Dr. George Tiller’s murder shocked Wichita and the world 10 years ago this month, not least of all because the controversial abortion clinic operator was gunned down in church. Lori Lohrenz was one of many Wichitans who felt the killings personally, although she wasn’t personally acquainted with Tiller. The retired microbiologist and mother of three daughters spoke to the active age about Tiller, the clinic and women’s reproductive rights last month. This interview has been edited for length, with some clarifying information added in parentheses.
AA: What was/is your connection with Dr. Tiller and the clinic?
Lohrenz: I was, I guess, a feminist since I was a kid. Before the Summer of Mercy (in 1991) came around, they brought in to Wichita State a woman who survived the firebombing of a clinic out east, and that kind of motivated me to volunteer as one of the clinic supporters during the protests – wearing yellow vests and stuff on the sidewalks trying to keep the protesters out of Dr. Tiller’s clinic.
I just kind of followed it after that, and it was one of those things where you saw the rhetoric ramping up. To me, it didn’t seem like the city was doing very much to protect him. When he got shot the first time (in 1993) it was not unexpected. From that point on, I just had a feeling that someday somebody would kill him.
I retired in the last year and had extra time on my hands. Julie (Burkhart, CEO of Trust Women Foundation) brought the clinic back and opened it up, and I wanted to volunteer and see what I could do besides just sending a check to Planned Parenthood or Trust Women.
AA: Where were you when you heard that Dr. Tiller had been killed?
Lohrenz: I think we’d just come home from church at College Hill (United Methodist Church), where they ended up having his funeral. It was just a horrifying (feeling).
AA: But not totally unexpected?
Lohrenz: No, it was not. In fact, since I’ve been volunteering at the clinic, I’ve met people who worked for him back then who said he always anticipated it and all he said was he hoped it was a head shot.
AA: A lot of people didn’t agree with what he was doing, but not many condoned what happened to him. What was your impression of him?
Lohrenz: Some of my coworkers had him as their primary physician and one said Dr. Tiller saved their son’s life. People from his church that I also worked with saw him as a very compassionate individual. Anything I heard about him was that this was not a guy who’s out there butchering women. He felt compelled to do what he did and so very few people were able to do that.
AA: Did you feel his killing was a black mark on Wichita?
Lohrenz: I did feel very resentful for a period of time because I had this feeling there wasn’t enough being done to take it seriously. To me, the words and rhetoric weren’t just words, they were signs of an intention. And seeing Fox News in particular, Bill O’Reilly night after night (saying) ‘Tiller the baby killer.’ Unhinged people latch onto stuff. (Anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder was sentenced to life in prison for Tiller’s slaying).
AA: What impact did his death have on local reproductive rights?
Lohrenz: Well, I know the physician who tried to open the clinic before Julie did had a horrible experience. Just getting landlords who were willing to rent you space or plumbers that were willing to do services, whether they agreed with you or not, were afraid they would have some kind of taint on them. It took somebody with guts to do all the political activities that Julie’s doing — which are really important. But what good are those rights if you don’t have a clinic to go with them?
AA: You are not afraid to speak out?
Lohrenz: It’s one of those things where I’ve always felt that women do not have the autonomy that a man has and that the most basic right you should have is to your own physical body, and that you should be the only one to determine those kind of issues. I don’t agree with everybody’s reasons for seeking an abortion. It’s not my business. I’m just there to make sure they’re allowed to exercise a constitutional right that they have.
AA: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Lohrenz: I’m very proud of Wichita that the clinic has opened and remained open since. And we haven’t seen the scale of protests that were out there (before). The confrontational dialogue between the clinic supporters and the protestors is gone pretty much, although some protesters still shout at people entering the parking lot.