There are many reasons that I am an advocate for women’s and reproductive rights. I relate strongly to the historical aspects of the movement, the feelings of empowerment and sisterhood and the strong desire to have my voice heard.
But there is one reason that compels me to not only be an activist — but to live my values through my life’s work formerly at Planned Parenthood and now at the ACLU. That reason is Dr. George Tiller.
I was 3 years old when one of the ACLU’s best-known cases, Roe v. Wade, was passed down. Of course as a toddler, I had no way of knowing the impact it would have on my life, both personally and professionally.
In Catholic school, we watched films like The Silent Scream. I was taught that premarital sex was a mortal sin and abortion was murder. That was the extent of our sex ed class. Do it and you go to hell.
Needless to say, this certainly didn’t prepare me for what would come next. At one of my high school graduation parties, two of my classmates raped me.
I was deeply ashamed and overridden with guilt. I told no one about the ordeal. I thought it was my fault — that I was to blame. So I buried it and kept silent.
The next month, I went away to college in Tulsa, Okla. I went through new student orientation, sorority rush, met new friends …and discovered that I was pregnant from the rape.
Frightened, alone, and four hours from my home, I opened up the yellow pages and saw big ads that said “free pregnancy tests and counseling — walk-ins welcomed.” Looking for help, I unknowingly walked into a pregnancy crisis center.
While I waited for the results of my test, I was treated to an encore viewing of The Silent Scream. The volunteers who worked at the clinic were not interested in providing counseling for the post traumatic stress disorder that I was going through. They were insistent on me signing a document that pledged that I would not have an abortion. As I walked out, I heard one of the volunteers call me a slut.
I knew I was not emotionally equipped to deal with an unwanted pregnancy — I couldn’t even bring myself to acknowledge the trauma of the rape. And I still told no one about it.
I decided to terminate the pregnancy. But at the time, I was living in Oklahoma, where there were no abortion providers. After making several ‘anonymous’ calls, I was referred to the Women’s Health Care Services in Wichita.
I had to be escorted into the health center through a throng of protestors who screamed the most hateful things at me, pounded on my car windows, shook gruesome signs at me and told me I would burn in hell. And at the time, I believed them.
Once inside the health center, it was a completely different scene. The staff inside was calm, professional, and seemingly oblivious to the chaos happening on the other side of the wall. I was 18 years old, and that was the first time I met Dr. George Tiller. I was his patient.
He was kind, soft spoken and caring. He comforted me as I cried that I was a Catholic and that I wasn’t even sexually active. He asked me to trust him and was completely without judgment. He told me that he was going to help me and that he would make sure that I would be OK. And he was right.
It took me years to come to terms with the fact that the rape was not my fault and that I made the best choice that I could possibly have made at that point for myself. It wasn’t easy. But I have now become an activist for choice.
Years later, working for Planned Parenthood, I was able to reconnect with Dr. Tiller. I was fortunate to be able to thank him for saving my life – for caring for me and for inspiring me to be an advocate for reproductive rights and the power of comprehensive sex education.
He was still the kind and gentle man I remembered from so many years earlier. And he was humble as he thanked me for the work that I was doing.
On the afternoon of May 31 , 2009, I received a text that simply said, “they killed dr. tiller.” I let out a gasp of disbelief and horror. It was that afternoon that I felt the time was right to share my story to honor Dr. George Tiller. I decided not to be silent any more.
It has been 23 years since I first met Dr. Tiller. And sharing my story is still difficult. It isn’t common knowledge – many people who are my friends and coworkers don’t know about these events that shaped my life so profoundly.
Sharing this story helps me to own it. And it helps me spread the all important message that the ability to control your own fertility is a fundamental human right and a private right guaranteed by Roe vs. Wade.
But with the assassination last year of my doctor and my friend, how many women will now be denied these rights? Access to abortion was reduced drastically with the closing of the Women’s Health Care Services of Wichita after Dr. Tiller’s murder. And there are threats of more violence if abortion is not stopped.
Dr. Tiller was a motivating figure. He was staunchly courageous in the face of unimaginable harassment, laser-focused on his purpose to help women when there was nowhere else for them to turn.
Because of Dr. Tiller, I now proudly stand up for what I believe. His example taught me to never be ashamed or silent again, because others may disagree with my beliefs. I hope people benefit from my story and from the stories of so many other women who were shamed into silence over the years.
Someday I hope to pass these lessons on to my own daughter. I want her to know that the free and joyous expression of her sexuality is central to her being fully human — to assure my daughter that she has an equal place at life’s table, is respected as a moral decision maker, and has all the freedoms for which we are fighting.
His strength of character and belief deeply affected me those 23 years ago. But it was his quiet calm and kindness that I will never — ever — forget. Dr. Tiller not only saved my life but he also gave my life purpose. And I will be forever grateful to him and to his family for being a friend to women.
April Adicks is the Director of Development at ACLU of Kansas & Western Missouri.