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Dr. Tiller’s Murder: A Year Later

by Stephanie Drahan, Outreach Associate
National Women's Law Center

“Always say thank you personally.”Dr. Tiller

I can’t believe it has been a year since Dr. George Tiller was heartlessly murdered in his church on May 31, 2009. In the year that followed, abortion became a hotly debated topic on both the federal and state levels.

A year ago, the health care reform debate was just beginning. No bills had yet been written, the public option was viable and the whole package would be passed by the August recess. Of course we all know how this story goes: we missed that deadline and many more, but we succeeded in passing comprehensive health care reform making some hard compromises along the way. We made huge gains on gender rating, preventative care services and pre-existing conditions, but we had to give in on the public option and we took a major hit on abortion. The attention abortion funding and coverage received in the health care debate then led to a slew of states introducing incredibly anti-choice bills seeking to not just chip away at women’s access to abortion care, but to bulldoze it when possible.

The superlatives for most bills passed, the widest reaching and the scariest bill all belong to a state neighboring where Dr. Tiller practiced: Oklahoma. Not only has the Oklahoma Legislature passed an ultrasound law, the current en vogue abortion restriction with bills being introduced in 21 states this year, but the Oklahoma law also requires that women must sit through a detailed description of fetal length, development and heart activity before obtaining an abortion.

In addition, women in Oklahoma may soon be required to fill out a questionnaire before an abortion. The form will collect detailed information on a range of topics, including age, race and martial status of the woman, number of prior pregnancies, and the date and county where the abortion is being performed. This information will then be posted in a public database available online. A similar bill was deemed unconstitutional earlier this year and the Center for Reproductive Rights is already planning to challenge both the reporting and ultrasound laws .

Oklahoma lawmakers have also interfered with women’s relationships with their providers. Providers in Oklahoma no longer need to notify women if the fetus they are carrying has an anomaly and may not be viable, instead providers are now legally protected from withholding this critical information from women. As a result, women are now unable to make informed decisions on carrying a pregnancy to term.

All three of these laws, and a fourth on when private insurers can cover abortion procedures were all vetoed by Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry. The Legislature overrode all of his vetoes. Amazingly these are not the only abortion related laws the Oklahoma legislature passed this session. Also amazingly, Oklahoma is only known to have three abortion providers. This is a lot of legislative action that will affect very few providers.

What isn’t amazing is how much attention abortion services have received in the year since Dr. Tiller’s untimely passing. If his murder alone did not serve as a wake up call, the flood of legislative action this year certainly did: the struggle to protect women’s access to abortion services continues unabated. Having a Democratic president and a Democratic majority in both chambers does not mean that access is getting easier, or even that Roe is safe; unfortunately it usually means that there are more challenges, more violence and that we must be more vigilant.

For me, Dr. Tiller’s murder serves as a reminder of why I do this work. I moved to DC one year ago to really jump into reproductive rights work. I’d always been involved and passionate, but I didn’t make it my life’s work until last year. I’ll never forget the first task I was handed on my first day of work at my new job: writing the organization’s reaction to the murder of Dr. Tiller.

Thank you, Dr. Tiller, for the work that you did and for always trusting women.


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