I believe the murder of George Tiller was an act of domestic terrorism whose aim was not only to assassinate a single man, but also to frighten a generation of doctors and to shame and terrify women and families who are making difficult choices. While the murderous rage of Tiller’s assassin is not representative of the broader anti-choice movement, I believe that the anti-choice community operates with a totalitarian impulse that generates a culture of terror rather than a culture of life.
Hannah Arendt suggested that totalitarians generate terror in part by cultivating profound loneliness among their targets. Loneliness locks human beings in isolation and hampers discourse, connection, and shared experience. When we believe we are alone and misunderstood we cannot form the bonds necessary to organize and resist. There are few experiences more lonely and isolating than facing an unintended pregnancy or facing the need to terminate a desired pregnancy in order to protect maternal health. The anti-choice discourse labels the women and families who chose abortion "baby killers." It is a strategy that dehumanizes these women and the doctors who care for them.
The strategy is effective because abortion still carries tremendous social shame in addition to its personal psychological burden. Activists for reproductive rights have a hard time convincing women and families who have terminated to be part of a movement that protects the right to terminate. Many understandably prefer not to be publicly associated with the stigma and potential violence that comes with standing up for choice.
It also works because abortion, like all American healthcare, is profoundly shaped by structures of privilege and access. Wealthy women in urban areas with private insurance who have long term relationships with physicians have more access to privacy and to termination services than do other women. Poor women, teenagers, rural women, women suffering with domestic violence, and uninsured women are much more likely to have to risk some level of public scrutiny of their decision to seek an abortion. They cannot request a D&C from their private provider, they must seek out a clinic. Even during the dark years of back alley abortions when all women seeking abortion were at risk, it was the most vulnerable women who carried the heaviest burden of infection, illness, and death.
Because women of privilege can keep their termination choices private while vulnerable women are exposed to public shaming, it becomes easier to believe that only those "other" women and "bad" women choose abortion. Telling our stories is part of counteracting the terrorism that seeks to divide, shame, and even murder to impose its own worldview. Nurturing a sense of commonality and shared experience reduces the power of terror. Women need realistic understandings of how many women grapple with these choices and the different ways they come to make a decision. Such information is shockingly difficult to access. Often women must wade through disgusting, painful, and misleading "information" about abortion just to get basic medical advice. While there are political, judicial, and structural aspects to this issue, I want to also make an appeal for the power of our personal narratives to fight back against anti-choice terrorism.
Forty years ago my mother was part of the movement of individuals who helped desperate women find safe ways to terminate their pregnancies. This network provided safe houses, transportation, and follow-up support for women who had to cross state lines to obtain abortions. She was willing to risk her life and livelihood to protect women’s reproductive choices.
Nearly twenty years ago my older sister was diagnosed with cancer during the second trimester of her pregnancy. Her religious commitments led her to refuse her doctor’s advice to terminate. She risked her life to ensure that she would not have an abortion. She and my niece are both healthy.
When we were 14-year-old, high school freshmen my friend decided to have the baby of a boy she’d had sex with only once. It changed her life forever, but she graduated from school and made a life for herself and daughter. In my twenties I stood by dear friends who simply could not afford emotionally or financially to carry their pregnancies to term. Their decisions to seek abortions were difficult and painful, but they faced them courageously.
I’m a 35-year-old, educated, black, divorced mother. Like so many other women my age I have faced my own tough reproductive choices. I’ve had a child, an abortion, and hysterectomy. I love and respect women who have chosen many different paths. Their stories and my own are part of the reason that I am a committed supporter of reproductive rights.
The murder of George Tiller is personal to me. It is not just a matter of politics or policy. I am an aunt to three teenage girls and the mother to a daughter. It is critical to me that their health, safety, and choices are protected.