WICHITA, Kan. — When George Tiller was young, he dreamed not of being one of the most visible and strident advocates for abortion rights, but of becoming a dermatologist.
The 67-year-old physician, who was shot and killed Sunday in his church, had said his path was altered by a 1970 plane crash that killed his father, mother, sister and brother-in-law.
The former Navy flight surgeon was left with his father's family practice in Wichita, and he soon learned a secret. One of his father's patients asked him whether he, like his father, would perform abortions.
At first, Tiller said, he did not believe his father had risked his medical license by performing then-illegal abortions. But after the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortions in 1973, Tiller began providing them.
By the time he was killed, his clinic, Women's Health Care Services, was among just three in the nation to perform abortions after 21 weeks of pregnancy, when the fetus is considered viable.
He was a focus of abortion opponents for years, most peaceful, some violent.
"George dedicated his life to providing women with high-quality health care despite frequent threats and violence," Tiller's widow, four children and 10 grandchildren said in a statement. They called him "a good husband, father and grandfather and a dedicated servant on behalf of the rights of women everywhere."
Tiller's clinic was bombed in 1985, and he was shot in both arms in 1993 by abortion protester Rachelle "Shelley" Shannon of Grants Pass, Oregon.
In 1991, the Summer of Mercy protests organized by Operation Rescue drew thousands of anti-abortion activists to Wichita for demonstrations marked by civil disobedience and mass arrests.
Federal marshals protected Tiller during the Summer of Mercy protests, and he was protected again between 1994 and 1998 after another abortion provider was assassinated and federal authorities reported finding his name on an assassination list.
The women's clinic is fortified with bulletproof glass, and Tiller hired a private security team to protect the facility. Once outside the clinic, Tiller was usually seen accompanied by a bodyguard.
Anti-abortion groups condemned Tiller's slaying.
"We value life, completely deplore violence, and are shocked and very upset by what happened in Wichita today," said Mary Kay Culp, executive director of the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life.
Tiller in 1997 said his "gifts of understanding" helped him bring a service to women that aided them in making their dreams of a happy, healthy family a reality.
Tiller, who in his later years largely shunned interviews and public appearances amid his family's increasing fear of violence against him, said abortion was as socially divisive as slavery or prohibition had been in their day.
But he said the issue was about giving women a choice when dealing with technology that can diagnose severe fetal abnormalities before a baby is born.
"Prenatal testing without prenatal choices is medical fraud," Tiller once said.
Tiller contended that he pioneered the use of sonogram imaging during procedures, a process that has since been adopted by abortion providers nationwide.
In 2002, Tiller founded ProKanDo, a state political action committee, to help elect abortion rights supporters and support abortion-friendly legislation.
His resume includes the National Abortion Federation's highest honor, The Christopher Tietze Humanitarian Award, as well as the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights' Faith and Freedom Award.