Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
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Dr. George Tiller

June 03, 2009

On Memorial Day I wrote that part of my problem with the day was its reluctance to acknowledge that dying in war isn't necessarily dying for freedom, and that maybe some of those who died for freedom didn't die in battle, like Elijah Lovejoy, and Albert Parsons, and Joe Hill, and James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.

And Dr. George Tiller. Dr. Tiller was shot and killed as he ushered at his Wichita church this past Sunday. Dr. Tiller was one of the few physicians in the U.S. willing to perform third-trimester abortions, and for many years he has been the target of unbelievably vile invective from anti-choice anti-abortion activists. He and his colleagues have been repeatedly threatened, his clinic was under continual attack, and in 1993 another anti-abortion fanatic shot him in both arms. And he kept doing his work in the world. His courage takes my breath away. So, too, does the courage of his family, friends, and colleagues. It's often easier to take risks yourself than to watch day after day after day as someone you love and respect puts his or her life in danger.

Dr. Tiller lived and then died for freedom. Women's freedom. No question in my mind about that. No woman wants to have an abortion in the third trimester of pregnancy. I'm pretty sure that no one reading this bloggery believes otherwise, but to hear the anti-choice crusaders talk, you'd think that women in the seventh month of pregnancy suddenly look at the calendar and think, "Whoops, I stayed too long at the mall and forgot to schedule an abortion." Women who undergo third-trimester abortions nearly always wanted to get pregnant, but something has gone wrong, either with the fetus or with their own health. Dr. Tiller was one of the relative handful of doctors willing to be there for those women.

Dr. Tiller is a hero not only because he died for freedom but because he stood up to terrorism. No question in my mind about that either: The radical wing of the anti-abortion movement has long since adopted terrorism as a key strategy. Its goal is to so intimidate health-care providers, clinics, and hospitals that they don't dare offer abortions. With third-trimester abortions they've come close to succeeding. Abortions earlier in pregnancy are more readily available, but many women have to travel many hours to reach the nearest provider, and many doctors are not trained to perform the procedures. Abortions may be legal, but if they can't be readily obtained, how much is legality worth? (What is state-of-the-art health care worth if you can't afford access to it?)

In some lights, however, I can almost understand the fanaticism of the hardcore anti-choice activists: if one deeply believes that abortion is murder and that legalized abortion is the moral equivalent of legalized genocide, then surely all, or almost all, means are justified in trying to stop it? Well, in a word -- no. Those of us who believe that the U.S. war on Iraq -- and indeed most U.S. military actions since the end of World War II -- are unjust, murderous, and even genocidal are not harassing recruits, blowing up military installations, or shooting recruiters. Maybe we should be? No, we should not. Because "ends justify the means" is a rationalization, not a reason: ends and means are not separable, because the means you employ become the ends you have to live with. In a dire situation, such as Nazi Germany, such means may well be justified because the system allows no possibilities for dissent that is both lawful and potentially effective. Despite histrionics to the contrary, we are not in such a situation. We have alternatives.

In a pluralistic society, "God says abortion is murder" is not enough. Those who believe in God differ considerably in their takes on what God says and doesn't say, and those with even a modicum of humility acknowledge that they can't really speak for God. A pluralistic society includes plenty of people who don't believe in any god, and for us there is no persuasive proof that we should take a believer's word for it. A non-believer in water pollution or the hazards of cigarette smoking can be presented with empirical evidence that these things exist. For the existence of God, any god, there is no such evidence. For some people this is too much to swallow, but you know what? In a pluralistic, aspiring-to-be-democratic society, they've just got to take their medicine. What the law says trumps what God says, and no one gets a bye because God whispered in their ear that the law was wrong.

 

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