Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Remembering Dr. Tiller

Today marks two years since Dr. George Tiller was killed in Wichita, Kansas. One of the few physicians in the United States that would publicly identify as a late-term abortion provider, Dr. Tiller had survived an earlier assassination attempt and countless incidents of harassment before Scott Roeder entered Dr. Tiller’s church and shot him.

The past two years have brought a contentious health-care battle, a sustained threat to defund Planned Parenthood, and an avalanche of legislative measures aimed at restricting abortion access all over the country. Nebraska and Indiana have banned abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy; Minnesota is working on a similar measure. Texas recently passed a bill requiring that women see a sonogram 24 hours before being allowed to have an abortion. South Dakota’s House of Representatives has approved a bill that requires women to visit a crisis pregnancy center before they can obtain abortion care.

This relentless onslaught of anti-choice legislation has been the subject of much attention because of what it says about individual politicians and state governments, not to mention the federal budget. But as the anniversary of Dr. Tiller’s death approaches, now is also the time to consider the effect of such strident and relentless legislation on the next generation of abortion providers.

Abortion is one of the most common medical procedures in the United States; approximately one-third of American women will have had an abortion by the age of 45. Yet according to the Guttmacher Institute, 87 percent of counties in this country do not have an abortion provider. The non-profit organization Medical Students for Choice reports that 97 percent of family planning residents and 36 percent of OB/GYN residents have not received training in first-trimester abortion procedures.

Even with the appropriate training, this work can be incredibly isolating. Not only are these physicians often the sole abortion provider in their communities, but they can also be ostracized and ignored by their colleagues in other fields. Relatively few providers operate within a mainstream practice group or hospital—while private OB/GYNs may perform abortions for established patients, they are generally the exception rather than the rule—and providers working at independent clinics don’t always have the chance to explore other medical interests outside of abortion care.

Yet even with these very real concerns, medical students and providers have instinctively grasped something that has eluded a large number of politicians: abortion is about so much more than ending a pregnancy. Sometimes it’s about keeping a college scholarship. Sometimes it’s about saying goodbye to a very wanted child that has been diagnosed with very severe fetal anomalies. Sometimes it’s about making the best decision for the children that a mother already has. And sometimes it’s about saving a woman’s life, even as providers are putting their own lives at risk.

“Do I think about safety? Of course,” a California physician and pro-choice activist told me shortly after Dr. Tiller’s death. “I think of my wife, and I think of my future. But I also think of my future patients. I am an abortion provider. And I will continue to provide full reproductive healthcare to every one of my patients.”

His resolve is shared by providers, residents, and medical students across the country. This resolve is all the more impressive considering that abortion providers are the only physicians in this country who routinely need to hire bodyguards, worry about their children’s schools being picketed, and wear bulletproof vests to work. As one Southern clinic owner summed it up, “It’s a shame to have to provide medical care in a war zone.”

The newest generation of providers is going into this war zone with their eyes wide open. They came of age in the 1990s, a decade in which seven people were murdered because they worked in the pro-choice field, and numerous clinics were vandalized, picketed, and even bombed. And the lesson they have drawn from all this—even Dr. Tiller’s murder—is one of courage, not fear.

“I think it would insult the memory of George Tiller for me to quit doing this because he got shot,” a New England OB/GYN told me in the summer of 2009. “I’m going to keep doing what I want to do. I’m going to do more.”

This post originally appeared on Feminists for Choice.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful. All things that I've had to think through in considering becoming an abortion provider after medical school. I don't want to be a martyr, but if no one is brave enough to perform the necessary procedure, then the fight will be lost.