Remembering Dr. Tiller 4 Years Later

Four years ago today, I was teaching high school. I heard on the radio or read an article about a doctor being murdered.

I didn’t consider myself a religious person, not then. I was just starting out on my spiritual journey. But even then, I heard the news and thought: aren’t churches meant to be safe places?

Even The Wire, after all, depicts Sundays as a ceasefire day.

I heard about a doctor being murdered while volunteering at his church, among his community, before God. He was murdered. The story stuck with me. It started following me around, interrupting my tasks with questions and worries.

I emailed my feminist friends. Four of us  gathered for weeks to have Tiller Talks, conversations about what Dr. Tiller’s death meant, what role we could play in preventing future murders, what we as individuals – as young feminist women – could do.

We wrote long lists of ideas — hosting movie nights, supporting abortion funds, cultivating dialogues with “the other side”, signing petitions, training to be abortion providers or airplane pilots — and debated what our tiny contingent could do, all of us young and eager, just starting out in our adult lives.

We didn’t have money or clout, but we had passion and conviction.

In the intervening years, one of us volunteered for an abortion fund, one conducted research on abortion, another sent thank you cards to other late-term abortion providers. We all did the tiny and not so tiny things we could, in Dr. Tiller’s memory and honor. But for ourselves as well.

tillerThank you, 4000 Years for Choice.

It feels right, real and good to work under the light of our passions. The flame that ignites from learning of an injustice grows to a fire with time. We do not live in a world where we murder people whom we disagree with, and as a religious person, as a feminist, as a woman it is my duty to stand up and say “this is wrong.”

Today I also think about Beatriz in El Salvador, who has lupus and is 24 weeks pregnant with a fetus that has no chance of surviving after birth. I think of the Salvadoran Supreme Court, who is denying her a life-saving procedure.

I think of Savita. I think of the countless women whose names we do not know, who died because they had no access to a simple medical procedure, who self-induced abortions, got unsafe abortions, who had no one to stand up for them. History is filled with these women. They are our ancestors, our relatives, our neighbors.

I think of what it means to live in a world where we let women die.

I think of the accident of birth — here, in LA, I have a say over what happens to my body, have access to the medical care I need, can afford an abortion; but in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile — if I’m pregnant there and need an abortion, I have no say. I wouldn’t have control over my own body there, wouldn’t have a say about my own health. Someone else would get to decide what happens to me – a court, a president, a doctor, a husband – determining whether I live or die.

I think of the abortion providers I know and love. I think of their courage and conviction. I think of the legacy Dr. Tiller left us, how he trusted women.

If you don’t own your body, what do you really own?

Ruminations on Savita Halappanavar’s Death: The Difference Between The Law and Its Application

Surely you’ve already heard of Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death in Ireland on October 28th of this year. Go on, read the article if you haven’t already. I’ll wait.

I’ve been listening on the radio, reading, thinking about the heartache her husband and family feel, about the protests in India and Ireland. About the medical providers who saw her suffering and are likely suffering now themselves. I’ve been rolling the facts around in my head: Savita was 31 years old. A dentist. A Hindu. Since 2008, Savita was living in Ireland with her husband, Praveen Halappanavar. She was organizing the Diwali festival in her community. Savita was 17 weeks pregnant with a desired pregnancy, then she miscarried. When she went to the Emergency Department, she requested an abortion and was denied one.

Some facts I do not know the answer to but wish I did: How well did Savita or her husband Praveen know Irish abortion law? What support did she and her husband have during the miscarriage? What influenced the decisions made by the medical personnel treating Savita? What had occurred in prior incidents when other women had come to the hospital in the midst of a miscarriage? What are the repercussions for denying a patient the necessary treatment? Who provides illegal abortions in Ireland? If a woman is unable to travel to the UK for an abortion, how does she access these non-medical and likely unsanitary and unsafe illegal abortion providers? What are the medical providers who treated Savita thinking and feeling now? When they talk with their beloveds at night, what do they say about this story?

Hearing about Savita’s autopsy report, we learn that her death was caused by septicaemia, and E.coli ESBL. However, these conditions were caused not by the miscarriage she was experiencing, but by a miscarriage of the law. By delaying the one treatment that would have likely saved Savita’s life: an abortion. I am certainly no expert on Irish abortion law, but after some searching I’ve learned that: Despite the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which not only made abortion illegal but also punishable, since 1992, Ireland explicitly allows abortion in order to save a women’s life.

Ah yes. The law has been adjusted (20 years ago!), but public opinion, provider knowledge and attitudes and skills and training…take time to change. The systems in place to prevent women from receiving abortions (including the kind that save their lives) has been around much longer. Maybe medical providers were uncertain, unskilled or afraid. Change takes time. Eventually, the miscarriage was removed from Savita’s body, but by then it was too late. Too much time had passed.

It is not the law itself, but the interpretation of the law that determines whether it is followed. The law is a blunt instrument, and when applied without clear interpretation, without ample knowledge by those affected, the results are often tragic.

This also presents an example of how a geographical location and its associated laws supersede nationality and religion. Because of the borders a cartographer drew around this land, our rules are different from those of the land next door. Rights you had back home are no longer accessible to you. It didn’t matter that Savita wasn’t Catholic, and wasn’t from Ireland. The decision-makers had decided long before she arrived.