On Dr. Tiller’s Death
| June 3, 2009
When right-wing commentators and talk-show guests characterize such good and compassionate men as criminals and worse, can we be surprised at the outcome? The author argues that, to honor George Tiller, we must insist on a public debate that reflects reality and the rule of law.
On Sunday the 31st of May in Wichita, Kansas, in his home church, Reformation Lutheran, Dr. George Tiller was gunned down. He was killed in plain view as he distributed the morning’s service bulletins. George Tiller obviously believed in God, prayed and practiced medicine. He did so under what those who hated Tiller believe is the foundation of our country’s stability—the often-cited “rule of law.” He was murdered because he performed abortions, especially because he allowed women the right to choose in consultation with him and other doctors to terminate pregnancy post first trimester.
He was not a criminal, a mass murderer or a threat to our democratic way of life. He was a protector of the health of women, and a practitioner of the rights guaranteed to us under the 1973 Roe v. Wadedecision. He was able to distinguish between a woman’s privacy and constitutional rights as a citizen and whatever were his own personal religious beliefs. He understood that the laws of the land are not the same as the Bible as dictated by its interpreters—many who would quite obviously be pleased to see more theocracy and less constitutionality.
The right to choose and to obtain a safe abortion is a part of the larger context of women’s health, both physical and mental. Justice Harry Blackmun agonized before he wrote the opinion in Roe. Many of us who are pro-choice might not be able or have been able to have an abortion but continue to believe that it is not our business if another woman makes that choice. And it is certainly not the business of murderers who carry guns and apparently have explosives at the ready.
Along the long and rutted road for this singular civil right there are many casualties. This week George Tiller succumbed to the hate mongering and Holy Crusade rhetoric of his enemies. It seems inevitable he would be lost to this battle against the humanity of women—fueled by media war-yelps. He previously had been shot (in both arms). The current murder suspect reportedly is a friend or at least an acquaintance of that shooter, a woman who serves a life-sentence for her attempt to stop the doctor. Anyone who has read Tom Frank’s chilling book, What’s the Matter With Kansas, should not be surprised that Kansas is now a place with even more the matter with it.
Nobody now needs a primer on the rights guaranteed under Roe or the ground lost with the Webster decision in 1989. What is needed is simple talk about where we stand. Thousands of women and men and children and grandchildren marched on Washington in April of 1989 to protest the Webster decision. “Back alley” abortions, coat hangers with red ribbons as symbols of the past were everywhere during that march. The time of illegal abortions and their subsequent consequences was still fresh in our collective memory.
Times have changed. We have failed to vehemently protest the media’s definition of the discourse. Women don’t decide to have an abortion the way we decide to have a haircut or a manicure. The movement is Pro-Choice, not Pro-Abortion. The other side is not Pro-Life—witness the corpse of George Tiller, if only in your mind. They are Anti-Choice.
The choice to terminate a pregnancy at any juncture is painful. It is an imprint on the heart of the history of your life. But a woman, wholly formed and informed, must and does have the right to the control of her womb and her body. Long ago I called it the “war” of woman versus womb. Just my words caused me death threats and denied my ability to teach in some colleges.
Words have provided the bricks to the blood soaked path to tragedy laid before us. The loss of a husband, a father, a grandfather, a friend is a personal and tragic event for the Tiller family. The fact that we are now down to a precious few doctors who will be willing to continue to be doctors for women’s health and stand for choice is the larger tragedy. A “holocaust” is what the anti-Choice people call the rights of Roe. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News on his popular show The O’Reilly Factor calls the enactment of the right to choose everything but what it is, a civil right. Our constitutional rights of free press and speech protect him. Didn’t George Tiller have constitutional rights?
Of course he did, but he was always under threat and his medical offices look more like a bunker in downtown Baghdad than a women’s health clinic in the Midwest. Yet, he did not receive the kind of protective support from the state or federal government that might have kept this from happening.
It is time to take out our earplugs and take off our blinders—listen and see the incendiary language and violent protest tactics of the anti-Choice thugs. And they are thugs. These are not Gandhi like demonstrations in front of these clinics. I know. I have escorted both friends and strangers through their terrifying barricades. This week we learn that Attorney General Eric Holder will consider restoration of the National Task Force on Violence against Health Care Providers. Further comment on his timing diminishes the gravity of the day and the grief over this action by a right-wing ideologue and the legions of supporters who think murder is justified—and, in the case of the suspect, paying your taxes optional.
Those of us who believe in the right to choose will be tempted to employ inflamed rhetoric. Whether this is an act of domestic terrorism is a topic of debate. Perhaps it is. However, I think we can best honor the memory of a brave doctor—who believed in the well-being of women, the rights of a guaranteed constitutional protection and in a democracy that does not tolerate dissent by guns—with other actions.
The media must come to terms with the blood on their own hands. They must see that interviewing Randall Terry as if he were a reasonable conservative judicial thinker fuels the instability of people who would murder with a free conscience. We should ask Fox News exactly what they think happens to the flow of ideas and debate when their star O’Reilly calls Dr. Tiller “the equivalent of NAMBLA and Al-Qaida” or equates his work to that of Hitler, and the purges of Stalin and Mao. Salon states that O’Reilly devoted at least 28 segments of his program to such assaults on George Tiller, character assassination that might well have inspired or at least justified an actual assassination. Certainly it is language that could send a zealot to the foyer of the church on a Sunday morning to kill and say his prayers simultaneously.
It’s not enough that pro-choice organizations take this moment to reassess our effectiveness in defending the rights of women and advocating for women’s health. Everyone who believes that we are and must remain a country of social justice, working within the guarantees of a functioning Constitution, and that women’s rights are human rights must understand this death for what it symbolizes.
This is the continuation—not the culmination—of a well-planned and highly organized and financed pernicious alternative to the legal rights of protest and speech. George Tiller’s death raises a fundamental fact of democratic life—the rule of law is for all citizens. This is not only the death of a man who believed he had to do the right thing, indeed a very hard thing, a thing that probably shattered him on some days. It is a public announcement written in his blood of how frayed our system of honorable dissent has become. And how robust the campaign, media fed and financed, against the rights of all women at all times.
A postscript for those interested in reality and not more mythology—a statistical fact: in 2004, theproportion of abortions performed in the United States at 21 weeks or later was 1 percent.