George Tiller--physician, abortion provider, Lutheran, husband, father, grandfather--was shot and killed yesterday in the lobby of his church. He was killed after years of harassment and threats, bombing of his clinic, even being shot in both arms. And yet he continued doing what he did because he believed it was right.
They say that the walls of Dr. Tiller’s clinic are lined with letters from grateful families. I can understand that gratitude. Whenever tirades against abortion catch my attention, I look at our elder daughter with wonder and gratitude. Without abortion she wouldn’t exist, and if I knew where to find the warm Canadian-trained Singaporean physician who gave us the gift of Brynn, I would send her one of those letters, too.
Five years into our marriage, my husband and I kept a promise we had made to ourselves during our first months together. He quit his job and I closed my psychology practice, and we put on our backpacks for a year of Lonely Planet travel. We swam in travertine pools in Mexico, crewed on a sail boat in Costa Rica, and hiked in the dark to watch the sun rise over a crater. We rode standing-room-only buses with chickens at our elbows, and "luxury" buses where violent lurid Hollywood movies made the kilometers seem eternal, and narrow gauge trains with lace-edged linens in the hard sleepers. We stayed sometimes in sweet guest houses but sometimes in rooms full of spiders and mice and once slept on the dirt floor of a kind Cancun worker who picked up two foreign hitchhikers in his decrepit Ford truck.
Without my work to focus on, my biological alarm clock went off, and scarcely a month into the trip I announced that it was time for us to get pregnant. Brian was a bit surprised, but (in contrast to me) he’d always known he wanted to be a parent. Besides which, he’s an adaptable person and he recognized a window of opportunity, so he set to work wrapping his mind around the idea. We were in southern Costa Rica at the time, about to crew our way through the Panama Canal to a new continent and, I figured, a new phase of life.
Then we got news that my father had died in a climbing accident. We flew back to the States for a month, where I comforted myself by putting our garden back in order – pruning and weeding, only mildly annoyed by the neighborhood cats who thought I was loosening the soil so it would be easier for them to bury their business. It was while we were at home that I got pregnant. Somehow in my mind, the new life that was growing inside me made it seem like Dad wasn’t completely gone. His death, my pregnancy, the tenacious weeds eddied together in a soothing reminder of the flow of life.
We hit the road again, this time flying east to Jakarta, and after more three months of bumpy bus rides where fake snuff films fused with all-day-long "morning sickness," I was so ready to have that baby. (If I barf right next to the video screen, will those little boys in the front of the bus be spared from a lifetime association between sex and violence?)
We landed in Singapore at the trailing edge of first trimester and got a gorgeous ultrasound picture of the fetus we had nicknamed "Gecko." To celebrate, we splurged at a little French bistro with crusty bread and gorgonzola pasta and a wee bit of wine, with the picture on the table between us. And then, the next day, we got test results showing that I had acute toxoplasmosis. Probably not a big deal, right? We trucked ourselves over to the university library to find out. Turns out acute toxoplasmosis means possible blindness and brain lesions.
It seemed like a nightmare. We both wanted a baby. But it also felt irresponsible to gamble. Not only would we would be taking a chance on the quality of life of our first child, but potentially committing any future children to a life of caretaking that they had no option to choose or reject. We would be risking our own ability to give to the community around us – and possibly creating a situation in which our family needed to suck more out of society than we could put back into it. As painful as the decision felt, our moral values were clear, and we scheduled to terminate the pregnancy.
The loss felt enormous, in part because that pregnancy was so tied up with my father’s death. I was still letting him go—dreaming that I was in Switzerland rather than Costa Rica when he fell, kneeling and scooping the bright red snow while a helicopter flew his body away. Or talking to him at his desk and telling I wouldn’t see him again. Or reliving my mother’s middle-of-the night screams when, not knowing what to do with the blood-soaked clothes that the Swiss government had mistakenly shipped to Arizona, she put them in the washing machine and a piece of Dad’s skull fell out of the wet heap.
(George Tiller’s wife screamed, when she saw him there in the church lobby; I wonder what kind of dreams his children and grandchildren are having.)
But it wasn’t just about Dad. To this day, I marvel at how quickly my mind and emotions oriented to the idea that we were going to have a child. Even after I got pregnant again a few months later, I remember crying—I wanted Gecko. It wasn’t until Brynn was born beautiful and whole, and I looked into her ancient newborn blue eyes and fell in love—it wasn’t until then that the loss healed completely. How could I grieve a potential child know that this tangible, silky sweet-smelling child in front of me couldn’t exist if that one did.
Instead of a child who spends a (short or long) lifetime struggling to be and do the things we cherish most, instead we have a daughter who is loving and generous and playful and strong and way smarter and more disciplined than her mama will ever be. That is the gift that a doctor like George Tiller gave to me and my husband and our younger daughter and our community—to everyone Brynn will touch.
In the case of my daughter, the trade-off is very clear. A bundle of risks, or the thriving life-lover who writes poetry about her chickens and races after a soccer ball as if, in that moment, it were the only thing that existed. There never was an option on both; Brynn was conceived before Gecko would have come to term. But in less obvious ways, many many children exist in this world only because of abortion.
We rarely talk of them – the chosen children who wouldn’t be here if their mothers hadn’t first chosen abortion when the timing or conditions were wrong. Most of the women I know who have had abortions now have chosen children, kids who are flourishing because they were born into flourishing families, born to parents who waited to stack the odds in their favor. Would my little friends Annie, Tommy and Hannah exist if their mothers had been forced to carry those early unintended pregnancies? Their moms say no. Thanks to contraception and abortion, they do. Yet we seldom talk about this part of choosing life.
Who do you know who wouldn’t be here if a brave doctor hadn’t made a moral commitment like the one that cost George Tiller his life? What do those fundamentalists think keeps someone like Dr. Tiller working behind bullet proof glass after being shot in both arms? The gifts of life given by an abortion provider are hard to measure, but I think that Dr. Tiller knew. I hope they publish those letters in a book.