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Speech delivered at Tribute Rally for Dr. George Tiller, Vancouver

June 18, 2009

by Joyce Arthur

I met George a number of times over the years. I’ve emailed with him, and I even helped him write a speech once. Although I didn’t know him that well, I considered him a friend. Most recently I had a couple of conversations with him at an abortion conference in Oregon in April. I’m so glad I had that chance. I had breakfast with him one morning at the conference, and there was another woman sitting at our table who – amazingly to me – seemed unaware of who George was. I felt compelled to tell her, with pride, about George’s significance in the provider community, and his courage and dedication, while George sat there quietly with a look of bemusement on his face. When I recall those conversations now, in which we talked about his ongoing battles with his anti-choice tormenters, he did not complain or rage against them, he never did, that wasn’t his style. Instead, he expressed optimism that he would prevail in his legal battles. That he would continue fighting no matter what they threw at him, and that his clinic would stay open to help the women he was so committed to caring for. It was those women who were the driving force behind George’s incredible fortitude and courage, and his resolute calmness and optimism.

I want to emphasize the stature of Dr. Tiller in our provider community. The killing of George was like beheading our leader and our hero, and it has had – is still having – a truly devastating impact on our community. He was probably the best known and most revered provider in North America, referred to as "Saint George" by other providers and patients alike, because of his devotion to women and his willingness to take the really hard cases, the women who discover late in pregnancy that something has gone terribly wrong.  Many providers in Vancouver knew him personally, and had referred patients to George over the years, because unfortunately, these rare 3rd trimester abortions are pretty much unavailable in Canada, even though they’re so medically necessary.

I want to give you a bit of background about Dr. Tiller’s murder, because many of you may not be aware of some of the more disturbing circumstances around it. I’ll also tell you about the campaign of anti-choice harassment and violence that ultimately led to this murder, and what we could do to stem the tide, and prevent another doctor from being assassinated.

Dr. Tiller was shot in the lobby of his church on Sunday morning, at close range in the head. That was because it was well-known in the anti-abortion community that Dr. Tiller wore a bullet-proof vest everywhere he went, and the accused killer, Scott Roeder, knew that too. Roeder is from Kansas City, and has a long history on the fringe of the anti-choice movement. He associated regularly with members and leaders of Operation Rescue, a group that moved to Wichita in 2002 for the sole purpose of driving Dr. Tiller out of business. Roeder posted on Operation Rescue’s website 2 years ago, urging people to go to Dr. Tiller’s church, and Roeder himself apparently attended the church. He also participated in pickets outside Dr. Tiller’s clinic and other clinics, and was in contact with Operation Rescue’s Senior Policy Advisor Cheryl Sullenger, who was convicted in 1988 of conspiring to bomb a California abortion clinic. When Roeder was arrested, Sullenger’s phone number was found on a post-it note on the dash of his car. When asked, Sullenger at first denied, then later admitted having several previous conversations with Roeder, in which she gave him information about Dr. Tiller, including his trial dates, which Roeder also attended. However, Sullenger refused to take any responsibility for her role in the murder, even though she’s been at the forefront of the relentless witchhunt against Dr. Tiller in Wichita. Operation Rescue had filed lawsuits against Tiller, had him brought up on frivolous criminal charges, and had grand juries convened against him. Dr. Tiller emerged victorious from all that of course, because he hadn’t done anything wrong. He was very careful to obey the letter of the law because he knew he was under close scrutiny.

Back in 97, Scott Roeder was sentenced to sixteen months in prison for parole violations after being convicted in 96 for having bomb components in his car. He was planning to blow up an abortion clinic. More recently, Roeder had vandalized an abortion clinic in Kansas City by gluing the locks. He did this the week before and the day before Dr. Tiller was murdered. He was caught on security cameras and was identified by clinic staff because he had previously vandalized that same clinic in 2000.  At that time, Roeder was questioned and warned by the police, which seemed to work, because he disappeared for six years. However, when the clinic manager called the FBI to report the most recent vandalism, just 24 hours before Roeder (allegedly) killed Dr. Tiller, the FBI said they couldn’t do anything till Monday. What this means, basically, is that Roeder could have been stopped, if local law enforcement had acted immediately by taking seriously the threat posed by Roeder.

Much of what I just told you should make it clear that Roeder was not just some “lone wolf” or “isolated nutcase.” He may not have directly involved anyone else in his plans, but Dr. Tiller’s murder is the natural culmination of over 30 years of harassment and violence directed at him and his clinic by the anti-abortion movement in general. Also, the "lone nut" theory distorts reality - no-one develops their views in a vacuum. Roeder had been immersed in all that violent, aggressive anti-abortion rhetoric for years. His beliefs and compulsions were fed by that environment, and thrived on it.

Of course, it wasn’t just Dr. Tiller and his clinic that were the targets of ongoing harassment. There's been a 35 year reign of terror directed at clinics and providers across America, and in Canada to a lesser extent – including 9 previous murders and 20 attempted murders of doctors or clinic staff, 100’s of arsons and bombs and butyric acid attacks, and 1000’s of death threats, stalking, clinic invasions, vandalism, aggressive pickets, and hate mail. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous inflammatory rhetoric that obviously plays an encouraging role in the violence, such as calling doctors “baby killers” and “mass murderers”. Words matter!  Words often lead to action.  If they didn’t, we wouldn’t be surrounded by advertising. 

So what has been the reaction of the anti-choice movement to Dr. Tiller’s murder?  It was predictable. We’re seeing many of the same types of comments that we saw when Dr. Barnett Slepian was murdered in 1998. Some radical anti-choicers have defended the killing because they believe in the "justifiable homicide" of doctors. While most anti-abortion groups have condemned the murder publicly, some groups and leaders, such as Randall Terry say that Dr. Tiller reaped what he sowed, he’s a mass murderer, he’s burning in hell now. Other groups simply distance themselves from the murder, saying that no “pro-life” person would do this, and that Roeder was not a member of any “legitimate” pro-life group – even though all anti-choice extremists and groups call themselves "pro-life." But underneath the condemnations of the murder, lies a different view held by many anti-choice persons. For example, many anti-abortion commenters on websites and blogs were practically celebrating the murder, or at least saying Dr. Tiller got what he deserved. The only regret of many rank and file "pro-lifers" is that the murder happened in a church.

The anti-abortion movement needs to take responsibility for the domestic terrorism their words and deeds foster. One very effective way to stop the violence would be if anti-abortion leaders got together to set an example to their followers. They should take responsibility for creating the atmosphere of terror with their violent rhetoric and confrontationist tactics, and clearly direct the entire movement to cease such activities. They should issue an unqualified public apology for those tactics and for the ensuing violence. They need to deal with their extremists by repudiating them, and launching civil lawsuits against them for damaging the anti-abortion cause and reputation. Finally, they need to cooperate fully with law enforcement by reporting any extremists who may pose a threat, and helping to prosecute any illegal acts.

I think the pro-choice movement also needs to look at ourselves to see if there’s a better way to handle the situation. It’s completely understandable in this hostile and frightening environment, that doctors need to protect themselves and their families by staying hidden and not speaking out. Unfortunately, when doctors and other staff working in clinics and hospitals stay silent, it sends a message that everything is fine, and they don’t need help. It also cedes the field to anti-choice propaganda.

Only a tiny handful of very courageous doctors are willing to speak out publicly today. Obviously, it’s dangerous and risky for them, because there’s so few of them, and they’re so isolated. But what if we had a critical mass of providers speaking out - not just doctors, but also clinic staff? If even 10% of the 1000’s of providers in North America were willing to come out from the shadows and speak out more, it would greatly diffuse them as a target, and thereby increase the safety of all providers. Not just because there’s more safety in numbers, but because it would also enhance public understanding and sympathy for what they do, and expose the hateful lies of the anti-choice movement. They could talk about the importance of their work –why they do it, and share stories of their patients. There is so much public misunderstanding of why women have abortions, and when we can empathize with them, as well as the professionals who help them, this would help alleviate the stigma and counter anti-choice misinformation.

When I advocate providers speaking out, I don’t necessarily mean speaking to the media, it can just be to their friends and neighbours, and other medical colleagues, or they can post anonymously to blogs for example. I recently heard from a provider in a western state who had never spoken about what she did, even to her friends. But after Dr. Tiller was murdered, she felt determined and inspired to honour his legacy by speaking out. Please allow me to quote this brave doctor:

I'm so sorry it took his death for all who benefitted from his work … to realize SILENT NO MORE!  No riding on his coattails now; I'm hoping a ground swell of Pro choice voices will be heard from coast to coast. It would be a tribute to him and his coworkers. So I took a vow to tell everyone. The first step was speaking at the NARAL vigil for Dr. Tiller. I didn't know for sure what to say, but to speak from my heart. I said that my "quietly going to work unknowingly allowed the anti-voice to be the only one heard." And vowed to speak up and tell the stories of all our loved ones, because it humanizes them (and us). Well, since then, I've "outed" myself in front of my whole church last Sunday, made a speaking engagement to the movie group there, started wearing arm bands at work, and basically tell everyone I can that I'm an abortion doctor so they can see the face of one, and get a lot of their misconceptions answered! The RESPONSE HAS BEEN GREAT, and I"m finding it was only MY FEAR that held me back.  I truly believe this empowers our patients to see us as examples and gives them permission to tell their own stories with dignity and pride.”

This doctor mentions empowering the patients to talk about their experiences, and I believe it’s equally important for women who’ve had abortions to speak out. There is no shame in having an abortion. The shame and stigma and silence is promoted and enforced by the anti-choice movement. Why are we letting THEM call the shots?  If you think you’ve never met anyone who’s had an abortion, it simply means that the women you know haven’t told you about it.  Over 40% of American women will have an abortion at some point in their life, and over a quarter of Canadian women. Having an abortion or at least seriously considering an abortion, is a typical experience for the average woman.  I myself have had an abortion, it wasn’t a difficult decision for me, and I’ve never regretted it. And I’ve never regretted talking about it. As the doctor I just quoted said, and which my own experience has proven, the response has been great. The people who you think might judge you are often the ones who end up supporting you the most.

The final area where we need to counter anti-choice terrorism and propaganda is in the political arena. Currently, BC is the only province in Canada that has a bubble zone law that protects our clinics by prohibiting protesters from interfering with access. It’s called the Access to Abortion Services Act. The Act has been quite successful and it’s withstood court challenges, including one today! The Supreme Court of Canada has just rejected the appeal of some BC protesters who had been convicted under the Act. So it’s high time for other provinces to adopt a similar law!  Clinics in New Brunswick, Ontario, and Alberta in particular continue to suffer from regular anti-choice protests. Research in the U.S. has shown that clinics with regular picketing experience a 50% increase in violence and harassment. Not necessarily from the picketers, but just by bringing negative public attention to the clinic, which can bring out the crazies. Bubble zone laws are proven tools that protect the privacy and safety of both patients and staff. Let’s get on it!

We also need politicians and community leaders to publicly support abortion services and providers, and fund security measures to protect their safety. We need our leaders to publicly condemn anti-choice violence and inflammatory rhetoric. We need our federal and provincial governments to acknowledge the fundamental importance of abortion rights for women, and guarantee access by ensuring that enough new providers are being trained in medical schools, that more hospitals perform abortions, that all clinics are fully funded, and that no woman ever has to pay out of pocket for an abortion or for travel costs if she has to leave her community. Until abortion services are fully accepted and integrated into our healthcare system as the medically necessary services they are, abortion care will continue to be marginalized.

I’d like to close with some words from Dr. Tiller himself. These are words that he wrote in February to other providers, while he was struggling with his own political and legal battles in Kansas.

“The door to reproductive freedom is open. We must not tarry in walking through it with confidence and assurance. We must seize the opportunity with hard work and confidence. We want to be the kind of people that Consider Defeat a Temporary Inconvenience, Fail Our Way Forward, Refuse to take No for an Answer, and Never, Ever Quit.”