In Memory of Dr. George Tiller: A Tireless Supporter of Women’s Dignity

When I think of Dr. Tiller and his clinic I think of compassion. What Dr. Tiller and his staff did each and every day was to give women their dignity.

On May 31, 2009, Dr. George Tiller was murdered. When I think of Dr. Tiller and his clinic I think of compassion. What Dr. Tiller and his staff did each and every day was to give women their dignity. 

Barely two weeks ago, when President Obama gave the commencement address at Notre Dame he said, "As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?"

Upon Dr. Tiller’s death, Randall Terry, the founder of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue who led protests against Tiller’s clinic in 1991, issued a statement saying in part, "I am more concerned that the Obama Administration will use Tiller’s killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions." This rhetoric includes describing Dr. Tiller as "a mass-murderer" and abortion as a kind of "slaughter." It also includes describing Dr. Tiller, as Bill O’Reilly has, as "guilty of Nazi stuff."

This rhetoric of "mass murder" and "slaughter," killing and genocide, all commonly used by a variety of religious and political organizations that oppose abortion, is language that is demonizing and dangerous. Is this really how we think of women who have abortions, some lucky enough to do so with the support of caring doctors? Do we really believe that pregnant women who end their pregnancies and the health care providers who help them are no different from Hitler or Pol Pot? Do we really think that the individual decisions of pregnant women are the same as, or as claimed by some groups, worse than, government-sponsored genocide?

This rhetoric, largely unchecked over the last 30 years, distracts attention from key facts about the women who have abortions.  Sixty-one percent of women who have abortions are already mothers. By the age of 44, 84% of all women have become pregnant and given birth. American women, many of whom have had or will have abortions, do 80 percent of the child care and two-thirds of the housework. They do this work without any form of formal compensation, without any guaranteed pensions, and without any form of insurance or healthcare should they need it.

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.

Today and the days that follow there will be some who will explicitly or subtly endorse Dr. Tiller’s murder as a matter of necessity, justified to stop what they will claim is worse killing.

I am tired of a public debate that treats seriously the claim that pregnant women, mothers, and the people who support them are killers. I am tired of a debate that trivializes genocide by saying that what women do to deal with their reproductive lives is worse.

What I want instead is to honor George Tiller, a man who honored women. And I want instead to honor those who value fetal life, but who do not lose sight of the women who give that life, and who would never dream of murdering a doctor who was among the few to give those women the services, respect, and dignity they deserved.