Thursday, October 25, 2012

My Journey to Pro-Choice

Someday I'd still like to write Dr. Tiller's biography...

From June 10, 2009:

Sometimes I worry about myself. Maybe I am going insane. I read today that the Jews brought insane people to Jesus, and he made them well. So if I am, there is still hope. I feel so much less insane these days!

Issues used to be so cut and dried. Life issues were so black and white. When I was a child, I thought and understood and spoke as a child. Maturity--thinking, understanding, and speaking in love--is much more difficult.

Since Dr. George Tiller's murder (by what folks are calling a "Christian terrorist"), my emotions have been mixed. I've heard him described as a monster, a murderer, a wicked man, brutal and greedy and selfish. The fact that he was handing out bulletins at his church (also my polling place!) just shook up the mental image I've always had. Why would a wicked man be in church? Serving and welcoming others? Most Sundays I can think of reasons not to go to church, but I go because of Jesus. Why was he there? Some would call it religious compensation to assuage deep-seated guilt. Was that it?  This year I finally realized that Jesus wasn't going to show up at church and quit going myself. 

So I started reading, piecing together information from both friends and foes, trying to figure out who this man was. And the results shocked me. All I knew was that he performed procedures few abortionists would attempt. I was unprepared to learn of a complex and deeply caring man who loved life and had a strong desire to help women. He acknowledged that life is a gift from God. Relationships were everything to him. His marriage had lasted for 40 years, he had strong bonds to his four children. He spent the week before his death enjoying DisneyWorld with his grandkids. He loved coffee, Star Trek, hiking and skiing in the mountains...

His professional colleagues had only praise for him, but what would you expect from fellow abortionists? They described his courage, his skill, his humility and his determination. But then there were the pages of women who spoke even more gratefully of his soft-spoken gentleness, his kindness, his generosity, his empathetic listening, and his respectful manner. He personally arranged adoptions and, with his wife, opened his home to young pregnant girls so that they could give birth to their babies.

Tiller saw the women and couples coming to his clinic as individuals, not statistics. Dr. Tiller gave hope to distraught parents and encouraged them to pray for miracles. He believed parents (particularly mothers) were capable of making complex medical decisions for their babies, and should be trusted to do so. In some cases, he actually refused to perform an abortion; sometimes he talked mothers out of having an abortion. Other times he waived the fee.

Certainly he performed many early elective abortions, but Tiller's specialty was late-term abortions. Those marginal cases most of us will be able to avoid our whole lives. He saw them every week. The worst situations from all over the country, and even from abroad. He was able to save the lives of many grateful women who went on to raise their families, or to bear more children later on. He also ended the lives of many babies with "fetal anomalies"--babies who could not survive birth or outside their mother's womb. To many physicians, the mother's body is viewed as a kind of life support, and not permitting the child to be delivered meant protecting it from a short and difficult life at the hands of medical technology after delivery. Scientific advances in prenatal diagnoses have certainly made the issues more complex. "Prenatal testing without prenatal choices is medical fraud," Tiller said. "Nature makes mistakes."

George Tiller didn't set out to perform abortions, he planned on dermatology. When his parents and sister died in a tragic plane crash, he got a discharge from the Navy and returned to Wichita to close his dad's medical practice. Instead, he ended up taking over the practice and caring for his grandmother and his infant nephew.

Only later did George Tiller find out that his dad had performed illegal abortions. It had not been a light decision, but was reached after one of his patients tragically died after seeking an abortion elsewhere. Now George had to decide what he would do.

Once abortion was legalized, some doctors realized that nothing would actually change (safety-wise) if physicians would not perform them. George Tiller felt he had a calling. Although he continued to see his regular patients in family practice, he began performing more and more abortions. He knew abortion was as a divisive a social issue as slavery or prohibition, but he believed "his 'gifts of understanding' helped him bring a service to women that aided them in making their dreams of a happy, healthy family a reality."

Like most young evangelicals, I was exposed to plenty of graphic pro-life propaganda. These led me to assume things about Dr. Tiller that I cannot find facts to back up. For example, he was anxious that the babies not feel pain. When Tiller spoke to desperate women, he knew they were not concerned about "tissue". He spoke to them about their BABIES. He wanted to help mothers, and couples, heal after a catastrophic loss. He recognized that the severing of the maternal relationship was devastating. Some of these babies were desperately wanted, even the results of fertility treatment. Women at his clinic were given the option to see and hold their stillborn babies, and he reported that about 50% did so. The infant was washed and the family could spend a few hours together--family photos with the baby were offered. I have worked for Christian ministries that were far less sensitive.

I hope to meet Dr. Tiller in heaven. I hope he is in the presence of Jesus. That's where my theology gets confused. Is he with the souls of the infants he prematurely removed from the womb? What would they say when introduced? What is Jesus telling him? George Tiller was certainly persecuted for his work--what he considered his "calling". Not many of us would have the inner strength to spend every day with distraught pregnant women. He saw the neediest--the poor, the abused, the incredibly young, the naive, the sick, the grieving, the exhausted, those who had lost hope--and he extended mercy and hope in the best way he knew. All despite constant threats and harassment to himself, his property, and his family, including being shot in both arms in an assassination attempt. Where did he find the strength to keep going? Dr. Tiller is an inspiration to me, even if I don't expect to meet him, or miscarried embryos, or my dear grandparents, anywhere again. His spirit lives on in the brave women and men now attempting to reopen an abortion clinic in Wichita.

Ultimately, Dr. George Tiller's defense of abortion stemmed from his belief in equality and freedom for women. He saw the tendency of male-dominated societies to subjugate women, and felt that allowing birth control--and abortion--prevented women from being controlled by men and being overwhelmed by child-rearing responsibilities they did not choose. Tiller's words: "We believe that women have more worth and more value beyond their biological reproductive support function for a fertilized egg, embryo, fetus, child, baby, call it whatever you have - - call it whatever you wish. Women have more value beyond their biological reproductive support capacity." I wish I'd understood this sooner. I wish the whole world could understand this!

"Dr. Tiller always used to say that women are under the most stress at two times in their lives: when they are pregnant and don't want to be, and when they want to be and can't." He spent his life trying to help women by ending the lives of their unborn offspring. The women themselves had a variety of motives for seeking him out. Some look back on him gratefully, others with regret. But his own motivation appears consistent through the decades, sincere, and even. . . good. A wise man.

When I was 15, I won $50 for articulating the anti-abortion position in a 5-minute speech. Growing up in a Quiverfull household, I looked forward to my motherhood role and looked down my teenage nose at couples with fewer than 4 children. In my single 20's, I found some comfort in the ticking of my biological clock. Despite a deplorable ignorance of family planning, I still hoped to avoid exploring the limits of my reproductive capacity. (Ah, seeds of disintegration!)

Now I wrestle with these issues again. When does a human life form, distinct from its mother? Does the well-being of a woman take priority over that of her unborn baby? Is a human embryo, with its unique qualities that are very different from those of a developed person, simply an undeveloped person? Who should make choices for unborn children? Should mothers be trusted? Should fathers?? Does nature make mistakes? Who is Nature??

The more deeply I explore this subject, the greater my respect for the minds that chose the words Barack Obama has repeated often: "Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare."

"You have heard that it was said to the people in the old days,'Thou shalt not murder', and anyone who does so must stand his trial. But I say to you that anyone who is angry with his brother must stand his trial; anyone who contemptuously calls his brother a fool must face the supreme court; and anyone who looks down on his brother as a lost soul is himself heading straight for the fire of destruction." --Jesus (Matthew 5:21-22)

"Happy are the merciful, for they will have mercy shown to them."

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