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5 Years After Dr. George Tiller’s Murder, a Doctor Braves Threats to Continue Abortions in Wichita

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As Oklahoma enacts a law that could close all but one abortion clinic in the state — and Louisiana is poised to follow suit — we look at the legacy of Dr. George Tiller, who was assassinated five years ago this past weekend. Tiller was one of a handful of doctors providing abortions in the third trimester of pregnancy. He braved constant threats, a firebombing at his clinic and an assassination attempt that left him with gunshot wounds to both arms. On May 31, 2009, anti-choice extremist Scott Roeder entered Tiller’s church in Wichita, Kansas, and shot him dead. We remember Tiller by speaking with Dr. Cheryl Chastine, who travels from Chicago to Wichita each week to provide abortions at Tiller’s former clinic, which reopened last year. Chastine discusses the obstacles to abortion access in Kansas and responds to the threats and harassment she and her colleagues face. “I get up in the morning, and there are patients that need me,” Chastine says. “If I allow myself to be deterred from doing this work, then I am allowing a victory for terrorism.”

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StoryMay 31, 2013Four Years After Murder of Dr. George Tiller, His Wichita Abortion Clinic Reopens Despite Threats
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: As Oklahoma enacts a law that could shutter all but one abortion clinic in the state, and Louisiana is poised to follow suit, we turn to the legacy of Dr. George Tiller, who was assassinated five years ago Saturday. Dr. Tiller was one of a handful of doctors in the country who provided abortions in the third trimester of pregnancy. He faced constant threats and attacks. His clinic was firebombed 1985. Eight years later, he survived an assassination attempt with gunshot wounds to both arms. Then, on May 31st, 2009, anti-choice extremist Scott Roeder entered Dr. Tiller’s church in Wichita, Kansas, and shot him in the head. Dr. Tiller was 67 years old.

Today we remember Dr. Tiller by speaking with the doctor who’s carrying on his legacy, providing abortions at his former clinic in Wichita, which opened last year—reopened last year. But first, this is Dr. George Tiller in his own words speaking in 2001. It’s an outtake from a documentary by Physicians for Reproductive Health called Voices of Choice. Dr. Tiller talks about how his father, a family doctor, provided abortions before it was legal.

DR. GEORGE TILLER: I do not know whether he did a hundred abortions or 200 abortions or 300 abortions. I think it may have been something like 200 over a period of about 20 years, but I don’t know for sure. I am a woman-educated physician. I don’t know how many abortions he did, but the women in my father’s practice, for whom he did abortions, educated me and taught me that abortion is not about babies, it’s not about families; abortion is about women’s hopes and dreams potential, the rest of their lives. Abortion is a matter of survival for women.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. George Tiller. He was assassinated five years ago, May 31st, 2009. Since his death, access to abortion has been diminishing amidst an onslaught of state laws. More abortion restrictions were enacted from 2011 to ’13 than in the entire previous decade. Last week, Oklahoma enacted an admitting privileges law that could close two of the states three clinics. Louisiana is poised to follow suit with a similar law which could close up to four of five clinics there. A similar measure has already shuttered providers in Texas.

For more, we go to Dr. Cheryl Chastine, medical director and primary abortion provider at the South Wind Women’s Center, which opened last year. Each week, she travels from Chicago to Wichita to provide abortions in Dr. Tiller’s former clinic. Like Tiller, Dr. Chastine has faced a barrage of anti-choice harassment. Out of concern for her safety, she’s keeping her face in shadow. She’s joining us today from Chicago.

Dr. Chastine, welcome to Democracy Now! Why do you choose not to show your face today on this broadcast?

DR. CHERYL CHASTINE: The reason that Dr. Tiller was targeted, or was able to be targeted so extensively, is largely because he was extremely visible, and people knew where he was and what he was doing. So he was in a position where all of his movements were being tracked. And his murder was made possible by the fact that people knew exactly where he was and what he was doing, and they knew that he would be in church at that particular time, and it was the only consistent thing to do. As of right now, the people who are opposed to what I’m doing don’t have a very clear idea of what I look like. And so, for my physical safety, I feel much more secure that way.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about what you’re doing.

DR. CHERYL CHASTINE: Yeah, so, I am—I travel to Wichita every week, and I perform abortions for the women of Wichita and central and western Kansas, as well as some of Oklahoma. We provide procedures up to the current Kansas legal limit, which is 20 weeks post-conception or 21 weeks and six days post-last menstrual period.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Chastine, could you talk about why it is that you decided to do this work? I mean, you fly every week from Chicago to Wichita. Talk about the significance of what you’re doing and why you chose to do it.

CHERYL CHASTINE: You know, when I was in medical school, I was—I got the message that there’s a shortage of abortion providers and that, therefore, if more of us, including myself, did not become providers, that there would be women who wouldn’t be able to access abortion when they needed it. And so, when I got the call to open—to help open this clinic, I felt a very, very strong pull of moral obligation, that these are people who need abortions who will not be able to access them if I don’t do it. And so, I asked myself, “If you don’t do this, who will?” And I went to medical school to help people, same as all of us do. And so, I felt like these people have a need, and I have the ability to fill that need, and so I could not in good conscience say no.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the restrictions on abortion access in Kansas? Who are the women that you are serving? What states do they come from?

DR. CHERYL CHASTINE: Kansas has strict laws that are nonetheless less strict than some of the surrounding states. So Kansas has a mandated 24-hour waiting period. The patient must be given a specific set of state-mandated information that includes risks of abortion, some of which are not medically supported. Then she must wait at least 24 hours before she can have her procedure done.

Kansas has bans on—not only on Medicaid coverage of abortion, but also on private insurance coverage of abortion. And so, all of our patients are paying out of pocket for the procedure, which is a significant amount, particularly for the women who disproportionately seek abortion who tend to be from lower income brackets.

The patients are required by state law to meet privately with the physician and also to have an ultrasound and to be offered the opportunity to view the ultrasound. After meeting privately with the doctor, they’re required to wait at least 30 minutes before they can be given any medication. Kansas also requires dual notarized parental consent for anyone under age 18. And so, the women that I see are accepting of this, mostly, but they are very aware that the state is intruding into their relationship with the doctor, and so many of them will ask me, “Well, why? Why do I have to wait? Why do I have to do this?” And the answer is because the state of Kansas is hoping that you’ll change your mind in this time period.

But we have women, nonetheless, coming from all over the state of Kansas. Kansas has four clinics, counting ours, but three of them are in the Kansas City area, which is in the northeast corner of the state, and so the central and western Kansas is pretty much served by our clinic, by South Wind Women’s Center. We have patients come from Missouri, from Oklahoma, and we are even starting to see patients from Texas, as the legal climate there and the availability of abortion becomes less.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, last year, David Leach, from the extremist anti-choice group Army of God, posted audio from a jailhouse conversation with Dr. Tiller’s murderer, Scott Roeder, where they talked about the reopening of the clinic in Wichita. This is David Leach.

DAVID LEACH: My statement, if someone would shoot the new abortionists, like Scott shot George Tiller back in the Operation Rescue days—pro-lifers called him “Tiller the Killer”—hardly anyone will appreciate it but the babies.

SCOTT ROEDER: Haha. That’s a very true statement, haha.

DAVID LEACH: It will be a blessing to the babies. Everyone else will panic.

SCOTT ROEDER: Ha! That’s great, David. That’s great.

DAVID LEACH: Of all places to open a killing office, to reopen the one office in the United States more notorious for decades than any other is an act of defiance against God and the last remaining remnants of reverence for human life.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And now this is Scott Roeder, Tiller’s murderer, responding to David Leach. He mentions Julie Burkhart, founder and director of the Trust Women Foundation, which reopened Dr. Tiller’s clinic.

SCOTT ROEDER: To walk in there and reopen a clinic, a murder mill, where—where a man was stopped, you know, it’s almost like putting a target on your back, saying, “Well, let’s see if you can shoot me.” Ha! You know? But, you know, I have to go back to what my pastor, Mike Bray, said: You know, if a hundred abortionists were shot, they’d probably go out of business. So, I think eight have been shot, so we’ve got 92 to go, and maybe she’ll be—maybe she’ll be number nine.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Scott Roeder, who murdered Dr. Tiller five years ago, speaking to anti-choice extremist, David Leach. Dr. Chastine, you’re carrying on the legacy of Dr. Tiller’s work. Could you respond to what these people had to say?

DR. CHERYL CHASTINE: Yes, I want to be very, very clear that the murder and other acts of violence against abortion providers are acts of terrorism. They are acts of violence directed at a few people designed to influence the actions of many people. And so, they are putting these statements out there, using this language that is clearly intended to incite someone else to, as they say elsewhere in that clip, to take action and to stop other providers. And so, these are people that are—well, admittedly, they are on the fringe of the anti-choice movement. They are nonetheless encouraged and—they’re encouraged by the mainstream movement. They’re encouraged by rhetoric like comparing abortion to the Holocaust, comparing abortion to slavery. So this is—these are extremists, but they are operating within a very fertile ground of sentiment that’s—

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Chastine, are you afraid?

DR. CHERYL CHASTINE: —directed against me. Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you afraid?

DR. CHERYL CHASTINE: I can’t live my life that way. I get up in the morning, and there are patients that need me, and if I allow myself to be deterred from doing this work, then I’m allowing a victory for terrorism. And so, yes, I am aware that there is a risk associated with what I’m doing, but I don’t allow it to paralyze me.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dr. Chastine, We want to thank you for being with us. You were in medical school when Dr. Tiller was murdered five years ago. I want to end with a short excerpt of Dr. Tiller in his own words at an event organized by the Feminist Majority Foundation in 2008. Dr. Tiller discussed his vision for a just and more humane society.

DR. GEORGE TILLER: I personally see a society that respects the integrity of its citizens to struggle with complex health issues and make decisions that are appropriate for them and their personal lives. I see a society that respects the religious differences of its citizens. I see a society that rejects hate, rejects judgmental condemnation, and rejects prejudice and racism. I see a government that honors the privacy of its citizens without unwarranted surveillance. I see a society where war is not an option, and the negotiation with mutual respect is the hallmark rather than mutual self-destruction. I see a society where the welfare of all—I see a society where the welfare of all is equally important as the riches of the few. I see a world that discusses solutions without demanding its own answers. We have given war, pestilence, hate, greed, judgment, ego, self-sufficiency a good try. And it failed. We need a new paradigm that consists of kindness, courtesy, justice, love and respect in all our relationships.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dr. George Tiller, assassinated May 31st, 2009, in his own church on Sunday. Thanks to Marc Bretzfelder for that videotape. And that does it for our broadcast. Also thanks to Cheryl Chastine, the medical director and primary abortion provider at South Wind Women’s Center in Wichita, Kansas, the former clinic of Dr. George Tiller.

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Four Years After Murder of Dr. George Tiller, His Wichita Abortion Clinic Reopens Despite Threats

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