Over the last week I’ve had the unbelievable privilege of attending two remarkable events: the Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health honors ceremony and a fundraiser for Trust Women PAC. Both events had inspiring speakers that included Dr. Carhart, members of the Tiller family, Emily Lyons, and others. The PRCH event honored the lifework of two outstanding abortion providers, while the Trust Women PAC specifically honored the life of Dr. Tiller. The energy at each event was different – at PRCH, we were celebratory but somber, at Trust Women PAC, we were engaged and enraged. Why the difference?
The PRCH Honors was a gathering of physicians and healthcare professionals who lost a colleague, a mentor, and a friend. The assassination of Dr. Tiller affected their work in a way that many of us can’t comprehend. How do you move on when someone in your field is murdered because they are in that field? Can you move on? Do you keep doing your job knowing that you’re putting your life in danger? Your family’s well-being in danger? Being in a room of clinicians and providers who do just that floored me. It makes sense to me that we were all teary after hearing Jeanne Tiller (Dr. George Tiller’s wife) and her daughter speak. The event was as much about celebrating the achievements of abortion providers as it was about mourning the loss of one of the field’s heroes. There was some political talk, but the evening was mostly focused on honoring the work of specific providers. I left feeling proud to be a member of a community so courageous and so involved in honoring women’s life choices.
One year ago today, it was a calm, bright, Sunday morning. I had nothing planned for that day. It was a lazy, relaxing, uneventful day for me. I was expecting it to stay that way.
Then, I heard the news that shattered my heart into a million pieces. A doctor dead by the hands of not just one assassin, but one deadly movement. They call themselves “pro-life”, and if you don’t do what they tell you to do, they will kill you. Today, they will weep their crocodile tears and hide behind their label, “pro-life”. Then they will go on to promote killing by promoting the outrageous idea that doctors are “mass murderers” and “baby killers,” when in fact the people who are responsible for murder are these “pro-lifers” themselves.
One year ago today, we lost a true American hero. We lost a man who saved dreams and lives, a man who eased and prevented suffering, a man who, for many women, was the shining star in the worst week of their lives, a man whose legacy will live on in my heart for the rest of my life.
Union Square, June 1, 2009, 6pm. The city I love had sprung into action in less than 24 hours. We understood that the murder of our friend and colleague Dr. Tiller was the end of an era. Many of us knew of or remembered the dark times for reproductive health in the early nineties. There were many incidents of terrorism against abortion providers not only at work but at home. We thought we had worked passed this. We were wrong.
As loudspeaker eulogies washed over me, I thought back to my first real business trip to the National Abortion Federation conference in Boston. It was the big time. I was among rock stars- the real frontline advocates for reproductive justice. Walking to Dr. Tiller’s table was simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. I had heard much about this infamous Dr. Tiller but none of it prepared for the sweet grandpa-esque gentleman who was handing out worry stones and scented candles. Where was this hard passionate avenger of women’s rights? How was his soul so soft after facing all that abuse every day? I couldn’t believe it.
So I stood there in shock, thinking of this grandfather figure sitting in his church, while listening to what sounded like so many rallying cries I had heard before. We cannot let this stop us. We will not be scared! But I was terrified, angry sure, but terrified nonetheless. I’m not a clinician but it was only a couple months before that I committed to getting a Master’s in Reproductive and Family Health. My professional life was from that point forward was inextricably tied to abortion access and I would never want to put my family or myself in harm’s way. Clearly, I was naïve beforehand but I truly thought, at least for the most part, those days were behind us. How wrong I was.
I have been struggling with writing something about the anniversary of Dr. Tiller’s murder. I am not an abortion doctor, nor did I know the man personally, so I feel somewhat removed from the grief surrounding his death; and yet, I felt grief then and I still feel it now. How do I express this unattached mourning? So I have been putting it off.
This morning I walked up to the clinic where I work to see that someone had spray-painted, on the crisis pregnancy centre next door, the word “CHOICE” and a big red heart.
I don’t know why, but that was the key for me. I stopped and stared at those letters for a long time, and particularly the heart. It wasn’t until I had gone into the clinic that I thought I should take a picture, and I went back outside to do so.
I know that if the same thing had happened to our building, I would be mad. I know graffiti is a pain in the ass for business owners. I know we will be blamed, if not in the official finger-pointing then at least in the minds of the staff next door. There is nothing positive about this. And yet…
I had an abortion at 19. I was in college, with a bright future, and I was dating a much older man. Neither of us was ready to have a baby. So we didn’t. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the single most life-changing event of my life.
I grew up in an affluent suburb of Albany, NY. The community was well off. We felt entitled. Our parents worked hard and made decent money. We didn’t get into much trouble, beyond that of smoking a little and an occasional party. We felt superior. Back in high school, it was an easy thing to judge a book by it’s cover. We did it almost automatically. If we saw a pregnant teen, she was clearly promiscuous. If we saw a homeless person, it was their fault.
I was also, ironically I realize now, a practicing Catholic, and thought that sex should be saved for marriage. I’m not sure at what point during my freshman year of college that I changed my mind, but I did. I met an amazing guy. He was 6 years older than me, but I was mature for my age, so we had a lot to talk about. We went out on a date, and I remember it as being this incredible evening. We became a couple, and like many couples do in college, we spent every night sleeping next to each other. At that point, I thought we were going to get married. Anyway, despite the birth control that I was on, I ended up pregnant.
Last May, I had recently committed myself to a career of providing comprehensive family planning services, including all methods of contraception and abortion. Shortly after I made this decision, I read the tragic news of Dr. Tiller’s murder at the hands of an anti-choice terrorist.
After the murder, friends and family were surprised that the murder did not dampen my desire to provide abortion care. In fact, as many other providers will attest, the murder of Dr. Tiller strengthened my resolve to provide abortions. I was outraged that a deranged man murdered a physician in a church because he did not like the legal procedure he performed, and decided to make abortion a more prominent part of my practice than I had originally intended.
As I transitioned to my new role as a family planning expert, the number of abortions I provided steadily increased as my colleagues began to refer their patients to me for abortions. For some women the decision is quite easy, for others it is much more difficult. With every passing month, I better understand Dr. Tiller’s philosophy: Trust Women.
Babies are cute. At some point or another most of us have cooed over at least one, breathing in their sweet baby powder scent, cuddling one close, or exclaiming over adorable miniature Nike sneaker-socks that look more appropriate as a rear view mirror adornment than for any practical use. It is this basic human fascination with these miniature versions of ourselves that makes it so much easier to be anti-choice than pro-choice. It’s easy to conjure images of defenseless cherubs, and the evil sadists that want to kill them. Anti-choice proponents have an easy marketing campaign with their myriad advertisements for their cause – from baby footprints on caps at Notre Dame’s graduation last year in protest of Obama’s selection as speaker to the posters of boxes of Kleenex pointing out the difference between facial tissue and a baby not being tissue. It’s easy to throw up a cute photo of a baby and then make a cutting remark about abortion, easy to throw vials of fake blood around at protests and easy to spout bible verses at women as they try to get into an abortion clinic.
It’s not easy to be pro-choice. It’s not because we’re wrong to be pro-choice (as I covered in a previous post, we’re not, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of), but let’s face it, abortion is a surgery, or at the very least a medical procedure. There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about a drug addict opting to have an abortion rather than have a baby addicted to cocaine, born with brain damage, and to a mother unable to care for her – just cold, hard, reality and pragmatism. There’s nothing cute about a 17-year-old getting court permission to have an abortion since she can’t get it from her mother, and she already has a baby to care for – it’s the responsible decision, the right decision, but is it something we can coo over? Something that translates into a sweet little photo op? No. There are no bible verses or psalms to dress it up. And we don’t need them – doing the right thing, making the hard decision is just that – doing what’s right even if it’s hard – and no cute little quips or patronizing speeches like the ones that the anti-choicers are prone to spouting would make it any easier, just prolong the experience. And yet, since we are saddled with the innate ick factor of any medical procedure (particularly for the medically squeamish like myself), and without the aid of a family friendly ready made PR campaign, we are put in a more difficult position. It’s easy to be anti-choice, it’s hard to be pro-choice – but that doesn’t make it any less right, just like the fact that there’s nothing cute, cuddly, or adorable about a woman choosing to have an abortion for any reason doesn’t change the fact that she’s making the responsible and right decision for herself, only that it’s infinitely more serious and well thought out for that lack of “cute.”