Though he never knew it, Dr. George Tiller was one of the most important men to have ever entered my life. I couldn’t have met him more than a handful of times, but it was something bigger than Dr. Tiller the man that shaped me.
I grew up in a quiet neighborhood less than a mile away from his Women’s Health Clinic and in the summer of 2001 that place would profoundly shape my life. My parents, who had been dedicated pro-choice activists for years, brought me with them for a week of counter-protests and clinic defense one week in July. The Anti-abortion forces were rallying there on the tenth anniversary of their so-called Summer of Mercy campaign that shut down the clinic for days in 1991. I had no real political affiliations of my own yet, even though my parents’ impassioned dinner table discussions of a woman’s right to choose still echoed in my ears. On one July afternoon in the sweltering Wichita heat, that all changed.
There I met a group of dirty punk twentysomethings who had traveled from Ohio just to stand in front of the clinic and challenge the fundamentalists at every turn. For reasons I’ll never know, they took a long-haired eleven year old into their midst and treated me like an equal. I listened with rapt attention to their radical anarchist ideas on religion, government and a women’s right to choose. I asked silly questions that they patiently answered with the respect few give a sixth grader on matters of political theory.
For years after that week in July, I corresponded with one of them, debating, challenging and listening to her many ideas. Through these dialogues, I began to form my own thoughts, not just on abortion, but on a wide variety of political questions. I would end up returning to Dr. Tiller’s clinic several times a week the next summer to join a new group in clinic defense, without my parents this time. At the Women’s Health Clinic I saw the hate, the bile and the ragged edge of the American radical Christian movement.
But there too, I saw the dignity and strength of Dr. Tiller as he entered his clinic everyday past the jeers of protestors and the constant threat of another attack. But what affected me so deeply was Dr. Tiller’s presence in Wichita. His willingness to stand up and fight in such a hostile, stifling Midwest town created a rallying point that showed me the power of politics and ideas.
The people who ran to his aid showed me there were others who shared my newly budding political sensibilities. Sitting by the fence of his clinic, I learned the value of open and respectful discussion of the issues that divide us, something I saw so violently rejected in the hate filled rhetoric of Randall Terry and the Operation Rescue protestors. The ideas that began to grow within me that summer have determined much of the course of my life.
Because of what I learned that summer I joined the debate team when I got to high school. I wanted to be able to speak as eloquently as the punks I met that day. Eight years later, I am at the University of Kansas studying to be a political theorist and have the privilege to be a member of the national champion college debate team.
Perhaps I would be doing many of the same things if Dr. Tiller had not been there. Perhaps I would have found these ideas by some other means. Perhaps one can not know the way these tricks of fate, these foundational moments of childhood, truly work but I can tell only one thing for sure. On this day in the summer of 2009, we have lost a great and deeply courageous man. Rest in peace Dr. Tiller.
DYLAN QUIGLEY lives in Lawrence, where he attends the University of Kansas. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org