It was the summer of 2001. The Operation Rescue people were back with a new name. The play book was the same but it didn’t quite work. I learned a lot about Dr. Tiller’s clinic that week and a lot about who was on which side.
I had gotten a letter and an e-mail from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an organization that I’ve been associated with on and off for two decades. They were looking for help—money actually, aren’t they all?—to deal with the 10 year "revival" of the "Summer of Mercy" when thousands of people came to Wichita in an attempt to close down Dr. George Tiller’s Clinic. Between 1991 and 2001 Operation Rescue had been dissolved due to law suits and huge financial penalties assessed to the organization. They just re-dubbed themselves "Operation Save America."
So I got this letter and I called and left a message for the person organizing the effort. I had looked at my calendar and saw that those days in July were open. It took a while and more phone calls before they said we’d love to have you join us. I booked a flight to Wichita, packed my clerical collar and shorts and took off. I waited for a while at the Wichita airport for others who I was told would be arriving and soon there were four of us headed in a rented van into the city. Home hospitality was offered to me but when we found out it was way out of town, the RCRC staffer offered to share her room at the local hotel with me.
We stayed at the La Quinta in town which I learned was where many of Dr. Tiller’s patients would stay when they made the long journey from far away to his clinic. The procedures done by Dr. Tiller were not the kind that you easily walk away from and then go back to work. Women and their partners or friends would stay at the hotel for a day or two at least and be looked after by Candy, the hotel manager, another of the Wichita saints whose compassion could not be matched.
We spent that week in Wichita in 103 degree heat behind snow fences constructed by the locals in front of the clinic. The police had decided NOT to separate the two "sides," those supporting the clinic and those trying to shut it down. I think they wanted something violent to happen, frankly. And the people on the other side had little children out there with them in the heat, some so small they were in strollers. Talk about child abuse!
It was 2001 which, technologically was light years away from 1991. We now had e-mail and web sites and lots of ways of communicating with people. We anticipated that they would be able to generate enough steam to bring thousands of people for the cause. It turned out when we counted them in a parade that there were all of about 900 of them total including lots of kids. We had about 250 from a huge variety of organizations from the young communists, to NARAL to a busload of Oberlin students. There were clinic workers and organizers from clinics around the country too. And there were the US Marshalls, ATF, and probably FBI along with the local cops. Also there were various characters from the Army of God, the people who bomb clinics and shoot doctors. It was tense, to say the least. (I learned after the week was over that the various law enforcement agencies were video taping and photographing US not the protestors, a real eye-opening jaw dropping revelation.)
Our aim was to be able to help and support patients coming to the clinic. They arrived in cars and went through an automated heavy duty fence into the parking lot. We hardly saw them but we wanted them to know they were supported. The other folks, of course, wanted to shame them and/or talk them out of it or prevent them from entering. So we jockeyed for positions at the visible front of the fence. Each day we got there earlier and earlier (6 am, then 5, then 4) in order to secure that position. It was insane.
One patient arrived in a car and her boy friend, seeing all of the people, just dropped her off—let her out of the car to face the crowd. Rev. Kathering Ragsdale went up to her and put her arms around her and bodily escorted her through the door. Katherine is a formidable figure and a wonderful pastor.
While there I befriended Candy the hotel manager. We had some long talks about Dr. Tiller, the clinic, the protesters. The sadness of the people who came from not only all over the US but from abroad needing the services that Dr. Tiller provided was palpable. These were wanted babies and something had gone horribly horribly wrong. I remember one case where a woman had been treated for breast cancer, had gone through 5 chemo treatments before her docs asked her if there was any chance she could be pregnant. Imagine both the horror of not having that routine question asked before the first treatment and then contemplating what all that chemo could do to a fetus. We’re not talking about Gerber babies in this practice. We’re talking about tragedies. One after another, day after day. And Dr. Tiller was known by ALL to be a loving, compassionate, caring physician doing God’s work in the worst of all possible circumstances. For that he was shot twice, his clinic repeatedly bombed and then he was ultimately murdered.
I learned some other things that week. Candy’s hotel was also the site of picketers. She would calmly take a cup of Coffee out to Troy Newman one of the protest leaders and chat with him until the time when they followed her daughter to school. That was past the limit. She knew the local cops and knew well the security men who worked at the clinic. They would pick up patients in the early morning hours to make sure they got to the clinic safely. There was a wide ranging network of loving caring people in that town despite the danger and the insanity. If anything, my four days in Wichita made me more dedicated to the cause of a woman’s right to be a moral decision maker in the case of her own reproductive fate.
Sadly, Candy died several years later from cancer. And now Dr. Tiller is gone.
How many people would voluntarily choose to live their lives with a target painted on their torso? I hope and pray that there are some dedicated courageous physicians who are willing to step in and keep that clinic open. The people there are truly doing God’s work.
I bless the memory of Dr. Tiller and offer profound thanks and prayers to his family and all who worked at and supported the work of his clinic. May he rest in peace at long last.
Dr LeRoy Carhart will continue along with other rotating doctors to keep Dr. Tiller’s clinic open and serving patients.
I’ve met Dr. Carhart and he’s another prince of a man. Yes, he’s the one who brought the Nebraska case against the banning of a specific (and the safest in many cases) procedure for late term abortions. But he’s not a young man either. We need a new generation of really brave and dedicated providers to step up. The sooner the better.