Tuesday, June 02, 2009

An Incalculable Loss

I don't have much to offer on the murder of Tiller, and the fierce re-kindling of the debate over abortion that mostly simmers and smolders in our country. It's not that I don't have a bevy of feelings on the matter, because I most certainly do. It's just that I don't have anything that's really as articulate and coherent as, for example, this post by John Cole.  I'm no expert on the subject of abortion, not even the law of it in our country, but I do know that though some anti-abortion activists attempt to portray it as something else, the decision to have an abortion is frequently a difficult and harrowing choice for a woman. And no more so than with a late-term abortion, where a woman may be asked to choose either to have an abortion or give birth to a horribly disabled child, or risk her own physical or mental health to bring a pregnancy to term. According to this account, which is worth excerpting at length, a woman facing such a difficult choice could find no better a friend than Dr. Tiller:

One woman described her elation at being pregnant and how the possibility of motherhood offered a glimmer of hope through several family deaths. Then she found out her fetus had severe spinal and cerebral deformities. "I laid on the table crying and knowing in my heart at that point my son was not going to make it," she wrote. At almost 23 weeks pregnant, she was too far along for an abortion in her own state, and so, like many women in her situation, she made the anguished pilgrimage to Wichita.

Writing five weeks after her abortion, she said, "I hate that my son is gone. I hate that I had to make the decision to end his life. I hate that my womb and my arms are empty. But I am strengthened in the fact that I made my decision by focusing on him and what was best for him. I am eternally grateful to the wonderful people that guided me through this horrible experience with compassion, love, and understanding."

Her gratitude toward Tiller and his staff is not unique. Ayliea Holl, the administrator of the site, saw a different doctor for her own abortion, but she's met many of Tiller's patients. "Every single one of them received the kindest, most caring and compassionate, the best health care that they could get," she says. "Dr. Tiller was extremely compassionate. He was so helpful to so many women."

After his murder, it's not clear who will take his place. In the mainstream media, Tiller is frequently described as "controversial." But in the tight-knit world of abortion providers and pro-choice activists, he was often called a saint, because he took on the hardest cases, whether they could pay or not, and was incredibly tender with his patients. "His clinic was known for really treating women with extraordinary decency and respect," says Carol Joffe, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, and one of the country's foremost experts on abortion. They sent him volumes worth of letters of effusive and urgent thanks.

Tiller's death is an incalculable loss to women's health care. There are two other clinics that do late-term abortions, but neither are known for taking patients regardless of their ability to pay or for ministering so comprehensively to their emotional needs. Tiller's murder leaves a void that could imperil women across the country.


Bill Harrison, an abortion provider in Arkansas, referred hundreds of patients to Tiller over the years. "To do what George does is like doing major cancer surgery," he says. "It's a subspecialty all its own. It took a real organization to do it safely and effectively and cheaply like he did it." Over the years, Harrison had 20 or 30 patients who were so poor that he had to give them money for gasoline to get to Wichita. "I would call him and tell him about the patients, and he would say, 'Send them up,'" he says. "Obviously if they couldn't pay for gasoline, they couldn't pay for anything, and he did the abortions anyway."

Tiller's murderer believed-like many others-that Tiller himself was a murderer of babies, that he performed abortions "on demand" for money. But Tiller was the last hope for many desperate women, and he was their hope because he believed in what he was doing, believed in helping women who faced extraordinarily difficult decisions the likes of which you and I will never face. He did it even though he knew with certainty that it put his own life at risk. Now, it remains unclear who these women will turn to for the compassion they need to help them make a choice they'd hoped never to make. Yes, the loss of Dr. Tiller is incalculable.

1 comment:

robotsoul said...

this is a truly tragic situation. Tiller's death is tragic, the effect it will have on women's access to healthcare services is a tragedy, and the fact that his murderer felt like violence was the only form his ideology could take ... all tragic. This news story features Tiller talking about why he felt so passionately about providing services that women needed in spite of threats of violence: http://www.newsy.com/videos/the_killing_of_george_tiller