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.
(WARNING: IMAGES BELOW FOLD NSFW, DISTURBING, POTENTIAL TRIGGER.)
In the previous post, I wrote:
What is the saying? “When God closes a door, he opens a window”? How many windows are there?
…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.
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.
It’s worth noting that Tiller’s murder took place just a week shy of the 45th anniversary of the death of a woman for whom all windows and doors out of her desperate situation were firmly closed.
Her picture, in death, became symbolic of the plight many women faced when back-alley and “homemade” abortions were the only options. In life, Gerri Santoro grew up on a farm, as the youngest of 14 children, and she was a well-loved daughter and sister, remembered as vivacious and trusting young woman. Her troubles began when, at 18, she met and married a man who turned out to be abusive. They had two daughters together. After 10 years of marriage, during which she endured his physical abuse, Santoro finally left her husband in 1963.
She moved back to the farm where she grew up, and soon started an affair. She became pregnant, and at six months got news about her husband.
When Sam Santoro announced he was coming from California to visit his daughters, Gerri Santoro feared for her life. On June 8, 1964, six-and-a-half months into her pregnancy, she and Dixon checked into a motel in Norwich, Connecticut under aliases. Their intent was to perform a self-induced abortion, using surgical instruments and a textbook, which Dixon had obtained from a co-worker at the Mansfield school. However, when Santoro began to hemorrhage, Dixon fled the motel. She died, at age 28, and her body was found the following morning by a maid.
Dixon was apprehended three days later. He was charged with manslaughter and “conspiracy to commit abortion” and sentenced to a year-and-a-day in prison. Police officers who worked the case called this term “negligible”.
She and Dixon looked for ways to terminate the pregnancy. I don’t know if they searched for doctors to help them, though it seems likely. Santoro’s sister, Leona, scrapped together $700 for Santoro and told her to hide. But it’s not hard to imagine Santoro — like many battered women before her and since — knew she couldn’t hide from her abusive husband forever. Law enforcement may not have been all that effective in protecting battered women from their batterers. She could have believed that eventually he’d find her and find out she had another man’s child. And he might kill her.
Santoro’s story and desperate circumstances are separated from George Tiller’s murder by about 45-years-minus-one-week. And, to be honest, a woman in similar circumstances wouldn’t generate much sympathy from the opponents of legal abortion. It’s her own fault, they’d say. She may have an abusive husband, but that’s her fault for marrying him. And it’s her fault for having an affair and getting pregnant, even if her husband was abusive. To be fair, they’d probably say she should have sufficient protection from law enforcement to prevent her husband from harming her. But she should have to carry the pregnancy to term, whatever the consequences for the rest of her life. Any other windows are firmly closed and sealed shut.
However, Santoro’s circumstances are very different from those of many of the women who sought Dr. Tiller’s help. If all of other windows are closed, including Dr. Tiller’s services or those of another physician willing to keep that window open, then what options do the opponents of legal abortion offer women like those who sought his services?
Some of them, for one thing, are not exactly women — like a nine-year-old girl Tiller helped when others were apparently too afraid.
The 9-year-old girl had been raped by her father. She was 18 weeks pregnant. Carrying the baby to term, going through labor and delivery, would have ripped her small body apart.
There was no doctor in her rural Southern town to provide her with an abortion. No area hospital would even consider taking her case.
Susan Hill, the president of the National Women’s Health Foundation, which operates reproductive health clinics in areas where abortion services are scarce or nonexisistent, called Dr. George Tiller, the Wichita, Kan., ob-gyn who last Sunday was shot to death by an abortion foe in the entry foyer of his church.
“I only asked him for a favor when it was a really desperate story, not a semi-desperate story,” she told me this week. Tiller was known to abortion providers – and opponents – as the “doctor of last resort” – the one who took the patients no one else would touch.
“He took her for free,” she said. “He kept her three days. He checked her himself every few hours. She and her sister came back to me and said he couldn’t have been more wonderful. That’s just the way he was.”
I don’t know what childbirth would do to the body of nine-year-old girl, but I can’t imagine it would be anything good. I know that adult women sometimes experience tearing, and end up getting an episiotomy. This young girl would almost certainly have experienced that, were it not for Dr. Tiller. This young girl could even have died during childbirth, while still a child herself. And that’s what the other side sentence her too.
Now they will say, of course, the rape should never have happened. But it did, and she was only getting more pregnant by the day, and closer to an experience that would likely be as painful and damaging as being raped by her father, if not moreso. And if there’s a way to make giving birth to the child of the father who raped her any less traumatic for a nine-year-old But that is what the opposition would sentence her to. However awful what happened to her was, and however painful what will happen to her is likely to be, she — according to them — simply must go through labor and delivery.
How’s that? Why was there no physician in her rural southern town who could or would help her? Why would no area hospital — where people would surely have known the risks this young girl (no doubt already traumatized by being raped by her father) would face during delivery? (Vaginal or c-section, it seems like there are no good choices here.)
Why is abortion not readily available in 87% of counties in the U.S.? Why, between 1992 and 2005, did more than 250 hospitals and 300 private practitioners stop providing abortion? Why do so few medical schools train doctors to do these procedures? Why do 74% of ob-gyn residency programs no train all residents in abortion procedures? (Figures via The Gutmacher Institute.)
Why would a nine-year-old girl, raped and impregnated by her father, have nowhere to turn except to Dr. Tiller, and then 18 weeks into pregnancy? (Where will others like her turn now that there’s one less doctor willing to help? It’s likely that, because of all of the above, her pregnancy went on that long because of the time it took for someone willing to help her?
Why was no one willing to help her?
The answer, or at least part of it was provided by Dr. Tiller himself in a soon-to-be-released documentary What’s the Matter With Kansas? (based on the book of the same name).
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We’ve been picketed since 1975,” says Dr. George Tiller. “My office has been blown up. We have had 4,000 people arrested outside my office in 1991. In 1993 I survived an assassination attempt. From August of 1994 until March of 1997 I was under daily U.S. Federal Marshal protection.”
Archival footage from 1991’s “Summer of Mercy,” in which thousands of Operation Rescue activists convened in Wichita to protest Tiller, is a harsh reminder of what the doctor had already lived through. What was supposed to be one week of demonstrations stretched to six, as protesters closed down Women’s Health Services and Pat Robertson flew in to congratulate them.
Each part of the clip is upsetting in its own way, from Gietzen’s boasts about stacking the local government with anti-choice Republicans to pro-choice activist Julie Burkhart’s lament at the scarcity of other late-term options for women whose pregnancies have gone horribly wrong. But it is the slain doctor’s recitation of his enemies’ past offenses that hurts the most. Uttered calmly, without a trace of anger, his words feel painfully prescient.
What hospital or doctor wants to face thousands of protestors, not to mention shootings, bombings, and other violence? What doctor wants to risk his or her life, and take a chance of being added to the list of physicians murdered to help a nine-year-old girl in those circumstances? After all, no protestors will show up if she’s turned away, no headlines will be printed, no television vans will show up, and neither will bombers and gunmen.
Of course, that’s just one case — albeit one that underscores what the logical extremes of opposition to legal abortion means for real people, whose status as “living” is undebatable. Neither the Santoro case or that of the anonymous nine-year-old rape/incest victim are representative of most or even many of the women who seek late-term abortion, or who sought Dr. Tiller’s services.
Many of them were women who, after all, very much wanted to be pregnant, and very much wanted to carry the pregnancies to full-term.