"Women Are Not Intimidated": An Abortion Provider Responds To George Tiller's Murder

But for abortion providers, his death may have been less a shock and more a reminder of the grave risks they face everyday. "We're sitting ducks," says Susan Wicklund, an abortion provider who runs a clinic near Bozeman, Mont. and has been in the field for over 20 years. "We have to accept that if somebody is absolutely intent on targeting us, they will be successful." In her 2007 memoir, "This Common Secret," (PublicAffairs) Wicklund wrote about the harassment and stalking she's faced over the years: Wicklund varies her daily routines to make herself less of a target; her clinic is regularly subject to protesters and she sometimes wears a bulletproof vest to her work.

Tiller's death, Wicklund says, exacerbates the challenges that she and her colleagues face in making abortion safe and accessible to all women. His murder may deter doctors from entering a relatively dangerous field that's already struggling with a dearth of providers. 87 percent of counties do not have an abortion provider, according to a 2008 study by the Guttmacher Institute. That same study found the number of abortion providers to have dropped slightly, 2 percent, between 2000 and 2005. At her clinic in Montana, Wicklund sees patients who drive hundreds of miles from South Dakota, which has one abortion provider, and Wyoming, which has two. There's also been an rise in laws that restrict access to abortion, like 24-hour waiting periods and required ultrasounds. But what seems to trouble Wicklund the lack of a strong activist movement dedicated to defending abortion rights. "We have how many millions of women that have chosen to have abortions," she says. "They have come to us and we have taken care of them. We need their voices."

NEWSWEEK's Sarah Kliff spoke with Wicklund about her reaction to Tiller's death, what his murder means for abortion providers and why the accessability of reproductive healthcare is falling in the United States. Excerpts:

What does George Tiller's death mean for abortion providers across the country? Wicklund: It's all I've been thinking about since an hour after he was murdered. I've waded through hundreds of emails, conference calls, talking to my family trying to reassure them that I'm okay and, yes, this is the right thing for me to keep doing. I vacillate—all of us do, all of us providers -- between terrible sadness and anger and fear and confusion and back to the terrible sadness. All of us have to wonder which of us will be the next target. How could you not think of that?

Are there any points in your career where the harassment and threats that you received have made you think about leaving the profession? There certainly have been times where I have to sit back and rethink my life course. But all it takes is one day back in the clinic and seeing patients and hearing the stories and understanding how important the work is that I'm able to continue.

How does a murder like this impact the availability of abortion? Do medical students still want to enter a relatively dangerous field? If you're a young graduate coming out of medical school, got a young family, are you going to want to go into a profession that's marginalized or ostracized and colleagues don't stand beside you? If every physician, every family practice doctor who has been trained to do abortions or would consider being trained, if they just took care of their own patients...this would go away if abortion was just part of routine healthcare. Reproductive health is an issue for every sexually-active woman of child bearing age.

Do you think women get intimidated by violence like this and decide not to have abortions? Women are not intimidated. Some of the laws work, some of the forced restrictions, but things like this don't stop women. It might scare her, she may come in frightened by what she's seen and heard, but she's still going to come inside.

In February you opened a clinic in Montana, close to the clinic you'd run there in the mid-1990s. What have the protests been like so far? Are they different than when your clinic was open in the 1990s? They're much more aggressive with approaching patients coming into the clinic. There's one protester I know of in Livingston, Mont. who has been stopped a couple a couple times because she's been accosting 11 and 12 year olds, showing them terrible pictures and telling horrible lies. That kind of behavior I've seen more. There's also more of a tolerance for this kind of behavior that wasn't there so much before. I think because of millions spent by anti-abortion movement to define this as something bad and shameful, there's more tolerance of the protests.

Why do you think that's changed? What's different about 2009 that makes the protest of abortion more acceptable? I think it's because of all the money pro-life organizations spent to keep women who have abortions silent and tell them they're murders. They've been very effective at doing that. We have let somebody else define who they are even though the women who choose abortion are moral, good women. But another faction that's small but powerful is keeping them quiet. We abortion providers also have to take some responsibility. For years we've told women, you are not being bad, this is a moral decision, and you should not be ashamed. We mean it, but at the same time we are saying, "...but we will keep your secret." We don't talk enough about how many abortions we do. But the reality is we all need to speak out. Almost every person, a husband, boyfriend, son, daughter or mother has been touched by abortion. 98 percent would say it's been a positive, life-saving way. Why do we let this small percentage dictate what we think about what we do?

Is there a way for abortion providers and pro-choice activists to change the climate, to make abortion more acceptable to discuss openly?

We need to mobilize the huge population who has sought out our services. We need women to stand beside us. We need them to speak in the face of protests and say 'we need this.' We need to be more open about how often our services are sought out. And we need to be open about the fact that, For many women, it is a very straightforward freeing decision that gives her life back.

Do you think younger women, who were born after Roe v. Wade, are going to stand up and do that? Some have made the argument that the younger generation isn't as passionate about defending legal abortion.

I think you're right, that they don't understand. I know they don't understand what the stakes really are. They've never had to drive to Mexico with their college roommate and then be there while they bleed to death. They've never seen a ward full of women, coming out of a doctor's office sterile. Women do not stop having abortion when it's illegal.

Do you see any indications that Tiller's death could mobilize the pro-choice movement to action?

I got two emails this morning from residents who said enough is enough; I am going to learn to do abortions. I know that's not always the case that, in the bigger picture, it's going to discourage others from doing abortions. But there are a few, the Dr. Tillers who will dig in their heels and say, "They cannot dictate what I'm going to do for medicine and who I will see."