The Radical Notion

Encouraging women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians

Dr. George Tiller, 1941-2009 June 3, 2009

I know I’m kind of a day late and an hour short on this story, but it’s taken me a couple of days to process. For those of you who have been living under a rock with only sporadic Internet access, Dr. George Tiller, a doctor at the Women’s Health Care clinic in Wichita, Kansas, was murdered in his church on Sunday. As Cristina Page, author of one of my favorite books, writes in an editorial for the Huffington Post, this is the first casualty in the near-inevitable upsurge in domestic terrorism directed at abortion providers in the United States since Barack Obama’s election. Abortion clinics have already experienced huge increases in harassing phone calls (1401 in four months versus 396 in a year in the Bush administration), blockades, stalking, and other tried-and-true tactics that the anti-choice movement uses to intimidate women seeking abortions and those who would provide them.

When I first heard the news on Sunday, I was surprised but not shocked – coming as it does on the heels of the DHS report on the growing danger of right-wing extremism in the country, I had braced myself for the worst. I was angry, certainly, and sad in an abstract way, as one is whenever hearing about someone who’s died, but my attention was mostly focused on monitoring the maelstrom in the progressive blogosphere. I read lots of things I hadn’t known about abortion availability, and the extent to which anti-choice activists will go to get their way, and became increasingly outraged. As I think I have made clear, I feel very strongly that a woman’s right to bodily autonomy is paramount, and those that would campaign to remove it from her get on my shitlist right quick. I started collecting and bookmarking and compiling posts, planning one of my own on the matter. One thing that I noticed in several posts (such as this excellent one from Shakesville) was the mention of personal sorrow on the author’s part – something that I couldn’t really identify with. I mean, I was super-pissed, but heartbroken? Weeping? Not really. It’s not that I’m heartless – on the contrary, I’ve been known to bawl during Disney movies and Buffy season finales without reservation – but I just didn’t feel personally affected by the event. There were some vigils held across the country last night, and I could have gotten to one very easily, but I just didn’t think I’d fit in. I wanted statistics and scathing analysis, not some pseudoreligious sobfest. What would be the point? So I stayed home, and I read some more.

Dr. Tiller was one of only three doctors in the country who provide late-term abortions. Three. In a country with 300 million people, the biggest economy, the third-highest population – only three doctors specialize in the procedures used in post-viability terminations. And now, there’s only two. Post-viability abortion is something that tends to get people even more riled up than ones performed at earlier stages of pregnancy, and as such, elective abortions past 24 weeks are not legal in this country. The only legal abortions are medically-indicated – ones in which the fetus is non-viable, or cases in which the mother’s health is threatened, or cases in which a child rape victim was unable to procure an abortion at an earlier time. Women from all over the country are referred to these three abortion providers (in Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska). If they are unable to procure airfare, or get a referral? Too damn bad.

I am a firm believer that not all abortions are tragedies – there are innumerable reasons why a woman might want to terminate her pregnancy, and crushing guilt or tragic circumstances are not a prerequisite. However, post-viability abortions are a special case, in that they usually are tragedies. To clarify – the tragedy is not that an abortion was available or provided to these women. The tragedy is that after months of pregnancy, possibly years of hoping and planning for a child, parents are confronted with the stark realization that they will not, in fact, be having their baby. Due to circumstances beyond their control, and that they were not aware of or were not present at an earlier gestational age, they have had their dreams of a new child ripped away. In many cases, their own lives are at stake as well.

I have no respect whatsoever for the “protesters” who stand outside abortion clinics and harass patients and healthcare workers. However, I think it takes a special kind of hate to make camp outside a clinic known to specialize in post-viability abortions and terrorize families who, if things had gone according to plan, would be just as upset as much more upset than even the most rabid anti-choice activist is at the idea of terminating their pregnancy. It’s the equivalent of going to a burn unit in a hospital and pouring battery acid in the open wounds of the patients, self-righteously smiling and lecturing all the while.

There are stories online by women who have had late-term abortions – A Heartbreaking Choice, in particular, is a good place to go if you aren’t familiar with these kinds of tales. In a post on RH Reality Check, AnnRose calls these procedures “mercy abortions”, and she’s not wrong. The former site has a specific section dedicated to Dr. Tiller’s clinic. I’m very sad that I wasn’t aware of Dr. Tiller before his assassination; the more I read about him, the more I understood my fellow bloggers’ sorrow at his death.

I guess it’s sheer stupidity on my part to imagine that someone could be as famous as Dr. Tiller and not hold some very deep-seated personal convictions about women’s reproductive rights. In my mind, I had imagined someone who had kind of fallen into providing abortions along with other health services and then happened to be shot – a hapless and innocent pawn in the anti-choice lunacy sweeping the country. How I thought this, I’m not sure, as I knew that under federal law, no doctor is required to perform an abortion unless sie wants to. For those that might want to, inadequate medical curricula, TRAP bills,  and the inevitable terrorization that accompanies abortion providers are enough to winnow out most of the rest, leading to the current situation in the U.S., wherein 87% of counties have no abortion provider at all. Only 35% of American women live in these counties. So any doctor that performs abortions, period, is ahead of the curve.

I knew all this, but I was still unaware of Dr. Tiller’s particular commitment to the cause.

His clinic was was bombed in 1986, causing $100,000 worth of damage. In 1998, five years after his assassination attempt, the FBI informed him that he was #1 on the hit-list of violent anti-choice groups. At the clinic, patients pass through a metal detector into a building with no windows, with a police car permanently stationed outside and armed guards patrolling the back entrance. He was subjected to endless prosecutions – just this past March, he was put on trial for having provided illegal abortions (and was acquitted). A transcript from the above (excerpted) documentary states that

My kids were harassed in high school. I had to write letters of complaint to the City Council and the Board of Education. We had people who actually camped across the street from our house. I restrict where I go to eat, where I travel. You see a car following you, you think, “Ah-ha, let’s watch that.” You’re always on alert. You’re always looking around.

It’s an understatement to say that Dr. Tiller would need strong convictions in order to continue providing abortions under these conditions. But provide them he did – without hesitation. When his clinic was bombed?

Undeterred, Dr. Tiller hung a sign outside the rubble reading, “Hell, No. We Won’t Go!” He set up shop in temporary quarters and continued to provide medical care until his clinic was repaired.

When he survived an assassination attempt?

There was never any question in my mind that I was going back to work the next day. I belonged there and they were not going to separate me from my job and they were not going to separate me from my community. So I did go to work the next day, and we got everything done. People got taken care of, it took a long time. Arms hurt, bled a little bit, but so what? I am not going to be run over and I’m not going to run out. It’s just that simple.

When the FBI told him he was an anti-choice target?

That did not deter him either. His only concession was to wear a flak jacket to and from work.

Dr. Tiller took a very matter-of-fact approach to providing abortions, a fact remarkable in and of itself.

When it became legal and my patients began to ask for it, I’d say, “Sure. It’s a legal process.” I was a service provider. I was a physician. The patients needed abortions, and I did them. It is my fundamental philosophy that patients are emotionally, mentally, morally, spiritually and physically competent to struggle with complex health issues and come to decisions that are appropriate for them.

A simple and eloquent viewpoint, and unfortunately, one that is not shared by many people. The mere fact that Dr. Tiller continued to perform post-viability abortions makes him a very rare bird indeed. And then, of course, there’s the stories about him as a person.

Accounts of women who went to Dr. Tiller’s clinic invariably speak of his gentleness, his kindness, how safe the workers at his clinic made them feel.

My husband and I found Dr. George Tiller to be a caring, sensitive, and compassionate man who truly believed he was helping those of us who were desperate and had nowhere else to go. While we were at his clinic, he was very concerned about an 11-year-old child raped by her stepfather. And, when we were tormented by Operation Rescue protesters outside his clinic, he put on a bullet proof vest and personally drove us out of there while we hid in his van.

Another commenter remembers:

I remember him firmly stating that he regarded the abortion debate in the US to be about the control of women’s sexuality and reproduction.

I remember he spent over six hours in one-on-one care with my wife when there was concern she had an infection. We’re talking about a physician here. Six hours.

He told the story of his previous shooting, where a woman shot him twice in both arms as he drove out of his clinic. At first he wanted to run her down with his Jeep, but then he thought “she shot you already George, she’ll do it again!”

And another:

I remember being puzzled about a T-shirt he was wearing, which said “Happy Birthday Jennifer from team Tiller!” or something similar. Turns out it comemmorated [sic] the birthday of a fifteen year old girl who was raped, became pregnant, and came to Tiller for an abortion. As luck would have it, she was in the clinic the same week as her birthday. So the clinic threw her a party.

The walls of the clinic reception and waiting room are literally covered with letters from patients thanking him. Some were heartbreaking – obviously young and/or poorly educated people thanking Dr. Tiller for being there when they had no other options, explaining their family, church etc. had abandoned them.

I remember my wife, foggy with sedation after the final procedure, being helped from the exam table. He had her sit up and put her arms around his neck, and then he lifted her into a wheelchair. “You give good hugs” she whispered. He paused just for a moment. “You’re just fine,” he told her.

It was when I was reading the above that I finally started to cry.

Why did I cry? It’s not just because Dr. George Tiller was perhaps one of the greatest advocates for women’s rights this country has ever known – having saved countless lives, giving hope to thousands more. It’s not just that doing so requires a tremendous amount of respect for women’s lives, and strength in one’s convictions. It’s that doing so also, inevitably, requires an incredible amount of love.

Dr. Tiller risked his life, his livelihood, his family – all because of the love and compassion he felt towards women. I honestly can’t imagine the love needed to do what Dr. Tiller did, day in and day out, despite being terrorized for 34 years; were I in the same situation, I hope that I would do the same thing, but I don’t know. The thought of how much this man gave to women and the pro-choice movement makes me a little dizzy. It’s the same love that his children recognized (two of whom have become physicians as well):

“My daughters came into my study. I was reading. And they said: ‘Daddy, if not now, when? If not you, who? Who is going to stand up for women with unexpected and badly damaged babies?’ I had the support of my family, and we were able to proceed ahead.”

Dr. Tiller made tremendous sacrifices in order to give hope and life to women in need. He didn’t have to provide counseling to women who had had abortions; he didn’t have to allow women to see and hold their aborted fetuses to say goodbye; he didn’t have to throw birthday parties for patients. He did so because he cared that much. And how was he rewarded?

On Sunday, Dr. Tiller was working as an usher at his church. His wife was already sitting in their pew; the service had started a couple minutes earlier. As he handed out leaflets and talked to church members, a man walked in and shot him. Even though he was not at work, Dr. Tiller was wearing the flak vest that he’s been wearing for 11 years; not to be deterred, his murderer shot him in the head.

The thought of a man who had done nothing but care for his patients and provide legal medical procedures, being summarily gunned down in his place of worship next to his family is honestly a little more than I can take. Having attempted to terrorize him for 34 years and been met with resistance every step of the way, the anti-choice movement finally succeeded in silencing him. A great light has gone out.

While Dr. Tiller was still alive, the gentleman and scholar Bill O’Reilly made a special point of referencing him on his show, calling him “Tiller the Baby-Killer” – go here for a compilation of more than 28 instances of O’Reilly’s incendiary speech. Kristjan Wager caught the fact that the anti-choice organization Operation Rescue, which made a point of denouncing Tiller’s murder, still had a graphic on its page with Tiller’s face, entitled “America’s Doctor of Death”. Go to any blog post, newspaper article, or YouTube video that even mentions Tiller’s name, and you will seen hundreds of thousands of people dancing on Tiller’s grave. Today, OR’s founder, Randall Terry, stated that Dr. Tiller “reaped what he sowed”, implying that as a “mass murderer”, he deserved to die.

I’m still very angry, and plan to post a lot more on this subject of reproductive rights in the near future. But right now, I’m mostly just sad. Dr. Tiller left behind a wife, 4 children, 10 grandchildren, and thousands of women who will now be less able to get potentially life-saving medical care. Not only are there fewer abortion providers now, but even fewer are likely to enter the field or continue their services. This is the very definition of terrorism. The only difference between this man and the victims of any other terrorist attack is that a large part of the country is rejoicing in his death.

Now I really wish I’d gone to that vigil. It’s a lot better than crying alone in one’s room.

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3 Responses to “Dr. George Tiller, 1941-2009”

  1. Terra Says:

    I don’t know this man, I had heard the news of course. However, I felt removed from it. (I don’t advocate for abortion, but I understand the need for some, and I also recognize that I am not able nor willing to make choices for someone else.) This put the issue in perspective for me, and I thank you for that…

  2. linzeebinzee Says:

    Great post, great job writing it. He was a brave man and this is a terrible tragedy.

  3. Samia Says:

    Dr. Tiller’s murder is truly a loss to the pro-choice (and pro-woman) community, and I was mortified to hear about it. That said, somehow I think there would have been less tears/personal sorrow bloggery if this had not been a white male. I know that’s terrible of me, but I don’t think it’s some kind of insidious racism/sexism at work, just another sign that it’s easier for most Americans to empathize with a certain kind of individual. And of course, since he was a man, he could be perceived as having unnecessarily “stuck his neck out” on behalf of women everywhere. Disclaimer: certainly every pro-choice activist is valuable, regardless of race or gender. I dunno. I’m rambling here. Good post.


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