[NOTE: This post was written in 2012. Comments have long since closed.]
[TW for discussions of termination of wanted pregnancies, rape and domestic violence, violence against abortion providers]
Today is the third anniversary of Dr. George Tiller’s assassination. He was shot in the head while attending church. He was killed because he was an unapologetic abortion provider. He was gunned down because he trusted his patients and listened to their needs. He was murdered because he did for many people what almost no one else in this country will do: provide a late-term abortion. He was a hero.
When I think about Tiller’s work and the principles under which he operated, I immediately think of the issue of morality in the fight over reproductive rights, or rather, in the fight for reproductive justice.
The man who shot Tiller and the people who support such extremism in the anti-choice movement think they are moral. Anti-choice advocates, even moderate ones, hold their torches high because they believe they are fighting for the greater good. They scream at patients as they walk into abortion clinics, they post huge pictures of supposed aborted fetuses, they actively and harmfully work to limit and deny people access to abortion care. They support laws that punish the most vulnerable, they shame those who dare choose their livelihood and health over that of a fetus, and they lie loudly and often in order to make their case. And they do this all while claiming to be the moral side of this fight.
Dr. Tiller, though, in both how he lived his life and how he died, show us that being pro-choice is actually the moral side in this struggle.
Being for choice, advocating for everyone to have true bodily autonomy, fighting so that each person is trusted to make their own decisions for whatever reasons, and doing so unapologetically – THAT IS THE MORAL SIDE.
WE ARE THE MORAL SIDE.
DR. TILLER WAS THE MORAL SIDE.
My friend, Garland Grey, and I have recently been having discussions about the need for the pro-choice movement and for those seeking reproductive justice to reclaim proudly the mantle of morality. We need to shift the conversation. We need to do what Dr. Tiller did throughout his life: embrace ALL choice and do it without shame, without judgment.
I think one of the most important things we could do is to continually find ways to make pro-choice people proud and forthright about their beliefs, to puff them up with moral superiority and FACTS and send them out into the world with the conviction that abortion isn’t shameful, not even a little, that supporting abortion is not merely the right thing to do but opposing abortion is morally obscene, and that anyone who questions these two premises is more invested in self-righteousness than they are in human lives. I think if we could drain the residual shame from the movement and create activists who aren’t simply pro-choice but who understand that being “pro-life” is a symptom of not knowing what the fuck you’re talking about and not giving a damn as long as you can think of yourself as morally superior, we could move this fight toward a decisive victory.
What Garland wrote here is HOW Dr. Tiller lived his life.
Everyday Dr. Tiller did a radical thing: he trusted his patients.
The clinic staff, including Tiller, were all harassed at home and at the clinic. Their addresses were circulated in anti-choice groups and in some cases, posters were hung in neighborhoods that the staff lived in to “alert” neighbors to the work the staff members did.
In 1986, his clinic was firebombed by anti-choicers and had to be rebuilt. In 1993, Tiller was shot by an anti-choice activist. He was shot in both arms and returend to work the next day. The woman who attacked him had been found guilty of several violent attacks on abortion clinics. She is serving 33 years in prison for her attack on Tiller and her convictions for clinic violence.
In 1998, Tiller began wearing body armor in public due to the FBI alerting him to being targeted by anti-choice militants.
In 2009, Tiller was shot while attending church. He was shot in the head and died. His murderer, Scott Roeder, was arrested shortly after murdering Tiller and was convicted of first-degree murder in 2010. Roeder had a history of being connected to attempting to bomb an abortion clinic (he was arrested for the having the explosives in his possession but was unable to follow through with the planned attack).
On a personal level, I remember and appreciate Dr. Tiller because he was an advocate of late-term abortions. These abortions are often held up by anti-choicers as the quintessential act of evil, the cases that show most obviously how terrible the people are who seek abortion care.
The most popular post ever on my blog was written by a very good friend of mine. It is her story of her late-term abortion. It is heart breaking every time I read it:
Regarding terminations, some people say that you must endure, even if you have been raped. Or if your partner is abusive. Or your life is in danger (mentally or physically). Or your much-wanted baby is dying. You must continue to be a living coffin. You must listen to the heartbeat that you have already listened to every month. You must look at your fetus that you tried so hard for, that you wanted, that you were excited about, that you told the whole world about, before you go through with the already impossible decision to try to save your own sanity, and your own life. If I had carried that fetus to some sort of induced birth, I would not have my beautiful child today. I can not imagine the absolute mental anguish that I would have gone through for another month, two months, 4 months. I would have not been able to imagine a happy and successful pregnancy and birth. Ever.
Instead, now, we have a beautiful healthy child. Born 12 ½ months after my termination. But though your second pregnancy starts showing much faster than your first, and others suspected I was pregnant, we did not tell people until Week 21. And if we have another child, we will wait just as long. But the termination has become part of the having-another-child conversation. We are now parents who know that pregnancies do not always carry happy endings.
Who can read that story and think that denying people who need or want late-term abortions are doing something good in this world? Advocating for choice in all cases, that is THE MORAL SIDE.
Carolyn Jones, who I have the great fortune to know, wrote about having a late-term abortion here in Texas under the state’s new draconian “Right to Know” law that forces people seeking abortions to listen as their providers describe the development stage of the fetus they are about to abort:
For the third time that day, I exposed my stomach to an ultrasound machine, and we saw images of our sick child forming in blurred outlines on the screen.
“I’m so sorry that I have to do this,” the doctor told us, “but if I don’t, I can lose my license.” Before he could even start to describe our baby, I began to sob until I could barely breathe. Somewhere, a nurse cranked up the volume on a radio, allowing the inane pronouncements of a DJ to dull the doctor’s voice. Still, despite the noise, I heard him. His unwelcome words echoed off sterile walls while I, trapped on a bed, my feet in stirrups, twisted away from his voice.
“Here I see a well-developed diaphragm and here I see four healthy chambers of the heart…”
I closed my eyes and waited for it to end, as one waits for the car to stop rolling at the end of a terrible accident. [...]
My experience, it seems, was a byproduct of complex laws being thrown into the tangled world of abortion politics. If I’d been there two weeks earlier or even a week later, I might have avoided the full brunt of this new law’s effect. But not so for those other young women I saw in Planned Parenthood’s waiting room. Unless they fall into one of those exemption categories—the conditions under which the state has deemed that some women’s reasons for having an abortion are morally acceptable—then they’ll have politicians muscling in on their private decisions. But what good is the view of someone who has never had to make your terrible choice? What good is a law that adds only pain and difficulty to perhaps the most painful and difficult decision a woman can make? Shouldn’t women have a right to protect themselves from strangers’ opinions on their most personal matters? Shouldn’t we have the right not to know?
[NB: more people than just cis women need and want access to abortion care]
These stories are not exceptions. To believe that is to believe the lies of the anti-choice side. These stories are real. They are true. They are normal.
I am thankful that my friends could get the late-term abortions they needed. Their lives and the lives of their families are better for it.
Dr. Tiller listened to his patients, he trusted their decisions, and he knew that the people he was helping deserved his ear and his trust. He treated his patients like people (which really shouldn’t be such a radical position but, because of how anti-choicers have shaped the narrative around abortion, it is). He believed that those he helped were more important than the fetus inside of them. That is not a morally-bankrupt position. THAT IS THE MORAL SIDE.
Trusting patients, seeing them as individuals, believing in their abilities to make decisions for their own specific lives: THAT IS THE MORAL SIDE.
Thank you for everything you did, Dr. Tiller. Thank you for everything and everyone you championed. Thank you for risking your life to provide your patients with a safe and legal medical procedure. Thank you for doing so with no regrets, no animosity, no judgement, and no apologies.
You, sir, were a moral man on a moral mission. And I won’t forget it. WE ARE THE MORAL SIDE.
Rest in peace.
Also, if you want to help financially in the mission for which Dr. Tiller died, consider donating to the George Tiller Memorial Abortion Fund:
The George Tiller Memorial Abortion Fund is the National Network of Abortion Funds’ national abortion fund that helps women to pay for later abortion care and helps those who need to travel out of state for an abortion or those who live in a state that lacks an abortion fund. The Fund is managed by our national office and our National Case Manager. Women seeking later abortions must often travel very far from their home states to get to clinics that can provide the care they need. Later abortions are also significantly more expensive than first-trimester abortions.
The George Tiller Memorial Abortion Fund is the only resource of its kind.
We created the George Abortion Tiller Memorial Fund on May 31, 2009, the day that Dr. Tiller was assassinated in his church attending Sunday worship services.