Dr. George Tiller, 1941-2009
By Katha Pollitt
Trust women. That was the motto of Dr. George Tiller, abortion provider and hero. Dr. Tiller trusted women: to know their own life circumstances, to know themselves. Trusting women has an old-fashioned ring to it, doesn't it, like "sisterhood." How quaint, the notion that a woman, faced with a crisis pregnancy, can reach into herself and make the decision that's right for her--at any rate, a better decision than someone else would make for her, someone who doesn't know her, has never been in her predicament and doesn't have to live with the consequences.
Someone like, oh, a man. In the immediate aftermath of Dr. Tiller's murder it was astonishing how many men were called upon to weigh in on abortion on national television. CNN featured William Schneider, Sanjay Gupta and Bill Press. On Fox, Bill O'Reilly defended his use of "baby killer" and "death mill" to describe Dr. Tiller and his clinic. On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann--who the last time I checked in spent a whole segment making fun of Miss Anti-Gay Marriage California's breast implants with waspish misogynist Michael Musto--had only men: Slate's Will Saletan, who thinks we can "end" abortion by stigmatizing women with unwanted pregnancies, because right now everyone is just too kind, and Andrew Sullivan, who knows as much about women's reproductive lives as I know about soliciting bareback sex on the Internet. Sullivan confessed:
I do think that--I mean, I'm personally opposed to what he does. I actually don't believe in late-term abortions. But I have to say--on my blog today, a lot of women wrote in and told me their own stories of this. And I was kind of shaken by the fact that most--most women--almost all women that go to these places, are in desperate straits. The children are very, very deformed or ill or will not survive birth or the mother's health is directly threatened. These are very grave and difficult circumstances.
So Sullivan, who has been an outspoken antichoicer for two decades, is only now finding out why women terminate pregnancies? Shouldn't that have been part of the basic research? And even after hearing the awful stories, he still, apparently, thinks Dr. Tiller was wrong to help them: women ought to carry anencephalic fetuses to term, give birth to Tay-Sachs babies who will live a few brief agonized years, postpone their own cancer treatment or heart surgery to give birth even if delay means they die, have their stepfather's baby in middle school. But at least he feels bad about it now.
In the more than three decades since Roe v. Wade, "the fetus" gradually became the star of the abortion drama, and the voices of women who had abortions, aka "the woman," leached out of the public discussion. How many embryos can dance on the head of a pin--now that's interesting! Off-the-cuff judgments about how late is too late and what kinds of health problems count as serious--everyone's a doctor! Even women who have had abortions sometimes play the blame game--my abortion was necessary, but you're just a slut. The murder of Dr. Tiller has gotten more women telling their stories, and that is a crucial, good thing. Not so that panels of pundits can approve or disapprove but so that society can hear, firsthand, what girls and women go through. After all, since Roe, 45 million American women have terminated at least one pregnancy. That's more women than the dwindling flock who accept Catholic doctrine on sexual matters, and more women, I'll bet, than even know who Rick Warren is.
President Obama speaks frequently about finding common ground in the quest to reduce abortions, as if we all agree that the problem is the number, and not the need. Prochoicers, who have rejoiced at his support for contraception, realistic sex ed and accurate reproductive science, must be scratching their heads at his nomination of Alexia Kelley, founder of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, to direct the Health and Human Services Department's Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. CACG has many fine positions--it opposes war and poverty and the persecution of immigrants--but it supports church doctrine banning abortion and contraception. It's a travesty that its head will now control more than $20 million a year in funding to religious groups for family-planning services: you might as well put an astrologer in charge of funding for NASA. Maybe reproductive rights organizations think they have bigger fish to fry, but I am disturbed by the quiet around this appointment, made before Dr. Tiller was even cold in his grave. Only Catholics for Choice seems worked up about it. As we go to press, Feminist Majority, Planned Parenthood and NOW have said not a word, although NOW's Kim Gandy told me she was "aghast" and would speak out soon. A NARAL spokesperson e-mailed me this tepid statement: "We would not have picked her for this position. What's important to note is that she will be working for a pro-choice Secretary of Health and Human Services and a pro-choice president. We fully expect this administration to continue to promote pro-choice policies in the same way they have since day one."
Meanwhile, word comes that Dr. Tiller's clinic will not reopen. Terrorism works...
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You can honor the life of Dr. Tiller and make sure that low-income women receive safe abortion care by making a donation to the George Tiller Memorial Abortion Fund at the National Network of Abortion Funds. Contribute online at nnaf.org/tiller.html or mail a check to George Tiller Memorial Abortion Fund, c/o National Network of Abortion Funds, 42 Seaverns Avenue, Boston, MA 02130.
Also thanks to The Great Zerbisias for commentary and addenda to this.