In 2009, George Tiller was shot dead in Kansas. Today, as Americas discord over abortion reaches fever pitch, Julie Burkhart is keeping the flame alive
Julie Burkhart remembers all too vividly the morning of 31 May 2009. It was a Sunday and she was in a meeting in Washington DC when, shortly after 10am, her phone started buzzing incessantly with calls from her home town of Wichita, Kansas.
When she got through to one of her co-workers she thought at first he was making a surreal joke. George Tiller, her mentor with whom she had worked side-by-side for the past eight years at the frontlines of Americas abortion wars, had been accosted at Sunday service in his Wichita church and shot dead.
Burkhart remembers colleagues asking her what she was going to do next. That still perplexes me, she said, talking to the Guardian from her Wichita office. My only thought was, How about I go bury my head in the sand and never come out?
Now 10 years to the day after that horrifying event, Burkhart reflects on the ultimate sacrifice Tiller made to bring reproductive healthcare to women who needed it. The more I got to know him, the more respect I had for him, and the more he taught me as a person. He gave so much. Ultimately, he gave his life.
The lessons Tiller gave were not just personal. Today they resonate across the nation at a time when Americas discord over abortion has once again reached fever pitch.
Virulent anti-abortion legislation is sweeping like a forest fire through many Republican-controlled states. Rightwing lawmakers, mostly male, have passed defiant laws openly designed to force challenges up to the US supreme court and thus undo Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that enshrined a womans right to abortion.
On Wednesday, Louisiana became the latest state to pass an abortion law prohibiting terminations after the sixth week of pregnancy. Legislators defended the ban on the medically spurious grounds that fetuses have a heartbeat at six weeks (in fact embryos do not have working hearts at that stage).
That women can still make their own reproductive choices, despite the increasingly hostile mood, is in no small part down to the efforts of Burkhart and others like her. Her imperative to bury her head in the sand didnt last long after Tillers death.
She decided she could not walk away from the calamity. Soon she was busily setting up a new organisation from the kitchen table of her Wichita home with the mission of carrying on Tillers work. She called it Trust Women after one of Tillers little sayings.
Trust women, he used to remark. Im a woman-educated physician, was another of his phrases. His favorite mantra was attitude is everything.