A hero who wore a button saying “Trust Women,” was shot down and killed today, in a devastating attack on the right of women to control our own bodies. Dr. George Tiller began providing abortion care in 1973, as soon as it was legal in Kansas, and continued until yesterday. He endured, and rose above, the constant picketers of his clinic and home; the vandalism; the baseless lawsuits and political/legal trials. He survived being shot by another anti-abortion would-be assassin in 1993. He gave compassionate care to thousands of women, and mentored colleagues and medical students, and was a source of last resort for women with fetal/maternal complications in his Wichita, Kansas clinic.
George’s murder is a heavy, almost unbearable blow, and not only for his family and friends, who deserve our deep gratitude for supporting him in his life’s work.
A wonderful person by all accounts, he is not at this time replaceable as a highly skilled teacher and courageous physician who knowingly took the risks he did to do what we believed in. The anti-abortion movement, from its origins in with “abortion is murder” in the 1970’s, through the clinic-bombing 1980’s, and the murderous attacks of the 1990’s, has successfully shrunk the ranks of doctors and hospitals who are willing to risk providing abortions. They’ve poisoned the minds of a generation of women, permeating them feelings of shame over unwanted pregnancies and for having the audacity to want to control when and if they bear children.
Having been nose to nose with anti-abortion leaders in front of clinics, and sometimes between them and doctors, for decades, I know them as the active base of a deeply dangerous, Christian theocratic, and fascist movement. They believe, as Randall Terry screamed in my face in 1987, that women must be kept subservient to men. Their god is a vengeful god, they remind us, and we deserve death for not obeying him. They’ve got the scripture, memorized from both the Old Testament and the New, and the worldview to enforce that male supremacy in their homes and in their movement. They believe that this country’s laws should be based on their interpretation of their God’s law, so you, too, would have no choice in the matter. And they want to kill us; the women who aren’t subservient, and the doctors who foster our agency.
For 8 years, these groups had easy access to the levers of power in this country, right into the White House, and not just through the smug political operative, Karl Rove. The whole Bush regime, from the “Decider” who believed he was on a mission from God, to the thousands of political appointees who re-wrote government websites, rules and laws restricting abortion access, is responsible for a leap in the way government stopped women from accessing abortion. These legal and political attacks on women’s access to abortion – and birth control – changed life for millions of women. They gave the mainstream media the idea that it’s OK to quote anti-abortion organizations as a legitimate voice in the matter of what women have the legal and moral right to do with their lives.
The Rush Limbaughs, Pat Robertsons, and Ann Coulters have responsibility for Dr. Tiller’s murder too, by creating a political climate leading to his murder. 9-11 was the fault of “abortionists” according to Pat Robertson. The clever Rush comment “Tiller the Killer,” drawn straight from the constant street protesters around George’s clinic, and Coulter’s comment that previous abortion doctors were killed by a “gun used in a procedure” all fuel the climate that it’s OK to murder doctors.
But it’s not only the ravings of the right wing that are dangerous to womens’ rights.
What about the “leaders” of the Democratic Party who counsel us to find common ground with these fascists and religious fanatics? You have a president who invites an outspoken homophobe to give his inaugural prayer, citing “common ground” with this as somehow a step forward. You have a president who won’t come out in favor of gay marriage, tacitly encouraging many of his supporters to vote FOR Proposition 8 in California. You have a president who bends over backwards to give legitimacy to the anti-abortion cause, to the honesty of their leaders’ convictions.
If you watched the scene developing in May, weeks before Barack Obama’s appearance at the Notre Dame commencement, as Randall Terry and hundreds of others were getting arrested on the campus, and working themselves into a frenzy – all carefully covered by the national media – and you saw Obama give a speech that didn’t confront them for being wrong, you knew a murder like this would happen. The “pro-choice” movement, for its part, has surrendered its activism and resources almost completely to the Democratic Party and its “common ground” strategy.
This will inevitably get our abortion doctors killed, and drive others from practice. A courageous woman physician, who provides abortion care to rural, young and poor women, even if they have no money, is one of the successors of Dr. Tiller. She wrote today:
“Abortion has been legal in this country for 36 years and it is harder for a woman to access this vital medical care now than it was when I started providing abortion care 21 years ago. The combination of fewer feminist women’s health clinics, restrictive laws and the hijacking of the rhetoric surrounding abortion has made for an empty promise of “choice” for many women. Even our pro-choice President in his speech at Notre Dame said that “abortion is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make.”
I so strongly disagree. For the bulk of my patients it is a moral, responsible decision to make. The most common emotion expressed directly after an abortion and again at the follow up exam is one of relief. If anything, they express guilt for not feeling guilty. Why is the “pro-life” movement so intent on putting out a message to women that they should feel guilty and remorse and shame for taking control of their lives? Why do we LET them define who we are and tell us how we should think?
And then there is the issue of “common ground” between those that support and those that oppose legal abortion. I say this; until those that oppose abortion will agree with and support the notion that the best way to PREVENT unintended pregnancies in the first place (isn’t that the goal?) is to provide ALL women of childbearing age with scientifically accurate, comprehensive information about, and ready access to birth control of all types, there is no common ground. The notion that sexual relations can and will happen only between married, heterosexual couples that wish to conceive is absolutely ridiculous. Abstinence-only education results in higher STI rates, more teen pregnancies, more teen births AND more abortions. Letting religious based individuals and organizations with a totally unrealistic view of teen sexuality into our schools has been a huge mistake. It must stop.
Unfortunately, there is not, to my knowledge, a single “pro-life” organization that supports women using any method of birth control except natural family planning. And what do I call couples that rely on natural family planning? Pregnant.”
This woman gives me hope. We—everyone who cares about the humanity of women—should form a solid wall of support around her and other abortion providers.
But I am very angry, and sad, today at the utter injustice of Dr. Tiller’s death.
DEBRA SWEET is director of World Can’t Wait.