05/31/2019 11:05 EDT

George Tiller Died Defending Abortion Rights, Now His Life's Work Is Under Siege

Julie Burkhart, who worked with the Kansas doctor, opens up about the state of reproductive rights and her biggest fears.

Mrs. George Tiller, second from left, follows the casket of her husband out of College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kansas, on June 6, 2009.

Today marks a decade since George Tiller, a physician and abortion provider in Kansas, was murdered for his work defending a woman’s right to choose.

The anniversary of his death comes at a particularly fraught time for abortion rights. Planned Parenthood declared a state of emergency after half a dozen states passed extreme bills intended to severely limit or outright ban abortion. Missouri is hours away from shuttering its very last abortion clinic, making it the first state since Roe vs. Wade to lack legal abortion services. And a new report found an alarming increase in hate and harassment against abortion providers.

All in all, abortion rights are under siege.

HuffPost spoke to one of Tiller’s mentees, Julie Burkhart, about her experience in the reproductive rights movement. Burkhart worked in Wichita, Kansas, during the infamous Summer of Mercy in 1991, when thousands of anti-abortion activists descended upon abortion clinics there. Later, she went on to work side-by-side with Tiller. After his death, she fought diligently to reopen his clinic, and it remains serving patients today.

On the left, Dr. George Tiller, who was shot to death at his church on May 31, 2009. He was the target of a relentless protest campaign for most of the 36 years that he performed abortions at his Wichita clinic. On the right, mourners gather for a candlelight vigil for Tiller.

You run clinics in Seattle, Wichita and Oklahoma City. How are your patients being affected by the mounting bad news on abortion rights?

People are wondering if abortion care is still legal. A lot of people think of it in black or white terms, either it’s legal or not. I can hardly keep track of the litigation that we have going on around the U.S., and I don’t think people coming into our clinics to access care can either. We saw this right after the 2016 election too, right after Trump was elected, we literally had people calling the clinic asking if they could still come in for their abortion care.

Of all the abortion bills that are moving their way through the state legislatures and courts right now, which is most upsetting to you?

All of them? Boy oh boy. There are quite a few that are damaging to people in different ways. The dilation and evacuation bans are very disturbing. Dilation and evacuation is the way you provide a second-semester abortion in the U.S. It is how doctors have been trained, it’s safe and efficient. So to make a person undergo a procedure in any other way, that hasn’t been tested and thoroughly vetted is frightening. Also, denying a woman a procedure because she might have a fetal abnormality. Forcing someone to carry a pregnancy that they don’t want ― I equate that to torture. To think that people wouldn’t have an option if they’re carrying a pregnancy with some type of fetal indication. And the TRAP legislation is neverending. It drives providers out of business.

What do you think it is the future of abortion rights in this country? 

It appears that we are headed to this scenario in the U.S. ― and it makes me sad to think about it ― where we will have some places where people can access abortion care. And then there will be other places where people need far more resources to do so. The people who are going to be disenfranchised are the people who are already disenfranchised in this country. People who don’t have access to transportation or money. This is the way we treat people in the U.S., as if some people’s rights matter more than other people’s rights. It’s not realistic for all of us to live in California or New York.

Julie Burkhart stands in a consultation room at the Trust Women South Wind Women's Center in Oklahoma City in 2016. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

When did you get into this movement and why?

I was in college. When I came back to Kansas for summer break, I somehow started working at the Wichita Women’s Center. And I just so happened to work there during the Summer of Mercy. It was all by chance, the way that I started working in reproductive health. It was one of those real teaching moments, to have people literally chaining themselves to your back door. It ingrained in me that people absolutely must have authority over their own body, and it was never appropriate for anyone to take that autonomy away. I was always pro-choice and liberal, but it was just a moment of serendipity where I was able to begin working in that field.

How did you start working with Dr. Tiller?

It was later, around the 10th anniversary of the Summer of Mercy. Anti-choice folks were coming back for the Summer of Mercy renewal in 2001. Their tagline was, “we’re going to finish the job.” We did a lot of community organizing, and Dr. Tiller started inviting me into the clinic to attend meetings that he was holding with a variety of people. The next year he called me up and said, “Hey, I’d like you to come work for me.” I came on as his lobbyist, I built and ran the political action committee that we had, and I was his spokesperson.

How do you remember Dr. Tiller?

He was a very principled person. He expected a lot from people and speaking as a former employee, he expected a lot from us as staff members. He had the ability to show you that you had more ability and more strength than you thought you did. He believed in underpromising and overdelivering. He cared very deeply about his patients and the lives of people. He was compassionate, he was tough and he was a wonderful, wonderful person.

Do you remember where you were when you heard Dr. Tiller was assassinated?

I had taken a new position in Missouri, just a month before and I was actually in Washington, D.C., at a meeting that morning when he was assassinated. We were just getting ready to wrap up and take a break when my phone just started buzzing, buzzing and buzzing and I thought something has to be wrong because my phone was exploding. It was incredibly devastating.

In this photo taken Friday, Aug. 23, 2013, South Wind Women’s Center executive director Julie Burkhart stands in the entryway of her clinic which was once owned by slain Dr. George Tiller.

You went on to reopen his clinic in Wichita. Can you explain how that happened?

I founded Trust Women in July of 2009, with the mission of providing reproductive healthcare services, including abortion care, in underserved communities. At the time, I didn’t know if we were actually going to open Dr. Tiller’s clinic back up or not. But it came down to this: Wherever we were, the anti-choice folks would be anyway, and so we might as well take his clinic, which was perfectly set up for reproductive health care. Mrs. Tiller was generous enough to sell that to us. I’m just incredibly proud that we have a clinic, and we have been open now for over six years.

What kind of obstacles did you face in reopening that clinic?

Gosh, you name it, we probably had to climb that mountain. I could never find the bank to loan money to finance any portion of the reopening, so thanks to all of our supporters who helped that happen. The anti-choice folks started harassing people at the clinic during construction. Even before we opened, we had complaints filed before the Board of Healing Arts. We lost contractors. It took me over two years to find a doctor. Also, there was audio of Dr. Tiller’s killer on the phone talking about how I put a target on my back and essentially alluding to the fact that somebody might murder me, which was terrifying.

How worried are you about threats and violence towards abortion providers, especially now? 

We try to be cautious, especially with everything that’s going on in this country lately, and the fact that it’s the 10th anniversary of his assassination. When anti-choice folks aren’t able to get what they want, that leads to an uptick in violence. The heightened rhetoric and the fact that we have a president who allows this reckless use of language is something that I’m continually concerned about. With our staff and our patients, I can’t stress safety and security enough.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.