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Dr. George Tiller Was a Hero

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This past Thursday night Judge Warren Wilbert gave Scott Roeder the maximum sentence for murdering my mentor, Dr. George Tiller last May: life in prison with the possibility of parole after 50 years, when Roeder will be 102.

The "Hard 50," as it's known in Kansas, is the right sentence. But Roeder spending his life in jail doesn't stop the continuing acts of terrorism against providers and their staffs. It also doesn't bring back one of the most compassionate, caring men I've ever known. I worked side by side with Dr. Tiller as his top political adviser for nearly a decade. The walls of his office were covered with thank you notes from the women and families who were grateful to him for treating them with dignity and respect at one of the most difficult times in their lives.

Militant anti-choice leaders who spew inflammatory rhetoric bear some responsibility for Dr. Tiller's death as well. After the first assassination attempt on Dr. Tiller's life, Flip Benham and Operation Save America threatened that they were returning to Wichita to "finish the job." TV host Bill O'Reilly popularized the inflammatory "Tiller the Baby Killer" tag and inveighed against Dr. Tiller in nearly 30 episodes before his murder. Randall Terry, also of Operation Rescue, issued a statement after Dr. Tiller's murder calling him a "mass murderer" who "reaped what he sowed." They can't just blame Scott Roeder as the triggerman.

Terms like "baby killer," "holocaust," and "murder" are the equivalent of yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. They contribute to an environment where violence against providers and their staff members is acceptable -- where someone like Scott Roeder thinks he's doing God's will by gunning down an innocent man in church. (Dr. Tiller is the fifth abortion provider murdered since 1993; including provider staff brings the total to eight.)

Dr. Tiller was a great man: courageous and funny and deeply committed to trusting women to make their own difficult, private medical decisions. He gave his patients the care they needed, judgment-free, and always referred to himself as a "woman-educated doctor." During the 2001 so-called "Summer of Mercy Renewal" (that's when Benham urged supporters to "finish the job"), Dr. Tiller stuck a huge banner on a truck parked in the clinic parking lot that said, "Women need abortions, and we're going to do them." After he was shot the first time (by Shelley Shannon), he put up a sign in the clinic driveway that said "Hell no, we won't go." And he came back to work the next day. When Kansas DA Phill Kline began his relentless (and ultimately fruitless) persecution, Dr. Tiller switched the "Trust Women" button he wore for one that said, "Attitude is Everything."

I miss him terribly.

The time has come for the Department of Justice to go after the domestic terrorists that have been harassing, stalking, and murdering providers and their staff with near-impunity for decades now. No possible "good" can come of my mentor's murder, but I hope that it will make it more difficult for the DOJ to continue standing on the sidelines while this mayhem continues.

Julie Burkhart, Dr. George Tiller's top political advisor, worked side by side with him for 8 years. She's currently carrying on Dr. Tiller's legacy as the Founder and Executive Director of Trust Women PAC, which protects the rights of physicians who provide later terminations of pregnancy, and the rights of women and families to access these services.

Reposted from AlterNet