The Republic of T.

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Re-Post: Conscience & Dr. Tiller, Pt. 1

Ed. Note: Jessica Valenti’s post at The Nation alerted me that yesterday was the third anniversary of the assassination of Dr. George Tiller. Valenti asks “What Would George Tiller Do?” about the recent attacks on women’s reproductive freedom.

Today is the third anniversary of Dr. George Tiller’s assassination. On May 31, 2009, Tiller was shot and killed by Scott Roeder while he served as an usher in his Wichita church. Tiller was one of the only abortion providers in the country to provide late-term abortions. He often wore a button that said “Trust Women.”

I wonder, if Dr. Tiller were alive today, what he would think about the unwavering attack against women’s reproductive freedom and bodily integrity—if he could ever of imagined that American women would still not just be fighting for the right to abortion but for birth control. Or that there would be a national debate on whether or not it’s appropriate to call a woman who wants contraception coverage a “prostitute.” I imagine that even for a man who had seen a lot of misogyny in his life, the current climate against women would be shocking.

Three years ago, I reflected upon what George Tiller did for countless women, in a three-part series titled “Conscience & Dr. Tiller,” because, as I wrote at the time, I believed that “Dr. Tiller’s story was really one about a man of conscience.”

I still believe that today. So, in honor of Dr. George Tiller, I am re-posting that series today.

A couple of years ago, I’d never heard of Dr. George Tiller, but I posted a couple of times about late-term abortion, and some of the reasons why some women seek a medical professional who’s willing and able to do the procedure. Later, I posted about the stories of two women with difficult, even tragic late-term pregnancies, and the different choices they made.

I thought about those stories in the days after Dr. Tiller’s murder, and went back to read them again. And then I read more stories of women who found themselves in need of Dr. Tiller’s services, and the circumstances under which he provided it to them. I read stories of women who weren’t patients of Dr. Tiller, but met with desperate circumstances and even disastrous news late into pregnancies they had wanted very much.

I realized, then, that Dr. Tiller’s story was really one about a man of conscience.

In the aftermath of Tiller’s murder, opponents of legal abortion — like Todd von Kampen and Albert Mohler have invoked abolitionist John Brown in writing about Tiller’s murder. I can only guess that they have Roeder in mind (though neither mentions him by name) when they make characterizations like this.

John Brown Thus is it always with fanatics — even those driven mad by tragic acts of inhumanity like slavery. And the Holocaust. And abortion. And any of the numerous incidents in human history where one group of humans denies another recognition as persons, created equal, endowed by their Creator with the inalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Part of the problem of the problem, and a root cause of acts like Dr. Tiller’s murder, is that the opponents of of legal abortion have often demonized physicians like Dr. Tiller to the point that they are “denied recognition as persons.”

Mohler goes a bit further.

Proponents of abortion rights often charge that the rhetoric of the pro-life movement leads to violence. After all, we describe abortion as murder and point to the business of abortion as the murder of the unborn. We make clear that abortion is the taking of innocent human life and that what goes on in abortion clinics is the business of death.

We make these arguments because we know they are true. Abortion is murder. What goes on in those clinics is institutionalized homicide, often for financial profit. Abortion is a moral scandal and a national tragedy and a blight upon the American conscience.

But violence in the name of protesting abortion is immoral, unjustified, and horribly harmful to the pro-life cause. Now, the premeditated murder of Dr. George Tiller in the foyer of his church is the headline scandal — not the abortions he performed and the cause he represented.

And herein lies the problem. If abortion is murder, then Tiller is or was a murderer. And if you know — absolutely know — that he murdered yesterday and will in all likelihood murder again tomorrow, isn’t some of that blood on your hands if you fail to stop him?

If Dr. Tiller’s murder has become the issue, instead of the service he provided to women (and for which he as murdered), the opponents of legal abortion have only themselves to blame for making or allowing others in their movement to go on making service providers like Dr. Tiller the focus. Maybe that makes it easier to ignore the rest of the story — of both Dr. Tiller and the women who found themselves in need of his services — and over simplify both his reason for providing the service and women’s reasons for seeking it.

The real story — as the Kanas City Star notes in the title of its long article on Dr. Tiller — is more complex. For example, opponents of legalized abortion criticized Tiller for “making money from abortions” because he charged for the procedures. The article reveals that part of the reason he opened his own clinic was because he realized that he could charge less ($250) than a hospital would charge ($1000).

Not only that, but Tiller initially set out go into dermatology — a far more lucrative field of medicine than family practice, which is where he ultimately settled. But the reason why he ended up in family practice is where George Tiller’s story as a man of conscience begins, when he lost his father, mother, sister, and brother-in-low in a plane crash, and returned to Kansas to take care of his ailing grandmother and 1-year-old nephew

George Tiller

But after he began seeing some of his father’s patients, he decided he was needed because there weren’t enough doctors in the area to absorb them all. So he made plans to instead phase out his father’s practice over three years.

It was then that he learned his father had performed illegal abortions, a decision prompted by guilt over the death of a woman he had refused to help.

“Dad had suggested that he had done some terminations of pregnancy back in the ’50s and ’60s,” he said. “Then when I got the practice … I began asking these women if my dad had done an abortion for them. And I find that he did more than one or two or a few.”

That woman’s death, as a consequence of his refusal to help combined with a lack of safe and legal options, stayed on his father’s conscience. It drove the father to apparently do what he could to make sure that other women in desperate situations wouldn’t meet the same fate. Presumably, a procedure done by a trained physician, in a sterile room with sterilized instruments, was safer than a back-alley or “homemade” abortions.

The article goes on to say that Tiller kept his father’s practice open, and after the Supreme Court decision, performed his first legal abortion in 1973. No doubt, in the years after he took over his father’s practice, he heard from female patients the circumstances they were facing when they came to his father for help, and stories of how these women were treated in hospitals (wheeled past the newborn nursery on their way to surgery). And in the ensuing years and controversy after Roe v. Wade, “[w]hile abortion opponents focused on the lives lost, Tiller’s concern became the lives of the women.”

And so, Tiller inherited not only his father’s practice but his father’s stand on conscience — offering help to women in desperate circumstances, who have little to no other options.

What is the saying? “When God closes a door, he opens a window”? How many windows are there?

A Los Angeles Times portrays the life of one doctor among the few — even fewer with Tiller’s death — as a life without windows.

This is one of the facts of Hern’s life — no windows, ever. That was how Dr. Barnett Slepian’s killer shot him in upstate New York, through a kitchen window. Slepian, like Hern, performed abortions.

“I can’t sit in front of an open window. The shades have to be drawn,” Hern said.

After Slepian’s shooting in 1998, Hern predicted another would follow. “Will I get to live out my life?” he asked in a newspaper column in 2001. “. . . Who’s next?”

The Doctors Tiller — father and son — like Hearn and others, are in the business of keeping a window open, up against people who are dedicated to eliminating windows.

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What the politics of the right means is a life without windows for many of us. Just as they drive people like Dr. Hearn away from windows, their politics drives them to board up the windows that might otherwise be available when life closes other doors, for those of us whose lives don’t fit into the narrow opening they leave — the narrow window they leave open, after boarding up all the others.

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