Monday, June 8, 2009

Amazing Grace: The DC Faith Community's Eulogy for Dr. George Tiller

Tonight I attended a memorial service for Dr. George Tiller, the reproductive services provider murdered by a deranged anti-choice "activist" on Sunday, May 31st. The service, sponsored by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, featured a wide array of faith leaders providing reflections, prayers & songs honoring Dr. Tiller's brave work. (For more on the memorial, click here for a Washington Times piece that doesn't begin to do it justice & probably only adds fuels the nasty flames of controversy, but it's there nonetheless.)

As my friends & I walked up the stairs to the National City Christian Church, I was shocked at the presence of nearly a dozen reproductive services escorts dressed in bright orange tank tops. Mostly female, they're trained to escort women seeking abortions & other reproductive services into clinics where they're often harrassed & taunted in the way in. Ever seen "Juno"? Remember the part where Su-Chin calls out, "Your baby has a beating heart, you know. It can feel pain, & it has fingernails!"? That's nothing compared to what some of these women experience. Imagine making the biggest, most difficult & potentially most secretive decision of your life - & imagine having to carry out the initial steps of this emotional, painful decision while being pelted with rocks & spit & the most disgusting slurs you can imagine. Trained escorts provide these women with protection, both physically & emotionally, to the best of their abilities, often risking their own safety & emotions to do so.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to see them. After all, this was a widely publicized event. And after all, it was a religious service, which could have made would-be anti-choice activists even angrier than they already are with folks like us who stand by our pro-choice beliefs & use faith-speak to support it, to boot. But seeing them standing there, lining the stone stairs, was a jarring reminder of what I was walking into.

From there, it became difficult not to be suspicious, wary, even scared of what could happen during the service. Who knew who lurked amongst the memorial-goers? A perpetual paranoid, I conjured up awful visions of gunshots & firebombs - & was even more shocked when I realized that they were actual a possibility. Not just that: I realized the enormity of the fact that for reproductive service providers across the country, these very real, very intense feelings of fear & wariness are everyday occurrences, the same way public speaking jitters or about-to-meet-with-the-boss butterflies are for me. These people go to work every day just to do their jobs - their brave, noble jobs - & in the process risk their own safety, mental stability &, I'd imagine, their dignity, every single day.

And as I sat there, under the high ceilings of the church's chapel, with stained glass windows of someone else's Messiah welcoming me, watching a ceremony that took place under a massive cross, as I sat in a place where, by any other circumstance, I might have felt wildly uncomfortable, I found instead that the church & the others in it served as a surprising source of comfort as I sat through my fear, suspicion & wariness. And I asked myself whether I could do what reproductive service providers do, suppressing those emotions every day, always wondering "Who might come after me next?" I asked myself, "If I died here today - if something happened right now - would I be proud to have died for this cause?"

And the answer, I found, was yes. Yes, yes, yes. I would have been.

Sometimes I think of Cassie Bernall, the Columbine High School shooting victim who is alleged to have said "Yes" when her soon-to-be murderer asked whether she believed in God. Faced by a question with an answer that would inevitably lead to her death, she still reportedly chose to stand up for her beliefs. And sometimes I wonder whether there's a cause that I would stand for that way, without blinking twice or backing down.

Tonight I determined that I think the issue of reproductive choice is one that fits the bill.

Dr. LeRoy Carhart, one of Dr. Tiller's colleagues & a fellow abortion provider, choked up as he gave a eulogy for his friend, telling us of the man behind the white coat - the man who started his own clinic because the hospital wasn't providing care he felt was compassionate enough, a man who served his country in the military & then served it as one of the most respected - & hated - abortion providers in the United States. A man who wrote a sign reading "Hell no, we won't go" to protesters who tried to scare him off, & who went home at the end of every night to his teenage sweetheart, four children & 10 grandchildren. A man of family, a man of faith, & a man who believed, above all else, in the right of women to make decisions about their own bodies.

Sometimes, I can't help but think that if only these anti-choice activists could see the people behind the pro-choice movement, they couldn't possibly hate us so much. I want to ask them: "If you knew that someone close to you had chosen to have an abortion, would it change your mind about it? About them?" And I wonder how they would respond: maybe that they don't know anyone who'd ever choose that, or maybe that they'd disown them if they did. But could they? All these women they vilify & & condemn & damn, & the brave medical professionals who provide those women with the opportunity to live their lives - what they fail to see is that these women are our mothers, our wives, our aunts, our grandmothers, our daughters, our sisters, our cousins. If you found out that someone you love - your own mother, even - had an abortion, would it change your mind? Could you disown her? These women - they are your friends & your coworkers & your teachers & your neighbors & the bartender who just served you that Jack & Coke. They are anyone. And because of that, in so many ways, they are everyone.

So yes, this is an issue I'll fight for - proudly. Wouldn't you fight for your mom? Your daughter? Your friends? Yourself? I want what's best for us, & this is it. This is an issue of our health, our compassion, our independence, and yes, of our right to live as we see fit & right for ourselves. And those naysayers, those anti-choicers, those protesters, those people calling us murderers & baby-killers? Well, if they ever somehow need to choose abortion, I'll be their defending their rights, too.

The program for tonight's service included an insert, a an open letter from B.J. Isaacson-Jones, former Executive Director of Reproductive Health Service, printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1989. Titled "Open Letter to 21 Million Women," it calls upon women who employed the clinic's services to speak out in support choice issues. I cried when I read it, these abstract but very real stories of real women, women who are out there somewhere living normal lives, maybe never telling the people who know them best about that one choice they made in the past - the choice to have an abortion.

I can only imagine how difficult it is to be an advocate for reproductive choice following an abortion. I imagine these women live in constant nervousness that they will be discovered, judged & worse. I imagine they are often too afraid to have the voice they'd otherwise like to use, the voice that those of us who have never been faced with such a decision can employ without worry of being "uncovered." So it's up to us, those of us who have nothing to lose & no reputation to risk, to speak up on their behalf & on behalf of the women who will come after - to ensure that our daughters & granddaughters will hold the deeds to their own bodies for years to come.

What can we do for them? For us?
  • Donate, donate, donate. Donate to an advocacy organization like NARAL or Planned Parenthood or RCRC.Or donate to an abortion fund. Federal funds cannot be used for abortion services, so abortion funds help women afford essential reproductive services they cannot finance on their own.
  • Get involved. Write to your Senators & member of Congress & urge them to support reproductive rights, including comprehensive sexuality education that teaches students how to have sex safely - not just that sex is evil & abstinence is the only way to live.
  • Become an escort. NARAL & Planned Parenthood both train volunteers in the escort services I mentioned earlier.
  • Speak up. Don't back down. Make your voice heard when it comes to choice issues. But as my friend Emily writes, make sure to "Be conscious of your language. It is easy to turn to hateful language or violent metaphors at times like these. In my opinion, that only makes the conversation around reproductive rights even more heated and potentially destructive. Choose your words carefully and aim to inspire, not anger, others when you speak."
When will "abortion" stop being a dirty word? I wish I knew the answer, though I fear it is a daunting one: "Never." Still, as I sat in the chapel tonight & cried, I also stopped being afraid.

They can scare us, but they won't stop us.
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