Tuesday, June 02, 2009

On putting the "life" in "pro-life"

Okay, so everyone who doesn't live under a bridge, even those who don't particularly care, knows that Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller was gunned down Sunday in the foyer of his church. A controversial figure in the debate on reproductive health, Dr. Tiller was one of two providers in the entire country to perform abortions in the third trimester for women carrying fetuses with severe abnormalities, women whose lives were endangered by their pregnancy, and victims of child rape. He was shot and wounded at his clinic in 1993; on Sunday, Scott Roedert came back to finish the job.

Several issues arise from his murder, among them: Is it moral to murder a man you consider to be committing murder? What will be the impact of this crime on the anti-choice community? Is this the act of one man or the result of an entire culture? What happened to "life"?

One at a time:

Is it moral to murder a man you consider to be committing murder? The big argument from the anti-choice crowd is that fetuses in the third trimester are about as close to babies as you can get, and they're not entirely wrong. But in their claims that women get late-term abortions for frivolous reasons (the infamous "prom-dress abortion" comes to mind), they are unequivocally wrong. Current legislation limits third-trimester abortions to the aforementioned women who are carrying fetuses with severe abnormalities, women whose lives are endangered by their pregnancy, and victims of child rape, and doctors performing said abortions are required to document the medical necessity of the procedure. In that respect, it can be argued (if you believe that a fetus is equivalent to a born baby) that Dr. Tiller was not committing murder but defending the lives of his patients, which is defensible in court. That is one reason that despite numerous lawsuits by opponents, Dr. Tiller was never convicted of any crime: He wasn't committing one.

What will be the impact of this crime on the anti-choice community? Like I care. No, seriously, I do care, although not as much as I care about the impact on the pro-choice community. Dr. Tiller's murder deprived the country of one of the few providers willing and able to perform late-term abortions; this raises the question of whether the procedure will disappear entirely as providers fear for their lives or if providers will defiantly take up the mantle of performing this lifesaving service, as did Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who will be taking care of Dr. Tiller's patients at the clinic. So, yeah, my main concern is for the women whose lives have been saved by doctors like Dr. Tiller and whether those services will be available to women in desperate situations in the future.

That having been said, I do have some interest in the impact on the anti-choice community, in that their success would obviously be detrimental to pro-choice efforts. As reported by Jacqueline Salmon in the Washington Post's "God in Government" column, anti-choice groups have been coming out in droves to condemn the actions of Dr. Tiller's murderer, trying to distance themselves from an act that is deplorable to all but the most extreme anti-choicers, regardless of politics. Roedert's connection to groups like Operation Rescue obviously does significant damage to their purported defense of life and shifts them toward the "crazy fundamentalist" view of the reproductive-health spectrum in the eyes of many Americans. And while the fair part of me rallies against the unfairness of that generalization, the pragmatic part of me realizes how well that works for the rest of us.

(I can't miss the irony of Michelle Malkin's fear that lefties are going to try to score political points on the back of this tragedy and her concern for Dr. Tiller's grieving family. Because golly, she has been one of his only real advocates from the beginning, hasn't she. Besides, she would never try to score points on a tragedy like, for instance, Terry Schiavo, or school shootings. Some things are just beyond politicization.)

Is this the act of one man or the result of an entire culture? There's the big question. Obviously, the vast weight of responsibility falls directly on the shoulders of Scott Roedert, the man who fired the gun. But it's arguable that he wouldn't have gotten to that point were it not for an anti-choice culture that whips up such an extreme fervor in its supporters that taking a human life would be considered an inevitable step. Which is not to say that all, or even most, anti-choice groups support such actions; groups like the Family Research Council and the National Right to Life Committee pursue goals that are abhorrent to me, but for the most part they do encourage only legal actions from their supporters.

But there are vocal and powerful groups on that side that come as close to encouraging violence as is possible without coming out and saying it. Groups like the Army of God and Roedert's favorite Operation Rescue, who will get links from me over my dead body, the sons of bitches, regularly post the names and addresses of abortion providers and their families as well as businesses they frequent along with wanted posters and vague comments about the lengths one might go to to protect innocent lives and how something must be done. Randall Terry insists that pro-life leaders and the pro-life movement are not responsible for George Tiller’s death" (Dr. Tiller merely "reaped what he sowed") but his own program has facilitated violence against abortion providers right up to the line where they could be held responsible for it.

And that's what happens when, in your fervor, you begin to lose sight of your real goal and start to worship the movement itself. The anti-choice movement has become more about making a point than actually saving lives and making life easier for women with difficult pregnancies. It's about lining up and shouting at pregnant women going into abortion clinics, intimidating abortion providers, and characterizing those providers as "murderers" - in our legal system, people deserving of imprisonment and execution. When you embrace inflammatory language, characterize your mission as a crusade, demonize your opponents, and encourage actual physical intimidation tactics, your movement moves closer and closer to the consuming flames of extremism. When you encourage vandalism and even firebombing of clinics, you're right in the middle of them. By definition, the use of violence to intimidate and cause terror is terrorism, which is a favorite tactic of other extremist fundamentalist groups that we tend to villify.

And a note to the more legitimate (such as it is) arm of the anti-choice movement: If you find that you have to put out a press release to assure the public that you don't condone cold-blooded murder, you might be backing the wrong horse.

What happened to "life"? It's still sacred, right up to the point where you stick your head out of your mother's vagina. If you're a woman carrying a fetus with severe abnormalities, you're expected to subject it to a short life of unspeakable misery. If you're a woman whose very life is threatened by her pregnancy, you're expected to take one for the team, giving up your life for your baby's and possible leaving behind childen and a widower now responsible for caring for a newborn infant. If you're a victim of child rape, you're expected to carry your rapist's baby to term, leaving indelible scars on your body and your emotional health. And if you're a physician charged with the unenviable task of making those people's lives better through an unfortunate and difficult procedure, you're expected to take one in the chest from a religious extremist - a domestic terrorist - who values the life of a fetus over that of you or the families you care for.

Here's a person who valued life: Dr. George Tiller, who risked his life to save lives. He waded through mobs of clinic protesters, he braved bomb threats at his clinic and threats to his own life and the lives of his family, he even took bullets and went right back to work, because he knew the importance of what he was doing. He worked to support women and their families in some of the most difficult times of their lives, helping them not only medically but emotionally and spiritually with counseling, support groups, and even religious services for the child they lost. That is truly pro-life, and the world is worse for losing him. My condolences to his family, who saw him not as a political figure but as a husband and father and are now suffering the consequences of this terrorist act.

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