In 2007, 38-year-old Sarah Coe* and her husband were finally having their first child, after trying to get pregnant for three years. In her twenty-second week of pregnancy, Sarah's doctors diagnosed a severe condition which denies oxygen to the brain and leads to fetal death during pregnancy or birth. She and her husband sought medical and spiritual advice and decided to terminate the pregnancy. Unable to find a doctor on the East Coast who performed abortions later in pregnancy, they were directed to Kansas provider Dr. George Tiller.
Sarah was telling this story last year because anti-choice activists in Kansas had convened a grand jury that was subpoenaing her medical records and those of 2000 other women. During the case, she said she was "blown away by the kindness" and care she received from Dr. Tiller and his staff. At the time, she thought, "It scares me. If something happens to Dr. Tiller, where would women turn?" With the murder of Dr. Tiller on Sunday, the frightening void for women like Sarah is now a reality.
Dr. Tiller was one of just a few physicians in the country who provide abortions later in pregnancy for women who face substantial health risks and have been diagnosed with severe fetal abnormalities. His services made him the target of the anti-choice movement for more than three decades. Their goal was to shut down his practice, and their tactics were extreme: bombing, attempted assassination, clinic vandalism, and threats and harassment against his patients and family.
In 2008, Kansans for Life and Operation Rescue, anti-choice organizations intent on putting Dr. Tiller out of business, dusted off an 1887 Kansas law that allows citizens to impanel a grand jury to launch a criminal investigation. Once convened, the grand jury attempted to subpoena the private medical records of approximately 2000 of Dr. Tiller's patients as part of an investigation into whether he had violated Kansas law. The state criminalizes post-viability abortions unless a woman's life or health is in danger. So the grand jury went on a fishing expedition to see if Dr. Tiller was violating the law.
The Center for Reproductive Rights represented his patients, arguing that the subpoenas profoundly intruded upon their privacy and were in reality part of a personal vendetta the anti-choice groups had against Dr. Tiller. Ultimately, the grand jury was prevented from its broad brush attempt to get his patients records, but the incident was an example of the relentless harassment the anti-choice groups used to try and shut Dr. Tiller down.
Despite frequent attacks on his physical security, professional reputation, and personal and family life, Dr. Tiller kept his clinic doors open for 34 years, courageously defending women's constitutional right to safe abortion care-a service vital to women's fundamental human right to life and health.
Dr. Tiller's death was a tragic murder. But this was not an isolated act of violence.
Since 1993, three other doctors, three clinic workers, and a volunteer escort in the U.S. have been killed by anti-abortion extremists. Others have been seriously injured in such attacks. Medical professionals and clinic staff who provide abortion services endure daily harassment including pervasive intimidation, mounting legal restrictions that single out abortion providers, and persistent stigma in the medical and general communities. Many physicians have been forced to abandon their practices unable to comply with onerous regulations or out of necessity to protect themselves and their families. Dr. Tiller's death puts a clear point on the marginalization and stigmatization of abortion and the very serious problem of access to abortion in this country.
This tragedy should remind Americans that this violence against doctors who provide abortions has exacerbated the shortage of providers and ultimately harms women seeking services. It should change how we in this country view and protect these women's rights defenders. It is time for the nation to step up to ensure that women like Sarah Coe will have a safe place to turn.
(*Sarah Coe is a pseudonym. She was part of a plaintiff class in In the Matter of the Grand Jury Investigation & Jane Doe, Anne Roe, Sarah Coe, and Paula Poe v. Hon. Michael Corrigan and Hon. Paul Buchanan KS).)
By Nancy Northup