Honoring George Tiller’s Memory Takes More Than Candlelight Vigils

by Gloria Feldt on May 31st, 2009
in Reproductive Health and tagged , , , , , , ,

This commentary which I wrote for Salon reflects my sadness and anger after Dr. Tiller was murdered this morning. My sympathy goes, as I am sure yours does, to his family and co-workers. The man fought for his principles on behalf of all women, and we owe it to him to prevent future acts of violence.

I am done with candlelight vigils.

It is good and necessary that people gather together at a candlelight vigil to honor the memory of Dr. George Tiller, murdered in cold blood today at his Lutheran church by an assailant believed to be Montana “Freeman” Scott Roeder. Tiller was a compassionate and courageous doctor who provided abortion services to women in some of the most distressing circumstances imaginable, when their pregnancies had gone horribly, tragically wrong. He provided services when no one else would, and he was stubborn enough to fight against everyone who tried to stop him. So it is right that people express their grief in public ceremonies.

But I myself am done with candlelight vigils. I have participated in too many of them, from 1993 with the murder of Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola through the seven doctors, patient escorts and staff murdered over the horrifying five-year period thereafter. I can never forget the day before New Year’s Eve in 1994. I was, at the time, CEO of Planned Parenthood in Arizona, talking on the phone to Pensacola patient escort June Barrett — who had been wounded when her husband and the clinic’s Dr. John Britton were murdered by anti-abortion zealot Rev. Paul Hill — when I received another urgent call from a friend whose granddaughter worked in Planned Parenthood’s Brookline clinic. The young woman had just witnessed the murder of two co-workers by John Salvi.

Each time, we held vigils all over the country. We wept and we pledged to continue our work. Which we did, increasingly, in isolation. We were the ones who had been wronged, and yet we were labeled controversial, to be shunned rather than supported. The murders were only the tip of the iceberg, among over 6000 cases of violence, vandalism, stalking, bombings, arson, invasions and other serious harassment.

When it comes to decrying Tiller’s unspeakable murder, I want to hear it from Congress. I want to hear it from clergy, the medical profession, the media and civic leaders: “This kind of violation will not be tolerated. Period.” I want to see leaders and people at the grassroots joining hands together in support of those who provide women with reproductive health services, including abortion. I want them to put the yellow armband on, to assume Tiller’s name as so many took on the Obama’s middle name, Hussein, when he was disparaged during the election. Doctors have a special responsibility. David Toub M.D, MBA, who provided abortions when he was a practicing physician in Philadelphia, told me, “This could have been any of us who provide or provided abortion services. I’m just as annoyed by some of my own colleagues and the American Medical Association who marginalized us and even looked down at anyone involved in providing abortion.”

The silence overall from leaders so far has been deafening, as attorney and longtime Arizona volunteer for reproductive rights causes Leon Silver pointed out. And if our leaders remain silent, I can tell you with perfect assurance what will happen next. There will be more violence.

Dr. Tiller’s friends, family, patients, colleagues and the many pro-choice activists who have supported him over the years need the vigil in Wichita and those springing up elsewhere to mourn the 67-year-old doctor’s death and celebrate his exceptional life. The larger community of reproductive health professionals and activists, including those who bravely escort women safely into and out of health facilities for abortions, need to cry and hug and lift one another up on the wings of their convictions that they are doing God’s work, saving women’s lives in the fullest sense of the word. I am with them in spirit.

But when it comes to changing a culture that has marginalized abortion by shaming women and hounding, even murdering, the doctors and clinic staff who provide safe abortions, when it comes to changing a culture bent on shaming women who are, in all good conscience, making the most moral of personal decisions–candlelight vigils alone will never be enough.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

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