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Two Years Later: The Courage to Move Us Forward

By Amber Versola
Opinion | May 31, 2011

WICHITA, Kan. - I was at work when my mother called me to tell me that someone had shot Dr. Tiller. That call momentarily paralyzed me with a peculiar shock. I knew this tragedy was a possibility, but I never fathomed it would become a reality. As I put down the phone, my young co-worker asked what was wrong. I told her the horrifying news about George Tiller. She asked me who he was, and I told her that he was the abortion doctor in Wichita.

Later that night, I attended a vigil with my son in Lawrence. He was 5 at the time, and I couldn't find the adequate words to explain to him why we were there. I told him that we were there to honor a man and to pray for peace. I explained that a man - a doctor, had a job that some people did not agree with. One of those people decided that he would kill the doctor because of that. I stressed the need for us to show people that it was not okay to hurt someone because you do not agree with them. The truth is, we were there because of so much more than I conveyed to him; and Dr. Tiller was so much more than an abortion doctor from Kansas.

Among other distinguished titles, Dr. Tiller was a husband, a father, a physician, an advocate, and a humanitarian. During his career, he performed medical procedures that ultimately made him the target of multiple and unconscionable acts of hate. His clinic was fire bombed and he was shot at. People blocked the entrance to his office, and yelled detestable names at him. None of this deterred him enough to make him quit. Dr. Tiller bravely faced such danger so that he could provide compassionate care to women in a very personal time of need.

Dr. Tiller didn't know me or the young woman I worked with on the day of his death, but he still fought to protect our rights to make that very personal decision. When my co-worker asked who he was, I regret that my first description of the man was that he was the abortion doctor from Wichita. However, his death opened a door for dialect between us. Over the course of our discussions, I realized that neither of us remembered a time when abortions were illegal. It is not a part of history that we were taught about in schools. The doctors' work played a crucial part in making sure that history didn't repeat itself.

As activists, we must not only mourn his death but also celebrate his life. More people need to know the story of the courageous doctor from Kansas. People should know not only of the adversity that he faced, but the manner in which he faced it, and even more importantly, why he did so.

Two years ago, I stood at a vigil with my son and told him that a doctor was murdered. I tried to speak to him about the devastation that is contained in hate. While the message of peace still stands, there is more that we need to take from the doctor's life.

When I think of Dr. Tiller, I will remember the countless lives that he helped. Dr. Tiller's murder was not just a personal attack on the doctor and his family, but was also a vile attack on a woman's right to have access to safe abortions in Kansas. We cannot let Dr. Tiller's message to trust women end. It is up to us to care enough about each other to continue to spread his message of respect and his compassion. I issue a challenge to young women to carry his work forward. We cannot expect others to fight for our rights any longer. I do not accept Dr. Tiller's assassination as just another casualty of the war against our right to choose, and don't you dare do so either.


Amber--Thank you for this tribute to Dr. Tiller. Dr. Tiller believen in empowering women to make decisions about their lives. His office walls were decorated with letters sent to him by grateful patients and their families. His courage should empower us to continue to fight for a woman's right to make decisions about her own body.

I wanted to say this in support of what you've written before the usual chorus of negativity begins, as it will. People who didn't know Dr. Tiller and have no understanding of how important he was to women at crucial times in their lives may choose to believe the Operation Rescue lies about him. It is a tragedy that those lies led to his murder.

Amber says, "I do not accept Dr. Tiller's assassination as just another casualty of the war against our right to choose, and don't you dare do so either." I agree with Amber on the first part of her statement. But, I have no right to condemn anyone who does not agree.

In my opinion, Dr. Tiller's death was murder, plain and simple. The act was not committed in an emergency situation. It was premeditated and took place away from any possible connection with Dr. Tiller's operating room. This nation and the vast majority of its citizens have never condoned lynche mob or any individual's unilateral trial, conviction, and punishment of the accused. We have a system that calls for arrest and a fair trial before a jury of unbiased peers.

The real truth is that the majority of our population does not consider abortion and sexual orientation to be the most important and pressing issue in their everyday lives. Those with extreme emotional and religious issue have been vocal and demanding. When their voices rise to a clamor that dominates public dialogue, we lose the ability of democracy to succeed. Both sides in the controversy are guilty of extreme personal and emotional expression. When this issue has become the litmus test for determining qualification to serve in the legislature, court system, or administration, we all suffer.

The abortion issue is mostly fueled by religious dogma that is not universal accross all religious groups. There is no absolute and clear distinction between murder of breathing human beings and the aborting of a fetus. The Christian's bible has more reference to 'breath of life' than it does to the zygot that develops into a living and breathing earthly being. My use of zygot for indentity is not meant to be demeaning in any way. All life, as we know it, whether human or animal begins the same way. Religious dogma makes the distinction between animal and human.

I am of the Christian religious faith that considers humans to be distinctly seperated from the animal world and holding special relationship to the God of creation, by Jewish and Christian tradition. That does not give me authority, from my God, to force any fellow human being to conform to my religious tenets in the physical world.

Ken--I appreciate your thoughtful response to Amber's blog. I also agree that using the abortion rights issue as an election litmus test is unwise. However, I would disagree with you on the "both side" argument. The only pro-choice person who killed an anti-choice protestor was eventually found to be mentally ill. Otherwise, the death and destruction of abortion providers and their facilities far outnumber anything pro-choice supporters have done. In fact, I've been involved in pro-choice activism since the early 1970s when I joined the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and I have never experienced a pro-choice advocate picketing and driving trucks with ugly pictures in the neighborhoods of anti-choicers, as they did and would do again here in Wichita. I have never heard of a pro-choice advocate sending threatening letters to anti-choice people, nor do pro-choice activists set up web site that contain personal information about and threats against anti-choice activists.

We do write letters to the editor and do clinic support so patients can get into clinics without harassment from so-called sidewalk counselors. We are interviewed by newspaper and TV reporters to promote our point of view. What pro-choice people do is to peacefully advocate for the right of women to make their own reproductive decisions.

I have been the target of anti-choice hate rhetoric simply because I'm an outspoken pro-choice advocate. My picture and personal information was on a web site under the title, "Blood Suckers," or something like that. Fortunately, my kids' last name is different from mine, or they, who have never taken a public stand on anything political, would have had their names splashed all over the web site too.

Yes, pro-choice advocates are passionate about the issue of abortion rights. However, we use reason and persuasion rather than violence and threats to support our cause. I do wish people would learn to make the distinction between reason and hateful rhetoric and acts.

I should have written, "My picture and personal information WERE on a web site...." I did proofread my post, but I missed that error.

Diane, I suppose it would be good for me someday to attend another pro-choice event and get a lowdown on the people there and the values they represent. And as Ken says, yes, BOTH sides can be radical. My one experience with the pro-choice side was about 20 years ago when I was a student at KU where I did attend such an event (they were discussing the law that said abortions couldn't be given to girls under age 17 without parental permission). Quite frankly, I have never been in a room filled with so many radical, hate filled people. One of the lead speakers was this chain smoking woman from the socialist party who totally dominated the group and set the tone. Speaker after speaker gave speech after speech saying how horrible the pro life side was, how men are the cause of all problems, how this law discriminated against girls, etc... After the meeting I went around the room to look at the booths and saw these guys from some Marxist group selling radical leftist literature. Some luddites were also pushing forced abortions and sterilizations. All in all a pretty radical group.

I also got the impression than some more moderate pro choice people were uncomfortable with these radical elements but felt powerless to say anything.

Maybe someday both sides could sit down and agree on a compromise.

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