Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Assassination of Dr Tiller and a Feminist Awakening by Alex Snider

Three years ago today, Dr George Tiller was shot and killed while serving as an usher at his church in Wichita, Kansas. He was one of three doctors in the United States that would preform late-term abortions. Before Dr Tiller was murdered, I hadn't thought much about abortion. I had friends who had had them. I knew that if I got pregnant at any point in my post-sexually active life, I wouldn't hesitate getting one myself. Beyond that though, beyond living in Canada where the right to abortion was won years ago and was fairly protected, I didn't need to think about it. I also had never thought much about late-term abortions, at the time not being entirely familiar with the terminology but if pressed I probably would have been critical of the women who needed them. 

Shortly after Dr Tiller's assassination, Jill Filipovic at Feministe did a roundup of some of Dr Tiller's patients' testimonials. This one in particular stands out: 

In 1994 my wife and I found out that she was pregnant. The pregnancy was difficult and unusually uncomfortable but her doctor repeatedly told her things were fine. Sometime early in the 8th month my wife, an RN who at the time was working in an infertility clinic asked the Dr. she was working for what he thought of her discomfort. He examined her and said that he couldn’t be certain but thought that she might be having twins. We were thrilled and couldn’t wait to get a new sonogram that hopefully would confirm his thoughts. Two days later our joy was turned to unspeakable sadness when the new sonogram showed conjoined twins. Conjoined twins alone is not what was so difficult but the way they were joined meant that at best only one child would survive the surgery to separate them and the survivor would more than likely live a brief and painful life filled with surgery and organ transplants. We were advised that our options were to deliver into the world a child who’s life would be filled with horrible pain and suffering or fly out to Wichita Kansas and to terminate the pregnancy under the direction of Dr. George Tiller.

We made an informed decision to go to Kansas. One can only imagine the pain borne by a woman who happily carries a child for 8 months only to find out near the end of term that the children were not to be and that she had to make the decision to terminate the pregnancy and go against everything she had been taught to believe was right. This was what my wife had to do. Dr. Tiller is a true American hero. The nightmare of our decision and the aftermath was only made bearable by the warmth and compassion of Dr. Tiller and his remarkable staff. Dr. Tiller understood that this decision was the most difficult thing that a woman could ever decide and he took the time to educate us and guide us along with the other two couples who at the time were being forced to make the same decision after discovering that they too were carrying children impacted by horrible fetal anomalies. I could describe in great detail the procedures and the pain and suffering that everyone is subjected to in these situations. However, that is not the point of the post. We can all imagine that this is not something that we would wish on anyone. The point is that the pain and suffering were only mitigated by the compassion and competence of Dr. George Tiller and his staff. We are all diminished today for a host of reasons but most of all because a man of great compassion and courage has been lost to the world.
Reading stories like this one, stories about the termination of wanted pregnancies, pregnancies where the nurseries have been painted and the showers have been thrown, changed something in me. Not only did I become more ardently pro-choice (never again would I be fooled by any anti-choice canard whether the 'slut' who uses abortion instead of condoms or the 'slut' who gets tired of being pregnant at eight months so has a late term abortion so she can go to the bar) but I also realized that my own feminism was bigger than myself. 

I had experience with inequality in sport and in the work place, being talked down to and sexual harassment at school, at work and in public and that was what feminism was for me (with the knowledge that women in developing countries fared far worse). I am somewhat ashamed (although I needn't be, it was a necessary part of my journey to get where I am today) of some of the decidedly anti-feminist beliefs I held in the past (including the desire to not identify as a feminist and the old gem of preferring to have male friends because girls: yuck!) what I learned from reading about Dr Tiller and late-term abortion helped undo so much of the male supremacy thinking I had internalized. 

Dr Tiller's death and the service that he provided opened my eyes to the issues of bodily autonomy, to the maginalization of women's health, to the dangers that lurk for women and their allies when they assert their rights. I saw the mind-blowing hypocrisy and callousness of how the anti-choice movement worked to discredit women who had had abortions, how no harassment or fear mongering tactic was too low. That the frothing zealotry to protect 'life' extended only until that 'life' took its first gulp of air. I saw the deep misogyny in the anti-choice movement for the first time, beyond what I'd always assumed which was to just to tell women what to do. From there it became easier and easier to connect abortion to the rest of the oppressions women of all ages and stripes face. It didn't happen overnight (I continued to read Jezebel for a few more months), and I'll have to continue my work as an ally forever but I'm a far better person because of Dr Tiller and the brave women (and their partners) who shared their stories.

Now my feminism, while still taking into account my own experiences is about making better the experiences of my sisters: my sisters of other classes, who are differently abled, of different races and ethnicities. My trans sisters. My intersex sisters. My queer, lesbian, pansexual, asexual, straight sisters. My sisters from all parts of the world. Extroverted, introverted, funny, somber sisters. My sisters who are mothers, my sisters who don't care to ever be mothers. My sisters who are Rastafarian, Agnostic, Shinto, Christian, who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Wiccan, Mormon, Pagan, Atheist, who follow the Traditional Teachings, Sikh, Jains... My sisters who are very old and very young. My sisters who get abortions for noble reasons and my sisters who get abortions because they had unprotected sex. 

Because of Dr Tiller's bravery and dedication to providing dignity in health care to his patients while they were going through some of the worst times of their lives, all in the face of continual threats and harassment; because of his own patient's bravery in sharing their traumatic and heartbreaking stories, I decided to start fighting with and for all my sisters. 

Thank you Dr Tiller. Thank you so much for the peace you brought to so many women and families. For so many lives you saved because of the difficult work you did. Thank you for continuing your work after being shot, twice, once in each arm. Thank you for continuing after your clinic was firebombed. Thank you for continuing despite the daily harassment and death threats. Thank you for inspiring with your compassion, bravery and kindness of spirit.

Thank you and may you continue to rest in peace and love.  

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