In the award-winning documentary film “After Tiller” – featured at the Sundance Film Festival and scheduled for wide distribution, and on PBS, in September – writers/directors Lana Wilson and Martha Shane share the story of four physicians who, at great personal risk, carry on the work of the late Dr. George Tiller. Tiller was assassinated in Kansas in 2009 for providing late term abortions. A focal point for those opposed to abortion, he was routinely subjected to protests outside his clinic (which was bombed), his home and his church, where he was killed.
Four other physicians, Drs. Leroy Carhart, Susan Robinson, Warren Hern and Shelley Sella, have dedicated themselves to continuing his work in various locations. They have thus become the new targets of the pro-life movement, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling that abortion is legal up to “viability” – at least 26 weeks – although states have some wiggle room and many are trying to refuse abortion after 20 weeks. The point here is that these four doctors continue to risk their lives every day to do work they believe is profoundly important for their patients' lives.
Having been mightily moved by the film – which avoids politicization and polemics while allowing the doctors and their patients to tell their own stories – I view these four physicians as heroic figures. The work they do is grounded in conviction and compassion, humanism and morality, all in large measure, as one soon realizes when they tell their stories. There is nothing self-important, or even overtly political, about these folks. They are simply decent people doing important work to which they are committed, without recognition and at great risk.
About the time I saw “After Tiller” I began to take note of other heroic figures popping up on Facebook or featured in news stories. They, too, were “ordinary” people whose choices and actions were noteworthy, instructive and inspiring.
Remember the story of Myles Eckert, the eight-year old boy in Ohio who paid tribute to his late father by giving $20 he’d found to a passing soldier “because he reminded me of my dad,” who died in Iraq just before Myles was born? (The soldier “paid the $20 forward.) Ever hear of John Servati, the 21-year old college swimmer who died when a tornado swept through Alabama a few weeks ago? He is credited with saving his girlfriend's life by holding up a retaining wall long enough for her to escape while the storm thrashed his house. Then there was Leonora Draper, a 32-year old gun violence activist who was killed outside her home in Chicago after attending an anti-gun violence fundraiser. And the eleven-year old boy named Kevin who started a food bank in his name before he died of cancer because he had known hunger when his mother couldn’t afford food.
It isn’t the sad deaths in these tales that are the story here; it’s how these people lived their lives. The way I see it, their actions, generosity, sensitivity and absolute humanity make them heroic figures who deserve to be recognized, named and honored.
In another news story of note a policewoman in Florida, Vicki Thomas, was called to the scene of a grocery store robbery. She arrived to find a mother desperate to feed her family. So she booked the woman on misdemeanor charges (as she was required to do) and then paid for her groceries and drove the woman home. “She filled the grocery cart and just walked out. I asked her ‘Why?’” Thomas recalled in an ABC interview. “She said, ‘My children were hungry.’ And that immediately impacted me. My grandchildren flashed before my eyes,” Thomas said. “I knew at that time what I was going to do. I knew I was going to buy her groceries.”
To their credit, some news outlets and Facebook fanatics make it a part of their daily line-up to honor people like these and I’m grateful for that. But so much of what accosts us on the nightly news or by way of social media is tragic, alarming and utterly inhumane. That’s why it seems important to pause and pay tribute to those whose better natures have lessons to teach us all.
Whether providing vital services in the face of terrifying circumstances, reacting in ways that put others before our own interests, or making generous gestures to those in need, people like the four doctors, as well as Myles, John, Leonora, Kevin, Vicki and all the others like them need to be respected and remembered. They live – or have lived – lives worthy of emulation. I honor them all.