Dr. Tiller, Me, and the Legacy of Hatred

I never met Dr. George Tiller, who was murdered on May 31st.  But I knew who he was and have respected his work and his courage from my earliest days in the reproductive rights movement.

Back in the mid-1980’s I began volunteering with the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). When I learned that protesters were blocking access to a local women’s center that provided abortion services, I immediately volunteered to “escort.”  The job of a clinic escort is theoretically quite simple – walk a woman into the clinic where she has an appointment. In practice, a clinic escort serves as a human shield. I was trained to put my body between the woman headed into the clinic and anyone who tries to block or harass her.  As a clinic escort, I was not allowed to engage protesters in any way. I couldn’t speak to them. I couldn’t touch them. I couldn’t react to them in any overt way. If I was physically attacked, I could do my best to protect my body and call for help.  If escorts were ever seen as instigators of conflict with the protesters, we would jeopardize the legal high ground of the clinic and the women using its services. If the police were called, escorts had to be blameless.

We knew as escorts that all over the U.S. clinics and their employees received death threats, were bombed and vandalized, were stalked and harassed, and, by the ‘90s, were shot and even killed.  We knew that volunteering to be a clinic escort was dangerous but, like George Tiller, it was a risk we were willing to take.

Though I volunteered as an escort nearly every Saturday morning for several years, I wasn’t afraid. My lack of fear was no show of bravery but mostly a result of my own anger and disgust.  Dragging myself out of bed way too early, I faced a pack of strangers screaming insults at me.  While I inhaled coffee and yearned to be back in my warm bed, I was called a baby killer and a Nazi. Grotesque signs were shoved in my face.  I had to keep one eye on my car since tires were regularly slashed. The women who arrived for their appointments had been warned about the protesters and been told that the escorts would be wearing distinctive smocks, but as escorts we still introduced ourselves and allowed each woman to refuse our help. The arrival of every woman started a race and I had to run to get to her before a protester but in a way that would not be more frightening then the screaming people with signs.  Often when my body was between a protester and a woman who had asked for escort, protesters would deliberately stomp on my foot and often give me a quick, hard, concealed punch in the ribs. I was allowed to do nothing in response. Once all of the women were safely inside, the protesters began shouting “You are killing your baby!” into the windows. I asked the clinic staff whether the women could hear the protesters’ shouts during the procedures and was told that often they could. Knowing this infuriated me but I had to hide my anger when protesters could see me.

When I first began escorting, the clinic was in a medical office building in which there were other tenants.  Many of the people coming in and out knew nothing about the clinic but that didn’t keep the protesters from calling them Nazis and baby killers. Everyone who came in and out of the building faced a barrage of signs and shouts about murder and the Holocaust. Everyone was accused of horrible crimes. One of these exchanges continues to haunt me.

A tall thin older man walked out of the building and stopped cold in front of a sign that said something about abortion being the Holocaust. It was obvious the man had no idea what was going on – he had been to another office in the building, possibly having his teeth cleaned. I saw the man begin to shake, his entire body trembling. The person with the sign screamed at the man that he was a Nazi.  I walked closer, feeling that something might happen though not knowing what. The man began to yell at the protester: “You know nothing about the Holocaust!  I was in the camps!  You know nothing!” He pulled up his sleeve to reveal a concentration camp tattoo.  I could only begin to process how horrible this was and went to the shaking man.  I said quietly but firmly, “Sir, I am so sorry.  Just ignore them. They aren’t here for you.”  I tried to engage him, wanting to lead him away.  I might as well have been a shrub – the man looked right through me.  I thought the protester would stop, would at least be shocked into silence.  Instead, the protester, a middle aged woman, said, “If you were in that building, you are a Nazi! You are part of the Holocaust.”  The man began to shake even more and screamed back, “Where were you?!  How dare you?!  You know nothing!  I was there!” And then, when I thought the woman simply had to see how wrong she was to attack this man, she began to scream at him, “The Christians saved the Jews!” Not “some Christians saved some Jews,” which would have been true though a wildly inappropriate to say to this man in this situation, but “the Christians saved the Jews.”  I don’t remember exactly what the man yelled back though I think it was something like “you did nothing!”  The woman kept repeating what she had said, I kept trying to convince the man to ignore her and go to his car, and then he lunged for her.  There was a strip of low plantings perhaps three feet wide between us and the woman. I tried to hold the man’s arm but he shook me off easily. I was afraid the man would be hurt.  I feared he would be arrested.  I feared the clinic would be blamed for whatever happened. But just before he reached her, he stopped himself. I have no idea why.  Still trembling, he walked to his car and drove away.

That protester may have come to the clinic that day motivated by a sincerely held belief that abortion is wrong but in that exchange with a man she knew had nothing to do with abortion she could only have been motivated by blind hatred. She didn’t care who she hurt that day or how. The things she had screamed at him had been ignorant and vicious and insane. I suspect that when the man with the concentration camp tattoo lunged for the protester, he hated her.  And as I absorbed all that I had seen, I hated her as well. None of what had been said had anything to do with anyone’s beliefs about abortion.  I respect the right to oppose abortion, no matter how much I disagree.  I respect the right to engage in peaceful protest. But that woman, and many of the others who lined up their children to call me a murderer every Saturday, had crossed over into action that was cruel and dangerous.

George Tiller’s murderer did not walk into that church alone. The killer brought with him a movement of people filled with hatred, people who support violence and commit violent acts, people who have long since lost sight of any moral objection to abortion if indeed morality had ever been a motivation. They all killed Dr. Tiller.  They have killed before and they will kill again.

I cried when I read about Dr. Tiller’s death.  But more than twenty years after watching the protester and the concentration camp survivor, I still hate that protester. I hate the man who murdered Dr. Tiller and all those who encourage him.  But I would never want anyone to shoot them.  Never.

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This is one of my stories about working to keep abortion safe and legal. To read the stories of others who continue to do this work in the face of great danger, I recommend I am Dr. Tiller.