On Sunday, May 31, 2009, morning worship services at Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas had just began. Dr. George Tiller, an usher at the church, was handing out bulletins to parishioners as they entered when local activist Scott Roeder approached Tiller from behind and shot him in the side of the head, killing him instantly. This was the end of an intensely controversial career of Dr. Tiller. For years, Dr. Tiller was one of the very, very, very few doctors in America that would perform “late-term abortions” or abortions that take place during the latter part of the 2nd trimester of a pregnancy and after(18< weeks). Inheriting his father’s clinic upon his death in 1970, Tiller left his dermatology residency to continue the practice after learning of a woman who died from an illegal abortion, which of course at the time prior to Roe v Wade was only legal in certain cases, no matter the time. It would not be long after that Tiller’s clinic became the focal point of anti-abortion activist nationwide that saw him as one of the gravest threats to life allowing to operate in America. Other than the daily protest outside, the clinic was firebombed in 1986. Tiller himself was shot five times in 1993 by activist Shelley Shannon. All of this was done in an effort to prevent Tiller from performing any further abortions and by their belief saving the lives of those that would come to his clinic.
Despite the completely interesting questions of moral absolutes that come to mind when one is trying to do a right by doing a wrong in of itself, Shannon and ultimately Roeder held the belief that what Tiller was doing not just murder, but because of his willingness to perform abortions late-term, they believed his actions to be barbaric enough that further action needed to be taken to stop him. It was as simple as he committing murder and those being murdered had to be protected. It was black and white, no equivocation, an absolute belief. Unfortunately, there are absolutes in the human experience that isn’t visibly seen.
For hundreds of years, the absolutism of abortion wasn’t what you may think. Before 1973, our laws dictating abortion were actually rooted in English Common Law, which said abortion was not permitted after quickening. “Quickening”, historically derived from “quick” also known at the time as “alive”, which established fetal movement as the demarcation of when abortion could be performed for a given reason. This guidance set the laws for early America as well, which varied state by state. However, it wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th Century that women began to recognize their personal individuality and gender. They began to enter the workforce and own property. And by the turn of the century, the sensation known as “feminism” had arrived in the United States and began influencing popular society. Women gained voting rights, pay equity and the idea of birth control and family planning also begin to gain acceptance. This would include the right to have abortion. Prior to the rise of feminism, abortion was seen as a societal ill. Whether it was a sterilization view or a “punishment” men would force upon women who had an unwanted conception. It wasn’t until this time in American society that the campaign to link women’s rights to issues of morality began to surface.
For the next four decades, along with the expansion of medical sciences, the issue of birth control became less of a social issue but more of a religious issue. By the 1970s, when the fight for civil rights and human rights reached its peak, women started to believe that in order have full equal rights that meant having full control of their own bodies and everything in it, specifically their reproductive ability. These themes would control the abortion debate in each individual state until 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court made it’s decision on Roe vs Wade, declaring abortion, a Right to Privacy, legal during the first two trimesters of a preganacy(24 weeks) prior to the viability of a fetus to live on it’s own apart from the mother.
This decision, however, did not end the abortion debate, but arguably intensified it. Over the last 43 years, the Pro-Life movement in the United States has gained strength in response to changes in Abortion Law. Last week saw the latest salvo launched in this battle during the 2016 Presidential Debate when Secretary Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were asked about Roe vs Wade and their intentions for protecting the rights of women. Hillary Clinton had to explain her defense of her stance against a ban of “Partial Birth Abortion”, which of course Donald Trump characterized as terrible that she supports “ripping” a baby out of the womb prior to birth, which of course wasn’t what she said.
When the U.S. Supreme Court made it’s decision in Roe v. Wade, abortion was made legal in all 50 states prior to the point of viability, which has been medically stated at 28 weeks, but the law extended to 24 weeks. Despite the fact that virtually all abortions are done prior to 13 weeks, the anti-abortion rhetoric and activism espoused by Donald Trump and the like continued to focus on clinics like that of George Tiller due to his willingness to perform abortions well after, often late in the 2nd trimester and even into the 3rd trimester. If you’re reading this and are doing basic math you’re probably thinking that due to the Supreme Court’s decision, Dr. Tiller is admittedly performing abortions post 24 weeks, which is supposed to be illegal, right? I mean even the most liberal of liberals who think abortion should be legal to the age of six will readily admit that this is a child at the 2nd and 3rd trimester. However, what the pro-life side won’t tell you or could even begin to realize about those that are pro-choice is that there is virtually NO support for late-term abortions. Even the most conservative of polls taken shows 84% of Americans oppose abortion after the 1st trimester, that’s 12 weeks. And 7 of 10 of that 84% would identify themselves as pro-choice. It drops far less by the end of the 2nd trimester to an irrelevancy of support. But these were the abortions being done by Dr. George Tiller.
Would anyone like to know why?
If you’re daring and have a few tissues handy, read a story from one of Dr. Tiller’s patients:
“In 1994, my wife and I found out that she was pregnant. The pregnancy was difficult and unusually uncomfortable but her doctor repeatedly told her things were fine. Sometime early in the 8th month, my wife, an RN who at the time was working in an infertility clinic asked the doctor she was working for what he thought of her discomfort. He examined her and said that he couldn’t be certain but thought that she might be having twins. We were thrilled and couldn’t wait to get a new sonogram that hopefully would confirm his thoughts. Two days later, our joy was turned to unspeakable sadness when the new sonongram showed conjoined twins. Conjoined twins alone is not what was so difficult but the way they were joined meant that at best only one child would survive the surgery to separate them and the survivor would more than likely live a brief and painful life filled with surgery and organ transplants. We were advised that our options were to deliver into the world a child who’s life would be filled with horrible pain and suffering or fly out to Wichita, Kansas and to terminate the pregnancy under the direction of Dr. George Tiller.”
He went on to say that he can only imagine the pain a woman who happily carries a child for EIGHT months only to find out she had to make a decision to go against everything she believed and wanted. That’s actually really heartbreaking. Almost as heartbreaking as this:
“A routine ultrasound on October 26-meant to be a time of great joy, revealed terrible news: one of the twins had died, probably about a week before. We went from the ultrasound appointment to my obstetrician’s office and were met with even more grim news. My weight had spiked up about 18 pounds, my blood pressure was soaring, and I had protein in my urine… After that, everything happened very quickly. I was put on medication in an attempt to treat [preeclampsia] and save the remaining twin until he reached outside-the-womb viability- a mere two weeks away. But I got much worse overnight; my blood pressure couldn’t be controlled, I had a massive headache and was vomiting uncontrollably. My kidneys shutdown. I was moments away from seizures, coma and death when the doctors came and told us the bad news: my remaining twin could not be saved. My pregnancy had to be terminated or both the baby and I would die.”
This patient, after being advised to have a “partial birth abortion” that would be less stress to her body than an induced pregnancy, she felt abandoned by God with a “gulf of grief” and emptiness like of which she has never felt before. I can’t even begin to imagine what this mother was feeling. It’s actually pretty similar to another patient who had two partial birth abortions due to a genetic abnormality she had, which caused her twin babies to develop without faces and no way to eat or breathe. As a twin myself those stories are probably a lot harder for me to write than it is for you to read. But those born without a twin aren’t free of tragedy. Another patient describes her account during her pregnancy:
“I could feel my baby’s dead body inside of mine. This baby had thrilled me with kicks and flutters, those first soft tickles of life bringing a smile to my face and my hand to my rounding belly. Now this baby floated, limp and heavy, from one side to the other, as I rolled in my bed. And within a day, I started to bleed. My body, with or without a doctor’s help was starting to expel the fetus. Technically, I was threatening a spontaneous abortion, the least safe of the available options.”
None of these women could even dream about wanting an abortion when they first realized they were pregnant. The happiest moment of their lives has turn to one of the worst decisions they would ever have to make. I’m not going to pretend that the majority of abortions are excruciating stories of stillborn babies, malformed children and infants born with abbreviated yet short and agonizing lives, but that is exactly why we don’t live in a world of absolutes. What the pro-life movement will often repeat is their blanket reasoning that women choose to have an abortion are doing so out of selfish or frivolous reasoning. The reality is, that’s hardly ever the case.
During last week’s debate, Hillary Clinton said that in many cases, particularly in those cases of late-term or partial birth, are some of the worst decisions any women and her family have to make. She went on to say that she’s been to countries around the world that forces women to have abortions or even forces them to bear children, unwanted or otherwise. In either case, these are not decisions that should be forced upon women by government. Moreover, even in the minds of those who see abortion as an absolute are not without exception. 9 of 10 that identify as pro-life would even allow for abortion in cases of rape, incest or to save the mother’s life. This is why we have the law. Life is never absolute. These aren’t easy decisions, nor should they be. Especially when one’s happiness turns into unspeakable tragedy. But given our current level of debate, we can’t even talk about those truly unfortunate cases, let alone be able to provide for those in need. Those conversations always end before they even begin.