Monday, June 1, 2009

In Memory of Dr. George Tiller

Mike and E have asked me for months and months to begin writing posts for the blog, and I have had several thoughts run through my head, but never seem to have the time to write them down. Ironic, then, that my first post comes at a time when I feel so lost for words.

Friends and family who know me may be surprised to learn that I don't want to play the blame game right now (hell, it surprised even me). But I'm just too speechlessly sad. Dr. George Tiller was gunned down in a senseless act of violence that stripped the world of a kind, caring man. His family, friends, patients, and colleagues grieve over the loss. There will be plenty of time for justice -- and I believe there is plenty of blame to go around, from the culture of violence the hatred-soaked anti-abortion rhetoric implicitly supports, to the individuals themselves who participate in such senseless acts -- but now is the time to simply remember a man who gave everything so that women might have the lives and families they needed or wanted; and oftentimes, gave them a compassionate option when the lives and families they so desperately wanted were shattered by fetal anomaly or devastating illness.

Yesterday morning, the women's health and reproductive rights/justice movement, the medical profession, and women in need of compassionate abortion services lost a great advocate, teacher, and professional. I had the absolute privilege of meeting Dr. Tiller at the most recent National Abortion Federation meeting. When he learned I planned to enter obstetrics and gynecology at the end of my medical training, he gave me his heartfelt thanks and some sage advice. I have only rarely met individuals like Dr. Tiller, who, in the midst of a large crowd of people all scrambling to speak to him, can make you feel as though your story and your thoughts are the most important things going on in that particular moment. He was a gentle, caring soul.

And that is how I imagine his patients felt, too. Dr. Tiller provided compassionate abortion care for women across the spectrum of need. Most controversially, and I believe most importantly, Dr. Tiller provided later abortions that other providers will not - largely for fear of the violence and retribution from anti-abortion extremists that eventually took Dr. Tiller's life. These women have posted comments across the web today, recounting the stories of the discovery late in pregnancy of a fetal anomaly incompatible with life - and how Dr. Tiller offered them an option. Lynn Paltrow said it best in her blog post today at RH Reality when she wrote:

One of the amazing things about Dr. Tiller, in addition to his determination and his extraordinary courage, was the fact that he knew and appreciated who his patients were. He knew them as loving women, daughters, and mothers who are the backbone of their families and, to a large extent, our country.

Many of the women who traveled to Dr. Tiller's clinic were not women who wanted to have abortions, or who even support the right to choose to have an abortion. Many were women with wanted pregnancies who learned that their baby had no brain, or kidneys growing on the outside of their bodies or things their doctors described to them as "severe fetal cardiac malformations." They were women who could not face two or three more months of pregnancy with people patting their bellies and saying, "Oh honey you must be excited. When are you due?" Some women deal with such crises by continuing to term even knowing the baby cannot survive. Others find that their dignity depends on being able to end the pregnancy.

Some women who went to his clinic were extremely young. Some who went struggled with health problems and disabilities that they felt would be exacerbated by a pregnancy they did not recognize until late. All together they represented women with the least desired and rarest abortions - ones late in pregnancy.

Dr. Tiller was extraordinary. When I met him he talked about why women have abortions and how they understand them in terms of their religious faith and spirituality. He described his efforts to serve them with respect, making possible rituals that would allow them to say goodbye to fetal life that they in fact valued.

Some women who returned from his clinic actually felt that they had been treated better through an abortion they wished they had not needed, than through a birth that they had anticipated with joy.
The shockwaves of this tragedy will ripple far into the future. Not only have we lost a great man, but his clinic may face difficulties finding another provider to take his place. And even farther down the road, medical students making choices about whether to provide abortions or not will feel the chill of violence on their decision. I know that I do.

Which is why I hope you'll consider making a donation in Dr. Tiller's memory to Medical Students for Choice, a group that supports and advocates for medical students who wish to learn about abortion provision during their training. We cannot undo Dr. Tiller's slaying, but we may be able to stem the aftermath of such violence -- a palpable chill that ultimately results in reducing women's access to safe, compassionate abortion care.


Jay Livingston said...

You can be sure that the mainstream media will refer to the late-term-abortion-as-baby-killing idea. I wonder how much of this other perspective we will get.

E. said...

What a touching and thoughtful post. I hope the government considers invoking its ability to prevent politically-motivated violence--an ability that has grown quite a bit in the past eight years. Hatred cannot escalate to a level where professionals who are performing their constitutionally-protected duties must live their lives in fear of physical violence.

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