shot in both arms. It was in 1991 that a massive effort organized by the Pro-Life Action Network and Operation Rescue descended on the city. Back then, there were three clinics that provided abortion services here. But the protest epicenter was at Tiller's clinic. Thousands streamed in from across the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You know, I'm surprised. I hear all the time what a pro-choice majority there is. There's only a handful of people over there and there are hundreds of us here.

FOULSTON: They did everything - they laid down.

LEBLANC: Former DA, Nola Foulston.

FOULSTON: They wouldn't walk, the officers had to carry them. They cried that there was brutal treatment.

LEBLANC: What activists called the Summer of Mercy lasted for six weeks and was repeated ten years later in 2001. The presence of sidewalk counselors near the clinic's driveway continued almost on a daily basis. But in the years before his death, George Tiller, did not shy away from the gates of his clinic, nor from the media coverage, including numerous attacks such as Fox Network's Bill O'Reilly's nickname for Doctor Tiller.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

O'REILLY: Dr. George Tiller, known as Tiller the baby killer.

LEBLANC: Through it all, Tiller remained defiant and vocal. Here he is speaking a year before his murder.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE TILLER: The good news is that in Kansas, we are able to use the full implementation of the Roe v. Wade decision, which allows us to do post-viability terminations of pregnancy.

LEBLANC: After Tiller's murder, his clinic, which was the last place in the city providing abortion services, closed. Since 2009, Kansas has also banned post-viability abortions and tightened the laws regulating procedures.

But in April of last year, South Wind Women's Center opened in the very same building where Tiller's clinic was. Executive director Julie Burkhart worked for George Tiller for seven years. Her clinic now offers abortion care for pregnancies under 22 weeks along.

JULIE BURKHART: About one in three women are going to have abortions in their lifetimes. We all know somebody, if you think about women who are having abortions, nationally about 60 percent of all women having abortions are already mothers.

LEBLANC: Across a cedar fence and past the sidewalk counselors is a clinic called Choices, which offers alternatives to abortion. Medical director, Dr. Scott Stringfield.

SCOTT STRINGFIELD: We are here next door to provide a visible, viable medical alternative to what they're considering. And, by God's grace, we've impacted and influenced many, many women. There have been many who we haven't.

LEBLANC: Five years after Tiller's death, the cedar fence between the two clinics still splits the sides of the abortion debate. But now, instead of chanting and protest, there is sometimes conversation.

For NPR News, I'm Aileen LeBlanc in Wichita. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.