Monday, June 08, 2009

San Diegans Turn Out to Memorialize Dr. George Tiller


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Rev. Kathleen Owens, Toni Atkins, Mattheus Stephens, Judy White, San Diego Democratic Club activists Alex Sachs and Gloria Johnson (back to camera) at the candlelight vigil

“Some of us here are outraged, and we come trying to figure out some way to make meaning out of this senseless act,” said Rev. Kathleen Owens, pastor of the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest at a June 4 memorial service for Dr. George Tiller, physician and provider of late-term abortions, who was murdered in church in his home town of Wichita, Kansas on May 31. “Some of us are here because we are hurting and wondering where we might find safety in the midst of such crimes. Dr. Tiller was murdered in his house of worship, Meeting here in this house of worship demonstrates that we will not be afraid to gather together, to speak out and to continue the work that needs to be done.”

The service, which drew about 250 people, was a combination of celebration of Dr. Tiller’s life and work, grief over his death and recommitment to the idea that women have the right to control their own bodies, including dealing with unwanted pregnancies as they see fit rather than as a government or certain religious traditions would demand of them. While the so-called “pro-life” organizations made pro forma statements condemning Dr. Tiller’s murders and then went right on rhetorically comparing abortion doctors and abortion rights supporters to slaveowners and Nazis, Rev. Owens said, “We know that using violence in the name of God to resolve issues goes against the teachings of all the religions of the world.”

Rev. Owens seemed particularly concerned to make the point that not all churches or religious individuals oppose abortion. “There are people of faith who believe in the dignity of the individual,” she said. “Some people in this country believe you cannot be a person of faith and be pro-choice. You can be a person of faith and support women’s autonomy over their own bodies.” She pointed out that the Unitarian-Universalist Church supported women’s right to reproductive choice as early as 1963 — when abortion was still illegal nationwide and a decade before Roe v. Wade — “and since then,” she added, “we have worked and marched for women’s and human rights.”

“Dr. Tiller’s practice was based on one truth: ‘Trust women,’” said Dr. David Preskill, retired obstetrician/gynecologist and past chair of the board of directors of Planned Parenthood of San Diego and Riverside Counties. “We must trust women to know what is best for themselves and their families. Let’s rededicate ourselves to a world where all women have access to the information they need to make the best decisions about their lives and their health.”

“I’ve actually thought a lot about Dr. George Tiller for the last 15 years,” said Toni Atkins, former San Diego City Councilmember and director of the Womancare feminist health center in Hillcrest in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Atkins’ job at Womancare put her squarely on the front lines of the holy war against abortion rights; her clinic was targeted by local anti-abortion activists and, after an arson attempt against another local clinic by a radical-Right activist, they moved out of their Hillcrest bungalow in favor of an office in a medical high-rise they thought would be more defensible.

Speaking to an audience that included many people who had served as volunteers to defend Womancare and its patients from anti-abortion activists, Atkins recalled that Tiller’s murder was just the culmination of a decades-long campaign of violence against him and his clinic. “When I first met Dr. Tiller in 1988 or 1989, he had already had his clinic bombed in 1986,” Atkins recalled. “He had reopened it. I was a relatively new clinic manager and we referred women to Dr. Tiller. I was drawn to his relaxed personality and his light-blue eyes. I could easily imagine his demeanor calming women who went to him for help. He fell into abortion by accident, taking on his father’s clinic and learning that his father had performed abortions before Roe v. Wade.”

Atkins said she “came away with a very profound admiration and respect for Dr. Tiller” and never forgot him, even after she left Womancare to join the staff of San Diego’s first openly Queer elected official, City Councilmember Christine Kehoe, whom she succeeded in office in 2000. “When I heard that Dr. Tiller had been shot and wounded in 1993, I again shared with my co-workers his dedication and humanity,” Atkins said. “He was committed to providing care for women and worked with us to ensure aftercare and support.” Atkins urged people in attendance to contribute to Planned Parenthood and the Make-a-Difference Fund, which raises money to fund abortions for lower-income women who can’t afford them and don’t live in states like California where government funding for abortions for lower-income women is available.

Mattheus “Matt” Stephens, a reproductive rights attorney, activist and lecturer at UCSD, threw out his prepared speech and spoke from the heart in what was widely agreed was the most moving portion of the evening’s program. “In the hymnal of this church there’s a song that says, ‘Hush, hush, somebody’s calling my name,’” Stephens said. “Somebody called Dr. Tiller’s name, but we will not be silent about his assassination. That would do a disservice to his work and the half of the people who do not have full equality. What the assassins want is for us to accept having one less voice. For all of you here, if you do nothing, you have accepted that silence.”

Quoting Winston Churchill’s statement that the world is a dangerous place not because of those who do evil but because of those who do nothing, Stephens said that one hopeful sign was that in the first few days following Dr. Tiller’s murder the Make-a-Difference Foundation received $500 in contributions to help the staff members of his clinic. He also quoted Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s credo that all children should be born from “desire, choice and a history of the promise of health,” Stephens lamented the anti-abortion movement’s success in making access to safe, legal abortion either difficult or downright impossible for many American women.

“In our medical schools, we are not equipping our students to provide these services,” Stephens said. “Medical students at UCSD have complained for the last 12 years that they were not getting the information they need to provide these services? When are we going to appeal to the legislatures to pass laws to stop these assassinations? You need to give your time, your money and everything you can. If they silence one voice, we need to make sure we will be heard.” Stephens called for the establishment of a scholarship fund in Dr. Tiller’s name to help train medical students to provide safe, legal abortions.

Judy White of Planned Parenthood Friends and the Make-a-Difference Fund explained the fund’s purpose: “providing women the money to access reproductive services.” The federal government doesn’t fund abortions for low-income women, and California is one of only a very few states that do, she explained. Therefore, organizations like hers have to raise money privately to help women who can’t get government help pay for abortions and other family-planning services. She said that her organization had helped some of Tiller’s patients, and said that lower-income women are more likely to have the late-term abortions that were Tiller’s specialty because it takes them a long time to assemble the funding needed to pay for them.

“We cannot fully fund anyone,” White said, “but sometimes we can provide the last piece of funding that can make it happen.” She also recalled the atmosphere of violence and fear that surrounded the abortion clinic where she worked in Kalamazoo, Michigan. “That clinic was also bombed,” she said, “and we couldn’t get a local doctor. We had to fly in a doctor from out of state, and [anti-abortion activists] would leaflet the airport and say, ‘Do you know who is on that plane?’” White quoted from a rare interview Dr. Tiller gave in 2001 in which he said, “This is about family life, women’s hopes and dreams and survival.”

During the service, First Unitarian-Universalist Church musical director Kenneth Herman accompanied the congregation in singing two hymns, “Shall We Gather at the River?” and “Amazing Grace.” Then the participants went out to the church’s patio for a candle-lighting ceremony and vigil. At the close of the service, Rev. Owens said, “We honor Dr. Tiller’s memory by speaking out, volunteering our time and in any way possible to make sure women’s lives and choices are respected. We realize that there can be no progress for humanity if women’s rights are not respected.”