Posted on Friday, June 5th, 2009 at 3:45 am
Author: Feature Writer
Gc contributor: Cara Kulwicki
Any doctor who chooses to provide abortions in America, where there is a pervasive and largely accepted climate of harassment and intimidation against those who do, is undoubtedly an immensely courageous person. Dr. George Tiller, murdered by an anti-choice assassin in his church this past Sunday, was in a league of bravery very much his own.
Dr. Tiller was famous for many years prior to his assassination, thanks not to a desire for the spotlight, but to his commitment to performing late abortions in the highly conservative and religious Bible Belt.
Extremist anti-choice activists responded by loudly and publicly dubbing him “Tiller the Killer.” Dr. Tiller aborted babies on their due dates! – they yelled. He performs these horrible abortions for any reason at all. He’s breaking the law. He’s in it for the money.
Since his death, you’ll have heard these assertions repeated over and over again, in the same breath that anti-choice leaders use to supposedly denounce his murder. But the true Dr. Tiller was a decidedly different man from the bogeyman anti-choicers portray.
Dr. Tiller primarily performed two types of abortion. Both were listed on his website, which was taken offline since his death.
The first type was elective second-trimester abortion. Though controversial and certainly taking place later than anyone’s ideal, these abortions are performed pre-viability, and are entirely legal. Further, women most commonly cite prohibitive cost as the reason why they didn’t obtain an abortion sooner – and cost issues are only compounded by the lack of public funding for abortion, mandatory waiting periods, and high insurance rates caused by the harassment of abortion providers. Such patients also included very young rape victims who didn’t recognize the signs of pregnancy until it was too late to receive care from most providers.
But these weren’t the only particularly vulnerable women who Dr. Tiller treated. The second major type of procedure he performed was therapeutic abortion, generally for fetal anomaly. These abortions are performed late in pregnancy not by the woman’s choice, but because severe anomalies incompatible with life outside of the womb are not generally discovered until late in the pregnancy. The women who seek out these abortions often have to make a gut-wrenching decision between ending the pregnancy or giving birth to a baby that will not live.
These abortions are not carried out lightly or for frivolous reasons, and they are had by women who very much wanted their pregnancies. Ironically, these women have also been subjected to the most vitriolic anti-choice scorn.
Despite the slanderous references to him as a murderer, Dr. Tiller saved countless lives. In addition to caring for women whose fetuses had unsurvivable anomalies, he also treated women whose pregnancies could result in their own deaths due to conditions ranging from cancer to pre-eclampsia. In fact, since it’s illegal in Kansas to perform an abortion when a fetus is viable unless a woman’s life is at risk or her health is facing irreparable harm, all the abortions Tiller performed were necessary to protect a woman’s health, or involved a nonviable fetus. This fact invalidates anti-choice claims of indiscriminate abortions, as does the fact that Tiller was repeatedly acquitted of a wide variety of baseless charges brought by ideologically driven attorney generals who wanted to put him out of practice.
Dr. Tiller performed these emotionally draining abortions with empathy and compassion. Since his murder, websites such as A Heartbreaking Choice have lit up with stories of the kindness that women in his care received. Dr. Tiller additionally provided support groups for parents going through an abortion for fetal anomaly, so that they could meet others experiencing the same difficult situation. And in a final act of respect for his patients, Dr. Tiller allowed parents to hold their babies and take photographs if they wished, and offered funeral-related services to those who requested them.
Dr. Tiller didn’t only perform a medical procedure for those who thought they’d never have to receive it; he also did what he could to provide his patients with closure.
George Tiller performed his work despite repeated harassment and intimidation by anti-choice forces. They followed him and posted his personal information on their websites, all but encouraging violence. He received countless death threats, was shot in the arms, and his clinic was bombed and repeatedly vandalized. I know of no sum of money worth what Dr. Tiller endured simply to provide a legal medical service. But provide it he did, because he knew that he was needed.
Dr. Tiller could have quit at any time. After a lifetime of commitment to women’s health, anyone would have forgiven him for as much. But he continued. He placed the health and rights of women above his own life.
The question remaining is what those women who turned to him will do now. It has been falsely suggested that Dr. Tiller was one of only three doctors that performed late abortions in the U.S. – dozens of facilities actually provide abortions up to at least 20 weeks, which would generally be considered “late.” It is, however, true that Dr. Tiller was one of three providers to perform abortions as late as he did, and the only one known for regularly taking patients regardless of ability to pay. He took the most tragic cases, those which others refused. Patients flew across the country for his care.
Now, there will be a void. The future of his clinic is currently unknown, and it’s telling that even tentative plans to see it reopen involve numerous doctors taking over the work that Dr. Tiller did single-handedly.
In the wake of his death, the world deserves to know the real George Tiller. He was, in truth, a man of remarkable courage, compassion and principle. He was a man whose patients desperately needed him. That’s what makes the impossibility of replacing him so incredibly frightening.
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