It’s been years since I’ve been as shocked by an assassination as I was by today’s cold-blooded murder of Dr. George Tiller. I’d followed Dr. Tiller’s career since his town of Wichita, Kansas, became “ground zero” for the anti-abortion movement in the early 1990s; I knew he had been shot before, faced harassment and death threats. I knew he had also persevered with quiet dignity to provide late-term abortions and other reproductive services to women in his community and from across the country, often at little or no cost. I knew he was tops on the “target list” for those who were willing to kill abortion providers. And yet I was still stunned and heartsick when I saw the news this morning.
But here’s one thing I didn’t know. Dr. Tiller was a Christian, active in his local Lutheran church. It was at that church where he died this morning, ushering just as he had done on countless Sundays before. I had no reason to suspect he wasn’t a church-goer, of course. As a Christian who has wrestled mightily with my own views on abortion before coming to what is today a staunchly pro-choice position, I know full well that it is possible to believe in a loving sovereign God (as the Calvinists always put it) and to believe in a woman’s sovereignty over her own flesh. (I belong to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and have heard that good Dr. Tiller did as well.) Dr. Tiller gave hope and comfort to women who were often in desperate, medically dangerous situations; far from being a craven Dr. Death, he was a gentle, dignified man who did what he did out of a profound commitment.
That commitment was to his patients, but it was also clearly to his faith. He had faced death so many times, faced trials and lawsuits and threat after threat. Where did he find the strength and the courage to continue to do what he did? Did he find it in a sense of an ethical obligation to women who had nowhere else to turn? Certainly. Did he also find it in his belief in a loving God who had called him to do something hard, something that many would not understand, something that would cause him to risk his very life? I suspect he did. Lutherans are famous for their sense of “calling”; it was Luther himself who first began to emphasize the idea that each of us has a “calling”, a vocation, outside of our role in the church. And it was another Lutheran, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote the famous Cost of Discipleship, with its devastating line: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Bonhoeffer, of course, was martyred by the Nazis for many reasons, not least because he stood up for the dignity of creation in the face of the monstrous evil that was the Third Reich. George Tiller was martyred today, not least because he stood — and stood publicly and openly — for the God-given dignity of women in the face of a movement that seeks to deny women their full humanity.
(I am well aware that today, some loathsome folks have dared compare Tiller’s murderer to Bonhoeffer; the latter, of course, was involved in the plot to kill Hitler. Some see abortion as akin to the Shoah, and an attack on Tiller as akin to the less-successful one on Hitler. But these bloggers have it back-to-front. It was Tiller himself who was far more like the gentle German pastor, and his assassin far more akin to those who martyred him.)
According to the Wikipedia entry on his life, Dr. Tiller had originally planned to be a dermatologist. Few emergencies or controversies in dermatology, after all; his life would have an easy and untroubled one, no doubt far more lucrative to boot.* But something changed, as he himself said:
In July of 1970, I planned to start a dermatology residency. On August 21, 1970, my father, mother, sister and brother-in-law were killed in an aircraft accident. My sister had a 12-month-old boy, Maurice. They had written out a will in longhand the evening before the airplane crash, that I was to raise Maurice. So we took charge of my sister’s boy and we moved back to Wichita. My game plan was to spend six months here, close out my father’s huge family medicine practice.
We Christians know a lot about game plans. As we say, if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans. Tiller:
And I found out that in 1945, ’46, or ’47, a young woman for whom Dad had already delivered two babies came to him pregnant again right away, and she said something to the effect that, “I can’t take it, can you help me?” That is apparently the way you asked for an abortion from your regular doctor before abortion was legal. Dad said, “No. Big families are in vogue, by the time the baby gets here, everything will be all right.” She had a non-healthcare provider abortion and came back and died.
I can understand how upset my father was. I do not know whether he did 100 abortions or 200 abortions or 300 abortions. I think it may have been something like 200 over a period of about 20 years, but I don’t know for sure. The women in my father’s practice for whom he did abortions educated me and taught me that abortion is about women’s hopes, dreams, potential, the rest of their lives. Abortion is a matter of survival for women.
When it became legal and my patients began to ask for it, I’d say, “Sure. It’s a legal process.” I was a service provider. I was a physician. The patients needed abortions, and I did them. It is my fundamental philosophy that patients are emotionally, mentally, morally, spiritually and physically competent to struggle with complex health issues and come to decisions that are appropriate for them.
Bold emphases mine. God didn’t want George Tiller doing facial peels, removing basal cells, and comforting the be-pimpled. God had something else in mind for him, something that in the end George was one of the few to do. Dr. Tiller heard a call in the midst of a family tragedy, and answered it. He lived and — died — in a very Lutheran way. Christ called Him, and George said “yes.”
George Tiller died today while ushering. Ushers quietly and unassumingly help folks to find their place in God’s house. Ushers, in many churches, are the first to tell a visiting newcomer that he or she is welcome. Dr. Tiller did that at his church on Sunday mornings, and he did it at his clinic all week long when he welcomed in women who had nowhere else to turn. And he was murdered in cold blood today as he did this precious work. I have not peeked at the Lamb’s Book of Life; but I say this with all the certainty that my rebirth in Christ has given me: I think George Tiller’s name is in that book, and that he has been welcomed today with love and rejoicing on the far side of the Jordan.
When I first heard the news, I prayed. I got angry, very angry. And then I donated money, as that seemed the only tangible way I had at my disposal to strike back against this act of evil, this killing of a righteous man who knew how to do what was needed in the face of so much danger and hatred. I give monthly to Planned Parenthood, but at Heather Corinna‘s suggestion, gave a large donation today to the National Abortion Federation. I gave a smaller donation to Medical Students for Choice, which works to raise up the next generation of abortion providers. I gave in memory of Dr. Tiller, of course, but also in the name of my wife, my daughter, my mother, my sisters, and all of the women in my life. As I’ve written before, any lingering sense I had that I might still place a foot in the anti-choice camp ended the day I saw my wife give birth to our daughter. I pray that my daughter will never be in the situation that so many of Dr. Tiller’s patients were in. But if she should be, I pray a doctor of his decency and caliber will be there for her.
Please check out a list that Jill has put together at Feministe. Many suggestions for where to give in Dr. Tiller’s name, and more in the comments.
Any comments here suggesting that what was done today was somehow justified will obviously be deleted.
I am George Tiller. If you support the thug who killed the good doctor, know that I stand with Dr. Tiller and give time and money to support his work. Come for me. And if you stand for a woman’s right to choose, even if it is a hard choice, then say it and repeat it: I am George Tiller. They can’t shoot us all.
*Update: Having had time to sleep on this post, I stand by all of it — save my unfair mischaracterization of dermatologists. I have dear friends who are dermatologists, and they do far more than I suggested in this piece. My apologies.