2 June 2009

Comment: One family’s tragedy, not a political indicator

While mourning and commemorating the life and work of Dr George Tiller, we need to be clear about whether his murder has any wider meaning for the politics of abortion. By Jennie Bristow.

The killing of US abortion doctor George Tiller at his church in Kansas on 31 May has been met with condemnation from pro-choice and anti-abortion groups alike. US president Barack Obama has spoken of his ‘shock’ and ‘outrage’ over the killing. (1) A 51-year-old suspect, named as Scott Roeder, has been arrested and charged with first-degree murder and two charges of aggravated assault. (2) Media reports quote the suspect’s brother as saying he had a long history of mental health problems. (3)

The murder of Dr Tiller, a 67-year-old grandfather whose life’s work has been providing reproductive health care and abortions to women who need them, is a horrific act. Working out of his Women’s Health Care Services clinic, Dr Tiller was one of the few doctors in the USA who would perform abortions beyond the second trimester of pregnancy, and was consequently a target for extremist anti-abortion activity. He had previously been shot in both arms, and his clinic had been the target of vandalism and bomb threats.

That doctors are prepared to put their safety on the line to this degree in order to do what they believe is right for women is an inspiration, and a humbling reminder of the level of personal courage needed to be an abortion provider in the USA, even when the procedure has been legal for almost 40 years. But in commemorating Dr Tiller’s life and work, it is important to be clear about the extent to which his murder has any wider meaning for the politics of abortion. This means addressing a few key misconceptions.

1) One murderer does not represent a ‘movement’

Scott Roeder, the suspect in this killing, reportedly may have had been associated with the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, and an anti-federalist Christian militia group called the Freemen. (1) For some, this shows that assassination is the logical consequence of a particular form of ideology: one writer calls it Christian Fundamentalist Terrorism (4), others generally blame the American right. Conflicting press statements by notorious anti-abortion activist groups like Operation Rescue in the States have opportunistically sought to talk up a view of themselves as being part of a threatening wider movement. While calling for ‘peaceful’ protest, founder Randall Terry called Tiller a ‘mass murderer’ and said to reporters of the death ‘I am more concerned that the Obama Administration will use Tiller’s killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions.’ (5)

But while many are, quite understandably, bitterly opposed to and scared of the uncompromising positions taken by the hardline elements of the anti-abortion movement, and the wilder fringe of the anti-choice hardline may seek to use the actions of deluded individuals as a frightener tactic and to claim their arguments have resonance, it must be recognised that individuals who commit murder always have their own warped reasons for doing so.

To view Dr Tiller’s killing as somehow the thin end of a wedge unfairly demonises those who hold strong beliefs about abortion but would never condone killing doctors, and inflates fear among US abortion providers and others in the pro-choice movement about the threats they might face. It also falsely over-states the extent to which violent extremist views are held in what is already a minority political viewpoint - handing bullies a victory.

While not in any way underestimating the shock and horror caused by Dr Tiller’s death and its impact upon his family, friends and colleagues, we should remember that even in the USA, where abortion is one of the most polarised and divisive of issues, 11 years have passed since the last time an abortion doctor was murdered. (6) Some have already begun to speculate that the killing of Dr Tiller will be the start of a new wave of abortion doctor murders, to do with the fact that there is now a Democrat in the White House. It is too soon to predict any of this: and the notions that deluded assassins are motivated by the intricacies of formal political debate, rather than whatever might be going on in their own heads, is as unhelpful as it is inaccurate.

2) The politics of abortion have moved on

For those of us within the British pro-choice movement, there is a tendency to receive a rather warped view of US politics: particularly that which has been refracted through the UK’s left-leaning press during the years of the Bush administration. The American right wing is often depicted as far more coherent, powerful and harshly judgemental than it is, while the American public are depicted as gun-toting God-botherers who are wholly to blame for the Bush presidency and would rather see women die than give up their principles about the ‘right to life’ of the fetus.

It is true that abortion is a much more political, polarised and divisive issue in the USA than it is in the UK. But it has been noted for several years that the most important shift in the politics of abortion has been a gradual move towards the ‘middle ground’. Despite various pieces of anti-abortion legislation being discussed and passed during the Bush years, which have compromised both some women’s right to abortion and their access to the procedure, there is little appetite for banning abortion outright.

Polling evidence suggests that, amongst those members of the public who are ideologically or morally opposed to abortion, there is a greater acceptance of the argument that women should be able to have abortions if they need to: in other words, not that access to abortion is a moral good, but a recognition that it might be a lesser evil than forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term.

Of equal significance is that some in the pro-choice movement have also modified their arguments, keen to bring a more ‘real’ acknowledgment of the abortion experience into their advocacy to contrast with the more hyperbolic anti-choice rhetoric. People who are pro-choice are not now reluctant to acknowledge the things that most people can empathise with: for example, that having or performing an abortion can be very tough. However some abortion advocates in the American debate have gone so far as to say that abortions earlier in pregnancy are somehow better than those that take place at later gestations; and that abortion is a procedure that should, in the words of Hillary Clinton, be made ‘safe, legal and rare’.

No woman ever wants to need to have an abortion, and no doctor actually likes performing them. Abortions earlier in pregnancy are safer and easier to perform, and to the extent that the incidence of unintended pregnancy can be reduced through access to contraception, this is no bad thing. But recognising these facts should not mean compromising on key arguments. To play an equal role in society, women need access to abortion – as early as possible and as late as necessary. Aborting a fetus, at whatever gestation, is not the same as killing a baby. Contraception is great but it is also fallible. While unintended pregnancy is a fact of life, so is women’s need for abortion. Abortion will not become ‘rare’ unless it is legally restricted, meaning actually that the official numbers go down and clandestine numbers, with the associated injuries and mortalities, rise.

For those who believe in women’s right to abortion, abortion might not be a nice thing but a woman’s right to abortion is, absolutely, a moral good. On the other hand, for those who do believe that aborting a fetus is the same as killing a baby, abortion will always be a moral bad – and there really is no way around this.

The shift towards non-judgementalism in the US abortion debate can be seen to represent a greater tolerance of other people’s personal decisions, or perhaps a gradual weakening of attachments to strong beliefs in general. To the extent that this results in less hostility to women who have abortions and the medical staff who perform them, this is a positive shift. But it should not be taken as evidence that the politics of abortion have somehow been resolved, with one side winning out against the other.

The enduring polarisation of the abortion debate was recently highlighted by President Barack Obama, in a key speech at Notre Dame university. In reporting on Obama’s reaction to Dr Tiller’s murder, much of the press coverage has focused on how he attempted to ‘defuse’ the debate through focusing on the need to prevent unintended pregnancy. In fact, Obama’s more significant comments related to the recognition that this debate can never be defused – it needs to be recognised for what it is, a clash of opinions:

‘I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it – indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory – the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.’ (7)

To say that the politics of abortion have moved on does not mean that one side or the other has won the battle. It only means that people have become more accepting of living with what they don’t like. We need to recognise this trend for what it is, and resist the temptation to compromise our own arguments for the sake of winning over more of the middle ground.

3) ‘Late’ abortion should be properly defined – and vigorously defended

Abortion doctors the world over tend to be brave, committed individuals prepared to do a hard job for the sake of the women who need them. In the USA, and other countries where abortion is a heated issue, this can mean that they are prepared to risk their safety, their reputations and even their lives. This is particularly the case when, like Dr George Tiller, they are one of a few high-profile doctors who are prepared to carry out abortions late in gestation – up to and beyond 24 weeks’ gestation, the end of the second trimester of pregnancy.

One disturbing feature of the abortion debate in recent years has been attempts to distinguish ‘late’ abortions from ‘early’ abortions as being somehow worse. Claims about fetal viability – the gestation at which a fetus can potentially survive outside of it’s mother’s womb – are made, and often wildly overstated, as part of an argument as to why aborting a fetus is actually like killing a baby. In reporting on Dr Tiller’s murder, sections of the UK press have blithely noted that this doctor was a provider of ‘late-term abortions’, and that (for example) ‘[a]bortions are considered late term when they are performed after the 20th week of gestation on fetuses that are potentially old enough to survive outside the womb.’ (8)

Overstated claims about fetal viability need correcting on a scientific level, and criticising on a moral level. In the run-up to the legal discussion about the UK’s abortion law, and specifically whether the legal ‘time limit’ for abortion should be reduced from 24 weeks’ gestation, a Parliamentary committee reviewed the research about fetal viability and found no evidence of any improvement under 24 weeks’ gestation. (9) Only a handful of babies born at these threshold gestations survive into the delivery room, let alone long enough to go home – as parents of premature babies know to their cost. To claim that viability is possible from 20 weeks, a point at which no babies survive at all, is a gross distortion of the scientific evidence. (10)

At a moral level, to those who believe in women’s right to abortion, the fact that a fetus – if born – may potentially be able to survive outside of the womb does not make that woman’s need for an abortion any less significant. The process by which a fetus becomes an infant, and a woman becomes a mother, is determined by far more than the biological development and medical technology needed to permit survival – it is a social process, involving a complex layer of circumstances and personal relationships.

As I have argued before, there are a whole lot of very good reasons why a woman might need an abortion up to 24 weeks’ gestation – and these reasons apply beyond the legal time limit that we have in the UK. (See 24 reasons for 24 weeks, 15 May 2008) One such reason – though not the only one – is that of fetal abnormality, and the discovery that continuing the pregnancy to term will lead to the birth of a severely disabled child. In the UK, it is legal under such circumstances to have an abortion after 24 weeks. In the USA, abortions for fetal abnormality constituted a significant proportion of the ‘late term’ abortions carried out by Dr George Tiller. Not all of them – like many abortion doctors, Dr Tiller would have understood that there are reasons for a woman having an abortion after 24 weeks that may be as valid as the sudden discovery of fetal abnormality.

When the term ‘late abortion’ is used today, it can be seen to mean anything from abortion in the second trimester (beyond 13 weeks’ gestation) to abortion well into the third trimester. It is important to recognise that there are big differences between an abortion at 13 weeks and one at beyond 24 weeks in terms of the safety of the procedure, the skill required to carry it out, and the legal restrictions that might surround it. But morally, it is important to recognise that an abortion is an abortion – there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ abortions, there is only the question of what women need and who is prepared to provide it for them.

That is why those doctors, nurses, midwives and clinics who are prepared to carry out abortions in the second trimester of pregnancy and beyond deserve particular recognition for their courage and compassion. In the UK, ‘late term’ abortion providers do not get gunned down – in the USA, such acts of violence are exceedingly rare. But wherever they live, professionals who are prepared to go beyond the more acceptable first trimester procedures, to provide women with the procedures they need at the time that they need them, put themselves on the line every day of the week. If there ever was a time to thank them, that time is now.

Jennie Bristow is editor of Abortion Review. She is writing here in a personal capacity.

(1) Barack Obama shocked by abortion doctor shooting. Daily Telegraph, 1 June 2009

(2) Man charged with murder of ‘late-term’ abortion doctor in US. Guardian, 1 June 2009

(3) Suspect arrested over murder of U.S. abortion doctor was anti-Government activist caught with a bomb 13 years ago. Daily Mail, 2 June 2009

(4) Christian Fundamentalist Terrorism, by Shannyn Moore. Huffington Post, 31 May 2009

(5) George Tiller was a Mass-Murderer, says Randall Terry—We Grieve That he Did Not Have Time to Properly Prepare his Soul to Face God. Christian News Wire, 31 May 2009

(6) Abortion Provider George Tiller Murdered at Church, by Frances Kissling. Religion Dispatches, 31 May 2009

(7) Full text of Barack Obama’s speech at Indiana’s Notre Dame. Guardian, 17 May 2009

(8) Controversial abortion doctor shot dead in US church. The Times (London), 1 June 2009

(9)Scientific Developments Relating to the Abortion Act 1967. Science and Technology Committee, October 2007.

(10) Abortion time limit, May 2008. British Medical Association.  See Trent Regional Study