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Hello Birmingham Wichita – Words From A Blogger Who Still Isn’t Sure What To Say

June 1, 2009

I am rarely at a loss for words. I’m still processing the murder of Dr. George Tiller, while having Ani’s Hello Birmingham (to which the post title is a reference) as a constant earworm. And yet, I feel compelled to add my words to those of writers more prepared and eloquent than myself, if only to grow the chorus of those saying, “No. This, we will not stand for.”

I’m troubled by the act not just because of the murder itself, but because of the vile comments I’ve seen online in response since the incident. A decade ago, at the time of the last provider murder, we didn’t have Twitter. We weren’t online in the same way we are today. There weren’t so many easy venues for people to say things like “We reap what we sew. Justice was served” and “George Tiller had some nerve going to church.” Other disgusting comments have been rounded up here, and more are pouring in through Twitter on a pretty constant basis.

I want to call them all out, respond to each one who is saying such terrible things, but that’s not productive, and it would be beating my head against a brick wall. I’m placating myself by taking another look at this comic – “someone is wrong on the internet,” and I can’t fix that all by myself.

There are other comments that are less appalling on their face, but also represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation. One, for example, argued that the pro-choice are upset about the murder, while the pro-abortion are asking who will replace Tiller. The latter, however is not a reflection of a desire to have more late term abortions – which are extremely uncommon and usually performed in wanted pregnancies for health/life reasons – but out of recognition that Dr. Tiller was one of the few clinic providers of these procedures in the whole country. Women with wanted pregnancies that turn life-threatening, women who find out that the fetus they are carrying cannot survive, now have one fewer doctor to turn to. Who will replace Tiller is in a very real way a question of whether choice will be preserved.

Of course, clinic violence, violence against providers, is very specifically intended to reduce choice. This act doesn’t just remove one of the handful of providers of late term abortions. It terrorizes providers all over the country, it reminds them that their fate could be the same. It discourages medical students from learning and later offering the procedure in favor of less threatening specialties. It is intended to do exactly this.

I’ve seen other comments that this act – which anti-choice groups are largely denouncing as the act of one lone crazy – will lead to “assault” on those who are against abortion, will lead to the “persecution” of Christians, will lead to Democrats “politicizing” the issue. I can only splutter at that. Dr. Tiller had his clinic bombed, was shot, was stabbed, and finally was murdered – all with an intent to terrorize beyond this one man – and somehow it’s the anti-choice who ought to be fearful?

Others are making factually incorrect statements about late term abortions, representing erroneous understandings of when and why they are usually performed, arguing that Tiller never “helped” any women, etc. etc. Anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that abortion can, in some cases, save the lives of women (and in others, remove the fetal life that is already lost) simply doesn’t have the facts. It’s also a fact that women in their third trimester of pregnancy can’t just mosey up to a clinic and get an abortion because they feel like it. Somehow I don’t think we’re arguing about facts here.

I also don’t know what to say to people who see fully grown adult human beings as completely equivalent to fetuses, who lament the lack of mourning for the fetuses in the abortions Dr. Tiller performed. It’s a fundamental disagreement, and one for which the two sides are unlikely to find the much-revered “common ground.” I recognize an inherent conflict when one being resides inside another with the potential to cause harm, a conflict that is not present for an individual, adult man. I know how I would answer the hypothetical question about saving 100 frozen embryos vs. one 5-year-old from a fire – make it a million frozen embryos, and my answer doesn’t change. When I see tweets contrasting X number of aborted fetuses vs one man murdered, to say, effectively, “yeah, well, he killed this many, so big deal” I wonder – how many murders are enough? What’s the right ratio of dead adults to dead fetuses to create justice, to sate the desire for vengeance on display here?

It’s hard, in the face of wave after wave of comments along these lines, to look at them all as coming from individuals, as being just a person here and a person there with whom I would disagree. I can only see the same erroneous information about late term abortions repeated and repeated and repeated so many times before it starts to feel less like individual people with happenstance misinformation versus the result of years of campaigns that deliberately gave them that misunderstanding in the first place – the popular notions/misconceptions, about “partial birth” abortion, about abortion and breast cancer or abortion and mental health, they came from somewhere. While the suspect may have come to this irrational decision to act on his own, it’s hard to read it as completely independently of the misinformation, the bloody banners and trucks and posters often employed in protests, the language of those who feel qualified to decide when murder in a church is justice and how many dead providers make up for X dead fetuses, the politicians who use abortion to rally the base, and the pundits who use it as a wedge to drive ratings.

The suspect should certainly stand alone accused for his actions, and there are certainly many, many anti-choice/pro-life folks (the majority of them, I’m sure) who simply disagree and are willing to disagree in sensible and non-violent ways, but I think we also need to acknowledge that those who are making comparisons to Saddam Hussein, that those who are shouting about “baby killers” and “death mills” and “these people” (an othering technique) are using extreme words intended to get people riled up. No, it’s not a monolith. No, we shouldn’t blame all of the social conservative or anti-choice or Republicans for Tiller’s murder (and I have yet to see anyone do so, despite the defensiveness I’ve already seen on the matter). In a nuanced world, we can acknowledge that all of things – the individual action, the peaceful abortion opposition, and the violent nutjobs – co/exist in separate and sometimes overlapping ways, and we can resist the push toward extremist rhetoric and simplistic, uninformed soundbites and 140 character asshattery. We owe that to the people whose lives we would take into our hands in this debate.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2009 10:53 pm

    I found this post searching for the song Hello Birmingham. Not what I was looking for, but I’m glad I found it. It’s a tragic, inspiring, beautiful song and unfortunately it’s become relevent again.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one upset by the awful comments people were tweeting yesterday!

  2. June 2, 2009 5:13 am

    Thank you for this post

  3. MomTFH permalink
    June 2, 2009 7:26 am

    Great post.

    One of my biggest issues with the way abortion is discussed, especially since Tiller’s death but just in general, is all of the misinformation, and I am glad you mentioned that. Anti-choice groups and individuals have to lie, repeatedly, to get people to agree with them. Then they believe their own lies and spread them.

    Elective abortions are not available anywhere in the United States after viability. Nowhere. No one performs them.
    Dr. Tiller was acquitted on all ridiculous, lying counts of performing illegal abortions past viability.
    Late term abortions are incredibly rare and are due to overwhelming medical circumstances. Conjoined twins. Anencephaly. Dead fetus that will not deliver on its own.

    I could never, ever walk around with a burgeoning belly and have strangers walk up to me and say “Oooh, is it your first? Can I touch your belly? Is it a boy or a girl?” or any other inane comments if I had a deformed fetus or one that was not compatible with life. “Oh, it’s a fetus without a brain, and its neural tube is on the outside. It will die within hours of being born. Thanks for asking!” It is excruciating to lose a wanted pregnancy. I only know from my own early miscarriage, and only a few people knew I was pregnant, and I heard all sorts of horrid, ignorant, thoughtless things from people. Late term abortion is compassionate care. Dr. Tiller took great strides to let women mourn their babies with dignity. He developed techniques to remove the fetus as intact as possible. You know, like that partial birth stuff the anti-choice people hate so much.

    Anyway, this is getting long. Thanks for the post. Don’t let the fundies get you down. Keep providing accurate information and fighting the good fight.

    Oh, and one more falsehood. No death is pro-life. If one really wants to save the embryos and fetuses, support comprehensive sex education and access to birth control. Killing abortion providers and trying to outlaw abortion just adds to death.

  4. June 2, 2009 8:26 am

    If Christians dislike persecution so much, they ought not to have supported the ban on “partial-birth” abortions, which are acceptable in my (older than Christianity) religion. By making those rare, tragic late-term abortions less safe for women (which is what the ban does) they are persecuting others for not sharing their beliefs. I lost enormous respect for a lot of people who had previously convinced me they were definitely “pro-life, not just against abortions” during that vote.

    And anyone who thinks that mourning wasn’t part of the process Dr. Tiller facilitated hasn’t read any of the stories of the women he helped; clearly he understood the grief involved, even helped families express it. But then, as Rachel points out, this uninformed reaction is part of the problem.

  5. June 2, 2009 4:27 pm

    I can see why it is hard to come up with words in situations like this. Your post provided very powerful and healing words. I have also read some horrendous comments about this case. It makes me wonder if in these vile commentators minds, their cause is greater than what they are fighting for, babies. I see no righteous indignation over abused children, or starving children,or enslaved children, or children who are murdered every day by their own family members. Why is that?

  6. June 4, 2009 4:23 am

    Oh my God! So many horrible comments read about this!
    Maybe the point is just that the guns are easily available in the U.S., but anyway I think the murderer would have found something else to kill the doctor. But the doctor was not guilty! It’s the women’s choice! I still don’t understand such behaviours and ways of thinking…


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