Trusting Women: A Radical Lesson I Learned from Dr. Tiller

I was 22 when I met Dr. Tiller the first time. I was a young feminist in my last year of college, struggling with what I wanted to do after graduation. Though I’d found activism in college, I wasn’t yet convinced that I wanted to pursue it as a career.

And then I met Dr. Tiller at a conference one day. I listened to him talk about birth defects and arson, abortion and shootings – tales of his work building and rebuilding lives and clinics alike. At the end, I shook his hand and clumsily tried to thank him. He stopped me and said, “No, thank you. We need more people like you.”

I left that day and put in applications to a variety of reproductive rights organizations, determined to be a part of the solution.

A little over a year later, I was hard at work doing just that. I thought I was living the dream. I’d had the privilege to meet Dr. Tiller several times after that first conversation, each exchange as inspirational as the first. His compassion, great attitude (Attitude is Everything!), and his unyielding ability to see the possibilities of a better world buffeted my spirits every single time. There was nothing passive about him. He taught me that, unfortunately, in today’s world “trusting women” is more than something we wear on a button. It requires us to work – actively – for equality.

Five years ago today, early on a Sunday morning, my phone rang. A coworker. Dr. Tiller’s been shot.

The day was a whirlwind. I remember going into the office, unsteady on my feet. Reading horrific anti-choice chatter online, watching the cable news networks thoroughly ignore for a few hours that a killer (later to be named Scott Roeder) was still on the loose. I sat in on calls with law enforcement and the Department of Justice. Waiting for anyone to tell me it couldn’t be true.

No one did.

When I got home after that grueling day, I cried tears of fear, pain, and grief. Dr. Tiller’s words echoed through my head. I asked myself: Can I really be a part of this movement? How did this dream become such a nightmare? People I care about are dying for the right to choose. Was this a mistake? Trusting women shouldn’t be such a radical act, should it? 

It was there, in the throes of my own grief, that it hit me:

Trusting women shouldn’t be a radical act, no. But it was. And that would never change until we had more Dr. Tillers, not fewer.

Count me in as a radical.

The author's Trust Women tattoo.

Today, I carry Dr. Tiller’s words, “Trust Women” with me everywhere I go. After his death, I realized that one of the most incredible things he did was teach me to act with confidence and compassion. To trust myself and the people around me. To believe in a better world. To listen to the stories of abortion patients without judgment or bias, and to offer them help – not because I feel bad for them or they tell a compelling story, but because they are human and deserving of respect. For those lessons and so many more, I thank Dr. Tiller every day.

Five years later, hundreds of organizations and individuals are still working to memorialize Dr. Tiller’s legacy and continue the critical work of abortion access. Please feel free to add your thoughts to the online memory book over at Trust Women, the organization which has taken up Dr. Tiller’s work in Kansas.

Thank you, Dr. Tiller. Thank you for everything.

by Val V.