"His murder did not stop us": Meet the women keeping George Tiller's legacy alive in Wichita

Five years after Tiller's assassination, his former clinic honors his memory by providing fearless care for Kansans

Published May 30, 2014 8:35PM (EDT)

  (AP/Susan Walsh)
(AP/Susan Walsh)

It's been five years since Dr. George Tiller was assassinated by antiabortion activist Scott Roeder, but his legacy lives on through the women who fought hard -- and continue to fight -- to ensure that Kansans can access abortion care and a full range of reproductive health services. It hasn't been easy. It took years to reopen Tiller's former clinic in Wichita, Kansas. Without it, women in Wichita were forced to travel hundreds of miles to get the care they wanted and needed. Julie Burkhart, the former head of Tiller's political action committee and the founder and executive director of the Trust Women Foundation, said on Friday that she searched for years to find a medical director for the South Wind Women's Center. No one would take the job, fearing for their careers, their safety and quite literally their lives.

But Dr. Cheryl Chastine, a young provider based out of Chicago, stepped up. She knew that taking the position would likely thrust her into a dangerous national spotlight -- Chastine wears a bulletproof vest as she heads into work and regularly receives threats from anti-choice activists -- but under her direction, South Wind celebrated its first anniversary in April 2014. Salon spoke with Chastine about the status of reproductive rights five years after Tiller's murder, the recent onslaught of insidious clinic regulations and other anti-choice legislation in Kansas and elsewhere in the country, and what gives her hope as South Wind moves into its second year.

Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

When we talk about the laws being passed right now to curb access, it can sometimes feel like we are tracking some kind of terrible sport: "This passed here; this is being legislated here; this is in court here." You work in a state with a number of such laws, one of which requires you to counsel your patients with information that is intended to mislead them. How does that kind of intrusion feel as a provider? What is it like to see the look on your patients' faces when they’re receiving that information?

It feels like there’s a third party in the exam room that doesn’t belong there, and I’m very clear with patients when I tell them that. I tell them, ‘The state wants me to tell you this. They also you to do this.’ I don’t try to hide the intrusion. I make sure that they know so that they can understand how their care is being influenced by unnecessary legislation. And that that’s not the care that I want to give them.

And like so many other places in the country, Kansas is passing legislation designed to shame patients and place barriers to access in their way. I'm thinking of the 24 hour waiting period here, which is both intended to be a logistical barrier but also an insult to a patient's intelligence. You probably see people who have come a long way, who have saved up, who taken off work -- and you then have to tell them, "I can’t do this for you today. You have to wait 24 hours, because the state doesn’t take you seriously enough to believe you’ve thought this through." 

That’s extremely frustrating, because it doesn’t allow me to provide the best care for my patients. I mean, I know -- and I tell the patients -- that you have thought through this decision. You went to all of the work associated with making the appointment and getting here and arranging childcare and all of that. And so, I trust you as a moral decision-maker, and I’m sorry that the state doesn’t do the same.

You have sacrificed so much to do this work. You work in a state that is very hostile to reproductive rights, and you personally work under the regular threat of violence. What has this experience been like for you? 

It’s amazing what you get used to, honestly. And so, and so much of this fades into the background, because every day, I get up and I do what I have to do. And so it’s only when I’m asked to sum it up that I look at it as a whole, and that I think I’ve been forced unnecessarily to make so many sacrifices.

Hearing your story, and hearing the stories of people who need and deserve access to this kind of care has reminded me how important it is to center these stories. To let them be the place where we begin this conversation. Do you think something is missing from how we talk about this or how we do this work in the reproductive justice movement? 

There’s messaging that I think that we don’t hear enough. The people who are having abortions and people who give birth are not different people; they are the same people. And they make both of those decisions with their full moral decision-making capacity and for the same reasons. They make those decisions because they want to give the best love and care to a potential child that they can. And so, I think, that and similarly, women are good moral decision-makers, and any discomfort that any individual has with the abstract idea of a particular abortion, there is an individual woman who is living that reality and is not making that decision frivolously or lightly. She knows what the abortion means, and she has made a considered decision that that is the best available option to her given the choices that she has.

My concern is that women's stories are getting lost here. We are making this so political and so ideological. That has nothing to do with the way that people make decisions about their pregnancy when they find themselves with an unintended pregnancy. And that's not a new disconnect. It's just moved to the center of things with this shift in the way that the legal conversation is being framed.

This seems like such a fraught moment, and it’s a moment full of challenges and a lot of really scary stuff happening. You are wearing a bulletproof vest to work. You are receiving threats. The Kansas Legislature is mounting attack after attack on access. Is there something that is giving you the most hesitation at this moment? 

I am very, very terrified of the rollback in access to reproductive healthcare. I’m very concerned that this may be upheld because the people who suffer from this are the most vulnerable in our society and the most voiceless. I’m afraid that political decisions will be made, the consequences of which we won’t realize until it’s too late, until people have been harmed and have died. So often the people affected by these decisions are not the ones making the decisions at the political level.

And even if they are. I have taken care of many, many, many, many women who have voted for politicians who have tried to make abortion illegal and unavailable and yet find themselves very thankful that they’re able to access those services. And so I think that this is a matter that needs to not be up for popular vote, and yet, here we are.

I interviewed Oklahoma state Rep. Doug Cox a couple months ago, he was saying that -- as a medical provider -- he has patients who have said, "I personally don’t support abortion, but here I am anyway." Or "I don’t believe in abortion, but here my daughter is, and this is the situation she finds herself in, and I want to make a compassionate decision." Do you see possibility there?

I don’t think that people’s voting behavior is sufficiently informed by their personal experience, and so I genuinely don’t believe that peoples will demand accountability from their politicians for making abortion inaccessible until large amounts of real harm are done to women and possibly not even then, because again, it’s the most vulnerable people who suffer. As far as cause for optimism, my single greatest cause for optimism I would say is the newer generation of abortion providers. I think that Medical Students for Choice has been instrumental in reversing the decline in the availability of training umm and the level of interest in providing these services. And so when I talk to students who tell me that expanding the access is one of their driving motivators in life, I feel real hope.

Saturday will mark five years sine Dr. Tiller was murdered. What is it like to observe this sad anniversary as the medical director of his former clinic?

The main thing that is really on my mind right now is just all of the assault on access to abortion in not only Kansas but the states around it. Dr. Tiller made his life about making it possible for women to have access to safe legal abortion. Five years after his death, it's really concerning to see this precipitous rollback in access to abortion care in areas of the country that were already low access to begin with.

Overall, I think that continuing to provide the services is the single best way we can remember Dr. Tiller and honor his legacy. I am very happy to be able to be open and provide those services. Being open and caring for women is the best thing that we could do to demonstrate that his murder did not stop us.



By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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