Julie Burkhart, CEO of Trust Women, reflects on the legacy of ‘woman-educated doctor’ George Tiller

Ten years ago today, US abortion provider Dr George Tiller was murdered for doing his job. His colleague Julie Burkhart founded Trust Women in his memory, to continue providing reproductive healthcare to the women of Wichita, Kansas, and campaign for reproductive rights across the US. She spoke to Hysterical Women about Dr Tiller’s legacy, the importance of trusting women, and what being a ‘woman-educated doctor’ meant to him.

How did you first meet Dr Tiller, and what was it like working with him?

It was around the time of the anti-abortion ‘Summer of Mercy Renewal’ protests in Wichita, in 2001. I was doing other work in reproductive rights, and he started inviting me over to meetings, which turned into me heading up the Summer of Mercy pro-choice coalition. We were an advanced team and did the groundwork in order to get out in front of the anti-choice folks, in terms of media, in order to organise pro-choice people who were also coming to the clinic for the demonstrations that the Summer of Mercy renewal people would have. That turned into this bona fide working relationship. I went to work for him that summer of 2002, and worked with him up until his assassination in 2009.

What was really special about him as a doctor and the services that he was providing?

He just understood that sometimes things did not go perfectly in life, and that every once in a while people needed a little bit of help. So he gave that help, and he was so incredibly kind and compassionate to his patients. He always said he was a woman-educated doctor. That is something I think he really meditated on a lot and took to heart. He relied on women to show him the way, and then he provided his medical expertise in cases where people just weren’t able to continue their pregnancies or have healthy babies.

He was also absolutely involved with the political campaigning around reproductive rights, as well as being a service provider. He was keenly aware of the political dynamic, both at the state level, the national level and globally, and how that impacted people’s access to reproductive healthcare. He always had this attitude that we had to have our own backs. We had to advocate. We couldn’t just expect people to understand our needs or why this work is important.

It was always a pleasure working with him because he understood so well how women’s healthcare intersects with the political. And, of course, myself having a political background, and also caring deeply about women’s rights, it was such a great match and just a pleasure to work with him.

What impact did his death nationally?

It’s been complex. At a national level his assassination really left a vast hole in the reproductive rights movement in the United States. I can’t say there was anyone in this field in the US who went untouched by his assassination. That’s how profound his death was. It just felt like there was this vacuum created, and out of that, this huge crater. As with any tragedy, it took a while for people in the reproductive rights movement to get their footing and their place back.

One thing that did come out of his assassination is that we’ve seen an uptick of medical students, residents and fellows who want to be trained in abortion care. Which I thought was a little counter-intuitive, that a physician is murdered and then you have all of these up and coming physicians who then say, “now I want to step in and do this” – but I’m very proud that people were able to do that. I feel like we’ve had a bit more of a movement among physicians to secure that training, so that was one positive thing, if anything positive can ever come out of somebody’s death like this.

But I will say, around the time of Dr. Tiller’s assassination, President Obama had recently been elected, we had the Great Recession that was also occurring here in the United States, and the rise of the Tea Party. So there was a lot of backlash and unleashing. Dr Tiller was well aware of the political dynamic, that when you have a Democratic president in the United States, you tend to see violence against abortion providers go up. I feel that Dr Tiller’s assassination was part of that unleashing and backlash from the right-wing.

What was your motivation and inspiration for starting Trust Women?

It was really quite an uncertain evolution. I had a lot of wonderful friends and colleagues who were almost immediately calling me, asking me what I was going to do, saying: “We can’t not have reproductive healthcare services in Wichita.” This place was the heart of his life’s work, and it was unjust that people in this community would not have access to abortion care if they needed it.

Dr Tiller had been operating in Wichita since the 70s. His family was killed in plane crash, and he was given an honourable discharge from the Navy to come back to Wichita and shut down his father’s practice. His father was Dr Jack Tiller and, in the ensuing months, he found out his dad had been providing abortion care to women in the Wichita community. And people would ask Dr Tiller: “Well, are you going to help me the way your dad helped women?” That was the beginning of his path down the road of reproductive healthcare. He was never going to go into this field. He was going to be a dermatologist, so I guess it would have been more than a segue – it was a large detour. It turned into almost four decades of his life.

Trust Women opened our clinic in Wichita in 2013 , and at that time I started going to international family planning conferences, and conferences specifically on abortion care. What I’ve seen in the international family planning community is much more of an awareness of the need for safe abortion. While still, of course, talking about prevention in terms of family planning and contraception, but also working to help educate people on safe abortion and what to look for in terms of post-abortion care.

How did you settle on the name, Trust Women, to represent your work and Dr Tiller’s legacy?

Dr. Tiller loved buttons and would wear one every day. “Trust women” was one of the buttons almost always wore, and the other was “attitude is everything”. But I loved the “trust women” button because he really fashioned himself as a woman-educated doctor. One of his sayings was, “Abortion is not a medical matter. Abortion is not a matter of the mind. Until you know the heart of a woman, you don’t know abortion.” Trust Women just seemed to be incredibly fitting and obviously we continue to see that, in the United States, especially if you look at our elected officials, some people don’t trust women in this society.

What are the key changes that you’ve seen over the last 10 years, since his assassination?

The mission of Trust Women is to provide reproductive healthcare services, which includes abortion care, in under-served communities. So our focus has been in what we call the abortion desert, where people might have to drive hours and hours in order to access care. We’ve seen more abortion care clinics in the United States close. We’ve seen more states work to pass more burdensome regulations on both women and providers. So we’ve seen this tightening. We’ve also seen a hostile federal government, with Trump making it known that this is part of his mission as the President.

But on the other side of that, we have more physicians who are getting training. We now see – and this is part of our strategy as well – more litigation happening at the state level, across the United States. For example, just this month in Virginia the court handed down a provision that advanced clinical practitioners can provide abortion care, and so that’s positive when it comes to providing reproductive healthcare.

Here in the state of Kansas, we had the state supreme court just declare, just last month, that pregnant women had natural rights just like other, non-pregnant people, and should be able to make decisions, even though they’re pregnant. That grants people in the state of Kansas that constitutional protection. So there’s a continuing pushback against the anti-choice faction that has really worked to close in over the last decade. It’s a very mixed bag.

Does violence and harassment remain an ever present threat for providers?

Well, yes. Just recently there was an arson in a clinic in Missouri. We’ve had an increase in vandalism at clinics since Trump was elected. The threats are unfortunately still front and centre for providers, and so there’s never a time to not take one’s safety into account. That is an unfortunate reality of this work. I’ve had people come to my house with signs that I’ve interpreted as death threats.

It’s disconcerting and it’s worrisome. For those of us who believe in this, it’s not a reason to put down the work and move onto something else. But I’ve been very worried about violence in Kansas since the state supreme court handed down their decision about the constitutionality of abortion rights. I’ve been having conversations with law enforcement, and I want to make sure people remain safe.