Speaking of Women's Rights...: Mourning Dr. George Tiller, courageous women's rights activist.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Mourning Dr. George Tiller, courageous women's rights activist.


Over the last several years, Legal Voice as an organization and I as an individual have helped some women terminate their pregnancies in the second or third trimester. Some of those women you might have heard about – though most are “Jane Doe” because they feared to make their names known in court filings. But some you never heard of, and never will, and that’s as it should be.

I once referred a woman to Dr. George Tiller, who was murdered yesterday in the foyer of his church. She got my name through circuitous channels, because of Legal Voice’s reproductive rights and health work. Like the other women we’ve assisted, she wanted her baby very much. But he had anencephaly – no brain, essentially – and no chance to survive. I worked with her and her husband to try to persuade her chosen hospital to permit her chosen physician to terminate the pregnancy safely. But the hospital refused, even though under Washington law this was clearly a legal abortion.

Dr. Tiller wasn’t available, so I referred her to another doctor in this country who performs abortions late in pregnancy. She and her husband had the means to travel, so they did, and they were able to see their baby before laying him to rest. At the funeral the mother said to me, “when I saw him, I realized: he wasn’t there. He just wasn’t there.”

Dr. Tiller was murdered in the foyer of his church. When you think about his medical practice, or the women he helped, does that fact matter? The client I referred to wanted her baby very much. He had no chance of survival. Does that matter? Another woman I helped had a baby with a trisomy chromosome defect – multiple organ defects, virtually no chance of survival or of consciousness. Does that matter?

Sadly, it often does matter to people unfamiliar with these situations. That’s partly because it helps all of us to have a human story when we try to understand difficult things. But it’s also because society requires justifications for the decisions women make. All decisions, actually, but especially decisions about terminating a pregnancy. If there is ‘tragedy’, then somehow that justifies her decision.

Whose tragedy? And who decides it’s tragic? And most of all – whose business is it? Why does anyone need to know about our Jane Does, or my former clients, or any of Dr. Tiller’s patients? Because we don’t trust women to make good decisions. Until that changes, the physicians, other health care providers, advocates, and most of all, the women who need safe, confidential reproductive medical care will be at risk. That, too, is a tragedy.
*photo from the vigil honoring Dr. Tiller in Seattle.