When I called Dr. George Tiller a hero last week for saving women’s lives, I began to receive messages that greatly deepened my understanding of why, before he was assassinated on May 31st, his practice was so critical to the lives of all women. A man from Wichita wrote:
“I knew Dr. Tiller. He was pretty much a hero. He saw my girlfriend when no other doctors would because she couldn’t pay right then. She had gotten real sick and couldn’t understand why. She was 'just' the bass player in our band at the time and broke. She did finally see Dr. Tiller and he found she had a tubal pregnancy and the fetus was dead or almost. If she hadn’t gotten to him, she definitely would’ve gotten sicker and maybe died. She had the 'abortion' and was protested the entire time by those good folks in Wichita. They also found while performing the surgery that she had 'pre-cancerous' lesions. They caught those in time and she had cryogenic surgery a few weeks later. No problem after that and is still cancer free 25 years later. People aren’t told about the good work he did. He saw a need and filled it.”
Now that Dr. Tiller is gone and his family has closed his clinic permanently, who will fill that need?
We have a hell of a challenge before us. For women, the Bush years were a disaster of faith-based abstinence-only education and punitive cuts in access to reproductive care. Abortion and birth control, because of state restrictions and relentless hounding by those against abortion, are less accessible than at any time since 1973. But rates of unintended pregnancy among teenagers are going up. Planned Parenthood clinics are reporting a surge in demand for birth control and abortion, given growing rates of unemployment. The reality is that women are being increasingly forced to bear the children of unintended pregnancies. To paraphrase what World Can’t Wait’s Call to drive out the Bush regime said in 2005, “Your government is still moving to deny women the right to birth control and abortion.”
If you thought the fascist movement which exists to enforce the subservience of women is not still deadly serious at stopping all access to abortion, snap out of that delusion. The increasing pressure on abortion providers by state governments is propelled by the foot soldiers of a fascist movement, whose leaders call, openly or with a wink, for doctors to be forced one way or another from providing abortions. Dr. Warren Hern who owns the Boulder Abortion Clinic told me Saturday, while surrounded by federal marshals at Dr. Tiller’s funeral, that the American anti-abortion movement wants a “Christian fascist theocracy.” When asked on Democracy Now if anyone from that movement had reached out to him, he said, “They have been trying to get us killed for decades. Their statements that they’re dismayed about Dr. Tiller’s assassination [are] hypocritical nonsense. These people got exactly what they wanted. They wanted Dr. Tiller dead. They wanted Dr. Tiller’s clinic closed. And they want the rest of us killed.”
Within the pro-choice movement, we’ve got some issues to struggle through.
First we need a pro-choice movement! I don’t mean only a list of people who get email and “click” when asked to donate or who are led to lobby and write Congress. I don’t mean a politically passive movement that accepts whatever the Democratic Party does as the “best” we can hope for. I mean an uncompromising movement that calls people into the streets for visible resistance against Dr. Tiller’s murder, and any further attacks. I mean systematic efforts to reach the people – especially youth – about why abortion is not murder but a completely necessary option for all women. I mean a movement which organizes efforts to protest and support abortion providers. Having a big current in this movement of people who dare to dream of the liberation of women would help tremendously in raising the movement’s sights far beyond the present accommodation to the latest outrage.The women’s movement in this country has been obsessed with wanting to be “in” the Obama administration, under the assumption that the Democrats would restore women’s rights. Other than quietly reversing the global gag rule, what has Barack Obama done to reverse the Bush anti-woman program? He issued a two-sentence pro-forma statement on Dr. Tiller’s murder, saying nothing about Dr. Tiller himself. Federal marshals were quietly dispatched to protect some doctors belatedly, given that the FBI had been urgently informed over the previous week about the crimes against abortion clinics that the alleged shooter was seen carrying out, including one day before the murder. Where was the high-level delegation at the funeral, or the call from the president, or even from women in his administration to stop these attacks?
Obama’s distance and lack of outrage was mirrored at the funeral. Where were the national leaders of the women’s movement? Kim Gandy of NOW, Ellie Smeal of the Feminist Majority and Nancy Keenan of NARAL were absent. Where were any national elected officials or even prominent state and local ones?
I can see that people have been affected by the tone of the president’s speech at Notre Dame, where hundreds of anti-abortionists were protesting him, when he sought “common ground” with the anti-abortionists’ message and gave them more legitimacy than they’ve had in 36 years. The danger of granting their movement such a place at the table discussing what women need became evident only 15 days later when the most high-profile physician doing abortions in the country was killed and almost every article in the mainstream media covered the comments of Troy Newman and Randall Terry ahead of substantive comments from abortion providers themselves.
Other voices stand out. Rev. Carlton Veazey, Director of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice led a service for Dr. Tiller in Washington on June 8th. He wrote of Obama’s speech at Notre Dame, “My experience of 13 years in the pro-choice movement is that ‘common ground’ has become another term for compromise on reproductive choice. In other words, achieving common ground will be accomplished by diminishing the ability of women to make decisions about abortion, whatever the personal cost. That's unacceptable. It's unacceptable for even one woman to suffer in order for opponents of abortion to be appeased.”
There are tremendously courageous abortion providers who are publicly speaking out. Dr. Susan Wicklund, author of This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Provider and Susan Hill, owner of the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, Dr. Hern and Leroy Carhart, who worked at Dr. Tiller’s clinic, were on news programs all week, speaking urgently of the need their patients have for abortion and birth control services and the threats they live under to provide them. Dr. Carhart has pledged to make late term abortions available again in Kansas. A special fund is being created to pay for training of doctors to learn abortion care. But we can’t leave all this to the doctors.
I have been thinking about the “common secret” that almost half the women living in this country will have had an abortion. At a “speak-out” last Friday night organized by the Wichita chapter of the National Organization for Women, the stories poured out. It seemed everyone had known George, helped protect the clinic, worked with him on a project, had been a patient or knew one. One woman, standing with her partner, began, “George Tiller allowed me to be a mother by choice” and told of an abortion she sought as a teenager. Her partner told of going to Dr. Tiller after being raped at 17. But until that night, neither had shared that information with the other. The shame and silence that’s been forced on women over the last 36 years by a hateful, murderous anti-abortion movement is intolerable!
I heard more stories at the funeral. Dr. Tiller had taken care of tens of thousands of women since 1973, under his motto, “Trust Women.” I talked to a doctor who cares for women from the reservations in Montana who, already treated as property, can’t get gas money together quickly enough to get early abortions. She sent them on to Dr. Tiller when she couldn’t help. East coast clinic owners told of eleven and twelve year old incest victims, who few people think should be forced to carry a pregnancy. Yet, Dr. Tiller was one of very few doctors who would give them abortions in a compassionate way, regardless of whether anyone was paying him for his service.
What will it take to reverse this course? The biggest need is for a vibrant determined movement of people taking responsibility for actual change, an uncompromising visible loud pro-choice movement in the streets, with the aim of changing public opinion and expanding access to abortion.
Debra Sweet is the Director of The World Can’t Wait.