Thoughts on the Anniversary of Dr. Tiller's Death

Posted on 5.31.2012 by Lily

This post is part of our commemorative series here and at the Abortion Gang to honor Dr. George Tiller, who was murdered three years ago today, in a call for collective blog remembrance. If you'd like to submit something, please see this post and link back to it in your own.

On May 31, 2009, I had been a college graduate for one week. I found out about Dr. Tiller’s murder late Sunday night when my boyfriend and I got back from a weekend-long music festival that we’d attended to celebrate graduation. I don’t really remember my reaction, though I’m sure it was of shock and horror. I knew that abortion providers had been killed in the past, but not since I had become politically aware and passionate about reproductive rights.

At that point, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, but I did want it to be political and feminist and ideally related to reproductive rights. I was looking for some kind of advocacy job, somewhere like NARAL or Planned Parenthood's Action Center.

A few weeks later, I started training as an abortion counselor. It wasn’t what I really wanted to do, but it was my first job offer and I figured clinic work would be good experience. As they say, the rest is history; now I can’t imagine working anywhere but a clinic. I can’t imagine ever getting the kind of profound gratification from an advocacy job as I get every day from working with patients who need the health services I now help directly provide.

I understand intimately why Dr. Tiller persevered in providing these services through 30+ years of threats on his life.

And many of the patients I work with are women seeking second-trimester abortions. If we were unlucky enough to be in a state with a 20-week ban, my patients would be affected. If they were determined to have an abortion, and we could no longer provide it to them, they would be faced with a daunting prospect: travel out of state, arrange childcare for days, miss work for days, find transportation, potentially conceal their days-long absence from family and/or partner, and raise funds on top of funds to cover it all, besides the funds needed for a late second-trimester procedure. Especially if they have Medicaid, as most of my patients do, which covers abortion in our state but wouldn’t be accepted out of state.

Imagine that the patient is 16. Or lives at 150% below the poverty line. Or is a single mother with three kids. Or has an abusive partner. Or might get fired for missing work, since she’s already been out due to pregnancy-related sickness.

There’s something tragically ironic about having a(nother) baby because you can’t arrange, access, or afford the abortion, isn’t there?

Listen up, pro-choice advocates. It’s past time to stop minimizing late-term abortions, which is what Dr. Tiller was known for and the reason for his murder. Every time we defend abortion rights because “only 1% occur past 20 weeks” we do a disservice to Dr. Tiller's legacy and to the patients who desperately need those abortions. It doesn’t matter if late-term abortions are 1% or 100% of all abortions. They are urgently needed. They are a matter of life and death.

Three years ago, I had just graduated college and finished my year as president of my school’s Students for Choice. After Dr. Tiller’s murder, I wrote a final email to the group’s listserv. I had not yet begun working in abortion care, and I’ve learned an immeasurable amount since about abortion and how this work is love and life and everything good. But you don’t have to work in abortion care to understand the importance of Dr. Tiller’s work and his legacy, and so I’d like to share that (gently edited) email below.

June 4, 2009

Dear Students for Choice,

As the now-former president of SFC, I didn't think I would be writing to you all again, but I feel compelled to do so one last time. I would like to share some thoughts about Dr. George Tiller, domestic terrorism, late-term abortions, and what you can do as a pro-choice advocate.

I'm sure you all have heard by now that Dr. Tiller, one of only a handful of physicians in the country who openly provided late-term abortions, was shot and killed on Sunday morning at his church in Wichita, Kansas. Dr. Tiller was no stranger to anti-abortion violence, and had survived a previous assassination attempt, the bombing of his clinic, and countless other acts of violence and intimidation. He persevered for over thirty years through the continuous threats on his life, continuing to provide women with much-needed health care when no one else would, and should be considered nothing less than a true hero. His death is a horrifying tragedy. Women in this country have lost one of our greatest allies and supporters.

I am anguished and outraged by his murder, but I am trying not to use the word shocked. Yes, this came as a shock, but that it happened is not shocking. No one remotely tuned in to abortion politics should find it shocking. Dr. Tiller is the fourth abortion provider to be murdered in this country since 1993, and the eighth person working at an abortion clinic. There have been more than twice as many attempted murders. Clinics receive hundreds of death and bomb threats per year. Some people making these threats actually follow through. Clinic workers routinely face stalking, vandalism, arson, and assault, to say nothing of the daily harassment and intimidation outside their workplaces, and often their homes, children's schools, and, as we have seen, even churches.

Relentlessly violent and threatening behavior does not come out of a peaceful movement. Thankfully, most anti-choicers (now, more than ever, we must not concede to them the egregious misnomer "pro-life") do not condone violence, but so many of them are still culpable for this murder. We must see violent acts and violent rhetoric as connected. Calling women who seek abortions and the doctors who provide them "murderers" and "baby-killers" ... horrifically likening them to Nazis who commit genocide ... hurling the worst sort of bile at patients entering reproductive health care facilities, taking down license plate numbers, posting their pictures online ... publicizing the full names and addresses of abortion providers on websites and on posters ... all these and so many other displays of hateful, violence-inciting behavior may not have put the gun in Scott Roeder's hand, but it certainly helped create the climate that made it likely to occur.

Of course abortion opponents are entitled to free speech, but there is a difference between free speech and harassment, intimidation, and inciting violence. After all, if abortion providers are truly akin to Nazis, stopping them by any means must seem not only justifiable, but necessary. Anti-choicers cannot claim surprise when someone in their movement takes this rhetoric to its logical conclusion: that it must be morally justified to kill. It is not just an intellectual exercise to connect the rhetoric to the violence. It is a chilling reality of the anti-choice movement that has now spawned and inspired dozens of violent actors, and many more who stand behind them, quietly celebrating Dr. Tiller's death while hollowly condemning it in public.

We must call this murder, and the associated threatening behavior and rhetoric in the anti-choice movement, what it is: terrorism. Do not let anyone frame this murder as a tragic but isolated incident. Dr. Tiller's assassination is anything but isolated. It is terrorism; it is part of a targeted, deliberate, decades-old system of violence and intimidation. Scott Roeder's gun was not just directed at George Tiller. It was directed at anyone who provides abortion care, anyone who works at an abortion clinic, anyone who is somehow connected to providing women with reproductive health care, anyone who identifies as pro-choice and supports the right of women to make their own private sexual and reproductive health decisions. Since you are on the listserv of Students for Choice, this likely means you, too.

This behavior is terrorism. It is intended to terrify people out of providing or seeking legal and necessary reproductive health care.

Moreover, it is terrorism that works. The most frightening part about this whole horrid saga is that this type of domestic terrorism works. With Dr. Tiller's death, there are now only two doctors in the country who openly provide late-term abortions - and if they’re not open about it, it can be pretty hard for women who need them to find them. 87% of U.S. counties have no abortion provider at all. The “greying of abortion providers” means most providers are in their 50s, 60s, or older. Medical schools often do not teach abortion, even though a first trimester surgical procedure is basically the safest, most common minor surgery performed both in the U.S. and throughout the world.

I suppose you can't really blame physicians and med students. Who wants to go into a field that four doctors have been murdered for practicing? Who wants to have to wear a bulletproof vest to work? Who wants to have to drive an armored car and have your daily comings and goings threateningly monitored and posted online? Who wants to be hated, vilified, threatened, and terrorized - all for providing legal medical services?

But more than ever, we do need providers, and we need pro-choice advocates to stand up and defend them and the work they do. Here are my suggestions for a few things that you can do, short of becoming an abortion provider yourself (which you should seriously consider if possible, considering the frightening dearth of them!):

One-third of American women will have at least one abortion in their lifetime. If that number includes you, please say so! Consider telling your story and talking about why you made your decision(s) and what it has meant for you. Obviously, in light of recent events, your personal safety is of the utmost importance; but the stigma connected to abortion will never go away if all the women who have had this incredibly common and safe procedure remain silent. People's minds are more likely to change once it's personal and not just an abstract, uncomfortable thing affecting "other" women. (Just look at Dick Cheney's stance on gay marriage. Does anyone think he would feel that way if his daughter weren't gay?)

If you have not had an abortion, stand in solidarity with those who have. Erase the following statements from your vocabulary: "I would never have an abortion myself" and "I'm pro-choice, but..." followed by decidedly UN-pro-choice, judgmental, stigmatizing qualifier. Most women who get abortions never imagined being in that position. Many, MANY women who get abortions consider themselves pro-life. It is very difficult to know how you will actually act in a vulnerable position like facing an unwanted pregnancy, or a wanted pregnancy gone wrong. Separating yourself from those “other” women situates yourself on a moral high ground and perpetuates an incredibly harmful stigma. Being pro-choice is about treating all people with the same compassion you would like to be treated with yourself. That includes respecting the personal circumstances of each individual abortion and standing in solidarity with the women who seek them.

Talk to people about why late-term abortions are necessary, too. Do not let anyone get away with perpetuating the misogynist myth of the woman who is eight months pregnant and decides to get an abortion on a whim because she wants to fit into a bathing suit. Do not let anyone get away with perpetuating the disgusting lie of the barbaric, blood-thirsty doctor who just cares about collecting thousands of dollars per abortion. Dr. Tiller specialized in helping women no one else would help, even when the baby wouldn't have survived outside the womb, or cancer was causing the fetus immeasurable pain, or it was conjoined twins who wouldn't survive, or the baby would have had a brief life filled with much pain and surgery, or the fetus's brain was severely calcified. (More stories of women who had to travel to Dr. Tiller because they couldn't obtain the care they needed in their own states here and here.) Dr. Tiller's services were compassionate and necessary. Share these stories and do not let anyone get away with spreading lies and myths about late-term abortion, which mock and belittle the heart-wrenching situations these and many more women find themselves in.

Donate to a pro-choice organization, if you are able. A good list can be found here. Addendum from 2012 Lily: I encourage you to donate to abortion funds over other organizations if you choose only one. Federations like Planned Parenthood have much more money to go around than small, local abortion funds, and 100% of your donation will go towards financing the abortions of patients in need. You can find a local fund here.

Send a letter of support to Dr. Tiller's staff and family. Or to your local abortion clinic, thanking them for the work they do.

Some important reading in addition to the other links I've included: from Gloria Feldt, former president of Planned Parenthood, about what sort of response we should be getting from our elected officials; and from Cristina Page, author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America, on the chilling pattern of anti-abortion violence and how this may be the beginning of another wave.

Above all else, please remember Dr. Tiller and honor his heroic memory in whatever way you can.

In peace and solidarity,