(WOMENSENEWS)–Shannon Connelly sat down to brunch last Sunday morning, ready for a peaceful meal of pancakes.
Instead, she got a phone call from her former Planned Parenthood boss.
Dr. George Tiller, the well-known Kansas abortion provider and a personal associate and mentor of Connelly, had just been fatally shot at his church.
"I was shocked, devastated," said Connelly, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. She’s also a board member of Medical Students for Choice, a Philadelphia-based network of more than 10,000 medical students and abortion providers across the United States and Canada.
Connelly met Tiller about two years ago and had spoken with him last month.
"I had sincerely hoped the assassination of abortion providers was a thing of the past," Connelly said.
A group of pro-choice medical students started Medical Students for Choice in the spring of 1993, a few months after Dr. David Gunn, a Florida abortion provider, became the first in a string of doctors to be killed by violent attacks on U.S. abortion clinics. Now, after the first murder of an abortion provider in more than 10 years, Medical Students for Choice promises that the killing has strengthened its resolve to ensure that all women have a full spectrum of reproductive options.
Fate Worse Than Death
"Giving up would be a fate worse than death," said Miranda Balkin, a fourth-year student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and board president for Medical Students for Choice. "My life is one life, but there are thousands of women who need reproductive choice."
Lois Backus, the group’s executive director, said that by Thursday, four days after the murder, the organization had received between 2,000 and 3,000 donations ranging from $25 to $500, but it would not be able to process the payments for several days.
Members of Medical Students for Choice did not actively seek out donations following Tiller’s murder; the donations came to them through pro-choice blog sites, Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets.
"In my 20 years within the movement, I have never seen such an outpouring of support," Backus said.
On Wednesday, the National Network of Abortion Funds said the George Tiller Memorial Abortion Fund, which it created within hours of the fatal shooting of Tiller, had raised $15,000 in the first day.
In a press statement, Stephanie Poggi, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, said the fund will assist "the same women Dr. Tiller served: women seeking abortions in their second and third trimesters, women facing extreme obstacles to abortion and women who often must travel from their homes to obtain the abortion care they need. The Fund will assist with the cost of the procedures, as well as the costs of travel and lodging."
Abortion Providers Declining
Since the early 1980s, the number of U.S. abortion providers has declined from nearly 3,000 to about 1,700. Almost 90 percent of the nation’s counties currently have no provider, according to the New York-based Guttmacher Institute. Medical Students for Choice estimates that only 5 percent of U.S. medical students receive comprehensive sexuality education in women’s overall reproductive health, which includes not only abortion procedures, but also understanding issues such as which medications can harm a developing fetus.
Medical Students for Choice has not decided what it will do with the donations, but wants to honor Tiller’s memory "in a direct way," Backus said.
Possibilities include establishing a scholarship fund to enable medical students without access to abortion training to attend the organization’s annual meeting for intensive abortion training and education.
Continuing his work is the best way to honor his legacy, said Connelly. "It’s what he would have wanted."
Still, the students are taking pause to consider their safety in ways they hadn’t before.
Balkin said that she’s not bold enough to become the "lightening rod" of persecution that Tiller was.
And Connelly wonders if abortion providers can ever work in peace. "I was once told it was impossible to be both an abortion activist and provider," she said. "I want really badly to disagree with that, but I don’t know if I can."
An Advocate for Women
Connelly hopes students will not shy from continuing the work Tiller left behind.
"Dr. Tiller was a stellar physician in all the ways that we want to be. He was such an advocate for women," Connelly said. She described him as a "soft spoken, gentle and compassionate caregiver" who treated his patients not only physically but emotionally as well, staffing his practice with counselors for his patients.
This is a side Connelly believes many did not know, largely due to an extremist political climate. It’s a climate she and others believe his death has made public.
"It’s a huge challenge that President Obama has before him, to pull the country together with a shared set of values," said Backus. "We have to agree that no matter what your position, violence is just not an option."
Backus hopes Medical Students for Choice can foster discussion about these issues among its students. Since the murder, the organization has decided it will focus for the rest of the year on creating an environment for medical students to voice their concerns about their safety.
The Medical Students for Choice annual meeting in November will be an opportunity for the students to come together and discuss how to protect themselves as future abortion providers. It will also be an opportunity to show them that they have a network of support in each other, according to Backus.
"For every anti-choice extremist, there are many people who would love to show their support for our cause," Connelly said.
In her many talks with Tiller during the past two years, he frequently asked her if she still planned to offer her patients abortion services.
"Yes," she said.
"That’s good," he replied.
K. Aleisha Fetters is a journalist and writer who currently studies journalism at the Medill School in Evanston, Ill.
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