COLUMBIA — Phillip Wood knew George Tiller for just three days but has always remembered the care he received at his Wichita medical clinic.
Wood, a member of St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Columbia, met Tiller when he and his wife ended a difficult pregnancy after they struggled to conceive. Wood and his wife learned that the twins she was carrying suffered from twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, a condition in which the two share blood. Doctors told the couple that the twins wouldn't survive, and, without an abortion, the couple would not be able to conceive again.
In a letter to Reformation Lutheran Church, which Tiller attended, Wood recounted his experiences with the doctor and his own struggles, with terminating a late-term pregnancy and handling news of the doctor's death on May 31.
In the letter, Wood wrote: "A few weeks after returning home and burying our sons in the family plot in Iowa, I was surprised to receive a letter from Dr. Tiller. When I opened it, I found a card with the words "Respect," "Dignity," and "Compassion." I opened it to find that Dr. Tiller had taken several pictures of our sons for us to have. Although it may be difficult for others to understand the gratitude I felt on receiving this unexpected gift, I can assure you that it meant quite a bit to me."
Wood also read from his letter at a peace vigil on Tuesday in Columbia. Since then he's been interviewed by national media.
Wood’s experience sheds light on an aspect of the abortion debate he said he had never considered — one in which genetically healthy embryos are nonviable. He was confused by the fact that people in his situation were almost never factored into the mix.
“It seems more merciful and a better strategy to terminate the pregnancy,” Wood said .
Tiller's murder has elicited discussion in Columbia’s places of worship and the community about the ethics of abortion and the occurrence of murder in sacred spaces.
Pastors at St. Andrew’s neither condemned Wood and his wife nor encouraged the abortion. Instead, they left the decision to the couple.
“People in the congregation run the gamut from extremely pro-choice to extremely pro-life,” Wood said.
“Some have asked me how I have found the courage to speak publicly on our family's experiences,” Wood said in the letter. “I tell them that I am trying to pass along only in faint measure the care and compassion I have been shown during our experiences by Dr. Tiller and the other health care professionals we worked with during that time. My prayers are with you and the body of Christ in Reformation Lutheran during this difficult time.”
Churches in Columbia also responded vehemently to Tiller’s murder with varied expressions of sadness and anger.
No religious leader can speak on behalf of his or her congregation or to claim to represent all the varying viewpoints therein, but Monsignor Michael Flanagan of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church shared clear sentiments about the murder of Tiller and the church’s stance on abortion.
“We condemn it,” Flanagan said concerning Tiller’s murder. “It’s just terrible. We are against abortion, and we are opposed to violence such as this. It makes no sense. It’s a contradiction. On the one hand, you’re opposing abortion because it’s taking a life, and then you turn around and take a life. You’re playing God. It makes no sense at all.”
Flanagan said he was sad to know that there are people who use violence as a means of problem solving. Nick Campbell, pastor of Fairview United Methodist Church, agreed that Tiller’s murder was wholly un-Christian.
“It’s complicated and nuanced,” Campbell said. “Of course it’s a tragedy whenever someone takes justice into their own hands. We are all grieving for the Tiller family. We tend to live in a culture that recognizes the extremes of an issue, but this doesn’t represent what most Christians believe or how they’d act.”
Flanagan said people like Scott Roeder, who has been charged in Tiller's shooting, let hatred for the positions of others drive them to outrageous crimes rather than being tolerant and loving.
“It’s sad that we think we can solve things this way," Flanagan said. "We lose our sense of community, our sense of caring, our sense of who we are as Christians. Christ doesn’t destroy the sinner; who do we think we are? We are becoming more self-righteous than God.”
The Rev. Micah A. Ernst said that although current events would not typically be the topic of a Sunday sermon for the faith community at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, the week's events in Kansas were discussed during the church’s Bible study Tuesday evening.
Ernst said he shares the sentiment that the murder was profoundly anti-Christian.
“There are radicals everywhere,” Ernst said. “That’s no way to handle anything. As soon as it gets out of hand, they are not being Christian. I preach against killing. How does one sin out another sin? They don’t even look at what the word of God says. You don’t try to take the law into your own hands.”
Although he completely condemned the murder, Ernst still held strong views about Tiller’s medical practices.
“As a conservative Christian, I am totally against abortions,” Ernst said.
Each pastor, while holding different views about abortion, comes from a place of disillusionment and strong religious principle when he or she denounces the acts committed by the shooter, said the Rev. Jim Bryan of Missouri United Methodist Church.
“We often talk about what devout Christians do,” Bryan said. “We talk about ‘How do we add respect and dignity to the conversation?’ Whether it’s war, homosexuality or abortion. This act of violence is way, way off the scale. We are shocked and disheartened. This was a tragic act by at least a fanatical, if not deranged person. It's sad that religion is often used as a way of inflaming those radical stances that bring division.”
The official United Methodist Church’s stand on abortion supports the safe, legal right for a woman to choose, Bryan said, within given parameters.
“Our discipline supports all these reservations, conditions, etc. and the woman’s access to safe, legal abortion,” Bryan said.
Faith and the community
At Life Network of Central Missouri, formerly Open Arms Pregnancy Crisis Center, abortion is strictly an issue of faith. The Christian-based organization provides resources for pregnant women as an alternative to abortion. The center in Columbia reacted strongly against Tiller’s murder, according to Greta Howard, director of advancement.
“We believe here that violence is not the answer to disagreements about abortion,” Howard said. “As a faith-based organization, we respect all lives regardless. We’re concerned because a human life was taken. We know that all life is precious.”
Howard issued a separate news release condemning the murder and asserting the center’s stance on non-violent approaches to unwanted pregnancies.
“Life Network of Central Missouri works toward a culture of mutual respect and dignity,” the release said. “All of us at Life Network are shocked and saddened to hear of the killing of George Tiller.”
Like Life Network, Planned Parenthood expressed sadness but also a great deal of renewed fervor, said Michelle Trupiano, lobbyist and mid-Missouri public affairs manager for Planned Parenthood, which operates a clinic in Columbia.
“Our initial reactions have been outrage and anger, and that we just have to come together as a community to fight back against this,” Trupiano said.
Despite any tension following Tiller’s murder, Trupiano said the clinic would not close its doors in wake of the event. “Our staff is continuing to provide the services that women need. They are not going to back down in the face of this tragedy.”
Mallory Redinger contributed to this article.