All of us who work at clinics that provide abortion, or as abortion or reproductive rights educators or advocates know we do so at substantial risk. Women who come to our clinics as clients also know that they, too, may be at risk. The slaying of Dr. Tiller yesterday is tragic and upsetting, but it is not surprising or new. We didn’t become scared for the first time yesterday. We’ve always been scared, and we have always had cause to be scared.
The independent clinic I work for part-time had a branch firebombed three times in 1983 until it shut down. In 1988, via Operation Rescue, unending and intense harassment of children from demonstrators in another of our clinics forced us to close our on-site clinic childcare center for clients and staff. And our clinic, despite being one of the 40 or so in the U.S. which provides procedures through the second trimester like Tiller's did (though Tiller’s was one of but three to go past 25 weeks to 28 weeks, the legal limit), could very well be counted as one which has it easy. We haven't had an incident of violence for some time, most days we have but a few protestors, and we do not wear Kevlar to work. None of our providers have been murdered. Yet.
But all of us who work in the field live either with the threat or actuality of domestic antiabortion terrorism daily: at work, at home or anywhere at all. Let's refuse sugarcoating or denials that merely call it violence or paint it as random or isolated: what happens around abortion is not the same violence as someone shot during a minimart robbery.
Terrorism is generally defined as an act intended to create fear, perpetrated for an ideological goal. The Patriot Act is not something I support, but antiabortion violence fits squarely in its definition of domestic terrorism. Vandalizing or bombing clinics; stalking, threatening or harassing staff, clients or providers and/or organizing or aiding others to do so; publicly publishing the home addresses of providers or staff, names, photos and school addresses of their children; outcries for a war: all of this and more could be easily classed as terrorism by the definitions our government has used for other violence or threats.
The murder of Dr. George Tiller at his church yesterday morning -- based on the information we have so far – was domestic terrorism, and terrorism which has been known and prevalent for some time.
It’s been going on in the United States since we have had legal abortion, and typically increases during times when our federal government is not outright antiabortion. As Christina Page points out, the number of harassing phone calls to clinics since Obama took office has massively increased. She also notes that the murder of Dr. Tiller is eerily similar to the murder of Dr. David Gunn in 1993: that, too, happened only a few months into a new administration which was not antiabortion. Dr. Tiller was also shot the first time in that same year. Rachel Maddow gives a good overview of the history of clinic violence here.
Some antichoice groups will call Tiller’s assailant a vigilante. But for those who use incendiary speech, who provided him with the information and comraderie that fueled him, it's going to be tough to uphold that stance with anyone of intelligence. We all have freedom of speech, to be sure, but as with any freedom, that comes with responsibility.
Current Operation Rescue president Troy Newman says they denounce vigilantism, but the raging enticements provided en masse through their organization has always told a different tale. The organization’s founder, Randall Terry, says his movement “should not tone down its rhetoric despite the killing of abortion doctor George Tiller,” and that Tiller was "a mass murderer and horrifically, he reaped what he sowed."
When someone like Bill O’Reilly provocatively says again and again and again, that an abortion provider is a butcher who the law refuses to punish (nevermind that abortion is legal), when he calls abortion "execution" or talks about providers as those who "kill babies for money," (as if all surgeries did not cost money); calls abortion clinics "death mills," or reports (falsely) that Tiller will terminate pregnancies up to the due-date, he is NOT denouncing vigilantism, just like someone constantly and intentionally pouring gasoline on rising flames is not denouncing fire.
This kind of rhetoric and harassment and the fear it creates is something we’re faced with every day. And it has serious impact, even when no one is murdered.
It purposefully scares, intimidates and upsets the women who come to our clinics. It intentionally clouds their decision-making. If one reproductive choice may or does involve things like being harassed, stalked or assaulted, you’re obviously going to take that into consideration in your a choice, even though fear or harassment should have no place in choices as important, personal and complex as those of reproduction. Even for those unswayed by these actions, abortion in a context of shame and blame can make a choice one’d otherwise felt was best one of guilt and remorse.
The threat of harassment and violence can even keep women from coming to clinics when they were not seeking out abortion services at all. Here in the states, clinics like mine are where many women – particularly low-income, immigrant and teen women -- also get their well-woman care, contraception or pregnancy tests, as many women are without health insurance or a private OB/GYN.
The threats, intimidation, vandalism and assault and the fear of them makes staffing clinics difficult, and make a job which is already emotionally demanding far tougher. Anyone getting any kind of surgery ideally needs a centered, relaxed and stable staff and a safe environment during their surgery: that’s no minor feat in this culture. Clinic staff work long hours, often at low pay and with few or limited benefits. Even without clinic violence or the threat of it, it’s not an easy job: abortion isn’t just any surgery, and as with anything to do with the end of a pregnancy, whether it tends in termination or a live birth, our clients emotional needs can be great.
With all of this violence and intimidation so constant and pervasive, and with the actuality of the job itself often being less-than-ideal, why do so many of us stick around?
We stay because we know that women need us to. Many of us have been those women ourselves at one time or another. We know from women: we understand our own needs. And we’re scared sometimes, but not scared enough to leave women without choice and care.
A sign at Tiller’s clinic read, “Abortion is not a cerebral or a reproductive issue. Abortion is an issue of the heart. Until one understands the heart of a woman, nothing else about abortion makes any sense at all.” Dr. Tiller knew us, too. No one going back to work a day after having both arms shot, knowing it could happen again, is going to take that risk for cash or because they want to win. Only someone who cares deeply for and about women, and has a very real grasp of the realities of women’s lives, is going to do that.
Obviously, the threat of something is not the same as that threat made real. Some of the shared upset the reproductive health and abortion communities have right now is because we do feel even more unsafe than usual. For those who knew Dr. Tiller personally, their personal loss is profound. But even for those of us who never met him or were not close to him, even for those fear has not increased, the loss is enormous.
It's obviously important for the women receiving abortion and other reproductive healthcare to have as fantastic a doctor as possible, but it's also very important for those of us working in the field to have our Dr. Tillers.
Like any field of practice, abortion has those who are adequate (and some less-than-adequate), some who are very good, and a few who are simply exceptional. Dr. Tiller wasn't just any doctor; just any abortion provider or advocate: he was an exceptional and inspirational doctor, provider and advocate. He was someone who set and held high standards of care, a quality of healthcare we all want to receive, especially when we are in crisis. He chose to work with some of the toughest cases; to include providing for a group of women with some of the greatest emotional needs, women who also had few other places to turn, despite that choice creating additional risks for him and resulting in greater harassment. His commitment to helping women never wavered in over thirty years of his practice. Just like anyone in any field, we have our heroes, and we all looked up to George Tiller. Just like anyone in any field, having our heroes assassinated is devastating, particularly when they are assassinated for being so exceptional.
Ginny Cassidy-Brinn, an ANRP and the author of Woman-Centered Pregnancy and Birth, works at my clinic, and is someone I look up to the way I have Dr. Tiller. I want to leave you with words she shared with me yesterday. I think they’re the way Dr. Tiller would want us to best use our sadness or fear and the way he so bravely used his own. I think they are what those of us in the field, as well as those who want to understand or support us or the women we serve, need to hear.
Like anyone who knew him even slightly, I know that he was very brave. He faced so much hatred on a daily basis: he knew the risks he was taking. But he simply thought that women's being allowed to decide whether to carry a pregnancy or not was an essential, basic human right. So, he continued despite the attacks and threats. He was diligent in protecting himself, -- I don't think he had any desire to be a martyr -- but he continued. He was very careful as a physician: using the safest, best techniques. He did a lot to foster communication amongst abortion providers to make abortion safer.
I keep thinking about the old Joe Hill quote, "Don't mourn, organize." I intend to mourn, but I also intend to carry on his legacy--to try to be as brave, loving, politically savvy and competent in my work as he was. And to try, to the best of my ability, to inspire others as well.
Originally published at The Guardian, June 3rd, 2009