Fourteen years ago, the pro-choice community chose March 10 as the National Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers. This date—the anniversary of the death of David Gunn, MD, an abortion provider who was shot and killed in 1993—is a time to honor those of us who continue our work despite the harassment meant to drive us away.
This year, we will also mourn the murder of the kindest, most humble and bravest physician many of us have ever met: George Tiller. We will reflect on the risks he took to serve women, the sacrifices he and his family made while living under siege. We will think of his mottoes, especially “Trust women”—the guiding principle that kept him focused on his patients’ needs.
As we do every year, we will reflect on the obstacles we face in caring for the women who need us. For some, it is the health insurance plans and the federal government that fail to cover the cost of this legal medical procedure, making it nearly impossible for some women to obtain care. For others, it is colleagues or administrators who create obstacles—for instance, prohibiting a health center from purchasing and prescribing the abortion pill for women. And for some, it is the endless harassment that stops them from providing abortions, despite the training they sought during residency and their commitment to this care. But for most of us who think about the Day of Appreciation, we will focus on the dedicated clinicians who continue to beat the odds.
On March 10, we will remember that the life of an abortion provider, even Dr. Tiller’s, is so much more than struggle and obstacles. I am a family physician, as he was, and abortion care is just one of many services that my colleagues and I perform. We get to know our patients and meet their needs throughout their lives. We perform adult checkups, well child care, treat diabetes and hypertension, provide contraception, prenatal care, sick visits, and everything in between. We coach men and women to improve their health; we treat illnesses and nurture families through deaths.
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Within the rewards of family medicine, performing abortions holds a special place. I have talked with many colleagues about this, and we share the same experience: the thank-yous we receive from our patients after an abortion are more common and more heartfelt than for any other care we provide. Somehow, our society has shamed women so badly that when they come to us for an abortion, and are treated with understanding and respect, they are incredibly grateful. This response cuts across all ages and circumstances, from the teenager who wants to finish high school to the woman whose health can’t handle a pregnancy to the mother of three who knows she can’t care for another child. We allow women’s decisions to occur in the safety and privacy of their doctor’s office.
Dr. Tiller found his patients’ gratitude so inspiring that he covered his clinic’s walls with framed thank-you notes. He quoted them in the clinic brochure: “Thank you for everything you and your staff did for me during one of the darkest moments in my life.” Another reads, “Dr. Tiller, you will be in our hearts and our minds for the rest of our lives.”
In the bigger picture of women’s lives, we have helped them through a tough time. By making an abortion possible we say, “Here, you can have your goals and dreams back.” Or “Now you can get back to taking care of the children you already have.” Dr. Tiller summed up the significance of our work: “Abortion is about women’s hopes, dreams, potential: the rest of their lives.” As a physician, I rarely am able to make such a difference for women and their families, and I feel very lucky to be able to provide this care.
That is our paradox. Every day when I’m with patients is Abortion Provider Appreciation Day. Every day I feel the significance of a woman’s need to make her own decision about her pregnancy. Every day I am the beneficiary of her deep gratitude for a safe, legal, and usually simple medical procedure.
But every day the news, an email, a billboard, something reminds me that a few of my fellow citizens are trying to make it impossible for women to seek my help.
Through the National Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers, we try to put an end to the harassment and violence against physicians and their patients. I wish we didn’t need this day. I have to believe that some day we won’t.