Sunday, May 31, 2009

In Memoriam George Tiller

George Tiller was murdered today. In church. His church. While serving as an usher at Reformation Lutheran Church. In Wichita, KS. His town. Presumably by a believer in the “right to life”. Cowardice doesn’t begin to describe it. Outrage cannot begin to describe our feelings.

We know why he was murdered. He was a family doctor who performed abortions. The story is that when he took over his father's general practice in Wichita after his father's untimely death, one of his new patients asked George if he would provide abortions "like your father did". It was the first George knew that his father did abortions, so he decided to learn how to do them. He became one of the most well-known, and, as a consequence, most reviled, abortion providers in the US. He was one of the few physicians, especially in this center of the country, to provide second-trimester abortions. He was 67 years old. He leaves his wife of 45 years, four children – 2 of them physicians – and 10 grandchildren.

Dr. Tiller did not know that his father did abortions because, at that time, before Roe v. Wade, it was illegal, and it was kept quiet. Dr. Tiller himself did not keep quiet about it, despite being a quiet and soft-spoken and gentle man. It was impossible, for the noise came to him. In 1991, “Operation Rescue” came to demonstrate in Wichita against Dr. Tiller. In his book “What’s the matter with Kansas?”, Thomas Frank cites this as a turning point in that city’s move to the right. In more recent years, Dr. Tiller was the victim of a vendetta by the virulently anti-abortion former Attorney General of the state, Phill Kline. Coming to trial earlier this year, after Kline had left the office, the case was decided by the jury in minutes. They threw it out. So his opponents found another way to stop him. A permanent, horrific way. A way that marks them as without morality, much less a morality that could judge another. Amazingly, papers like the NY Times are interviewing people like Kline and the leaders of Operation Rescue. This is like interviewing members of the Ku Klux Klan about the murder of Dr. King.

The majority of doctors who perform abortions are older. This is probably because they remember, not so long ago, not 40 years ago, when abortion was illegal. And what that meant. It meant the deaths of women. Women die from illegal abortion. The doctors who performed them before it was legal, and those who, like Dr. Tiller, continued to perform them despite the threat of death, did so because they wanted the women who chose abortion to be able to have it done safely, to not risk their lives with coat hangers in back alleys. The countries in which abortion is illegal have higher rates than those in which it is legal, mainly because those same countries restrict access to accurate sex education and to effective contraception. When abortion was illegal in the US, and still where it is unavailable in the US, and where it is illegal around the world, women still have abortions. They always have. The only difference is that they do not have them safely. Younger people – men too, but especially women – need to know that the right to an abortion is not one to be taken lightly, not one that has always been there, not one they can count on to always be there when they, in their unique and special and unlike-all-those-others circumstances, need one.

George Tiller had been shot before, in both arms. He went to work wearing a bullet-proof vest. (I guess he didn’t wear one while serving as an usher in church.) It didn’t stop him from serving the women who came to him in desperation. It would have stopped many, but not this gentle and compassionate physician. Now he has been stopped.

Let us get right down to it. You may be opposed to abortion. You may think people shouldn’t get abortions. You may do your best to talk people out of getting abortions. You may even believe abortion is murder. However, you are not involved unless you are the woman who is pregnant. If you are that woman, and you choose to continue your pregnancy, great. George Tiller would have been your strongest supporter. If you are not, if you are not the woman who is pregnant, if you are a man, your only job is to support the decision of the woman who is making it.

Life is not always as we would like it to be. Goodness knows, it sure isn’t and hasn’t been always how I would like it to be. But whatever you want to be true, the fact is that people get pregnant who don’t want to be and didn’t intend to be and can’t see how they can birth and raise a child. And no matter how much you believe in adoption, look around you and see the number of orphan children and children in foster care, not to mention the children in unsafe and abusive homes. No matter how much you are against abortion, no matter how hard you make it, women will have them.

So far, the anti-abortion movement in the US has not largely suggested or pushed for the punishment of women who have abortions. We are not, yet, the Taliban. So we kill the doctors instead. I know that most people who are active in the anti-abortion movement would not commit such a murder, but they have to take responsibility for creating a situation in which a murderer would think they were doing the right thing. We all have to take personal responsibility for the implications of our positions.

Dr. Tiller's motto was "Trust Women". Those who work to restrict abortion do not. That is the difference.

George Tiller will be deeply missed.

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