Health Politics Women

George Tiller. A Look Back.

George Tiller is the fourth abortion-performing doctor executed in America. He is the first in a decade. He was killed inside his church as he ushered people to their seats. Bill O’Reilly, from Fox News, spent much time over the past years vilifying Tiller with little evidence to back it up. “Tiller the Baby Killer.” Now, I don’t know about Tiller’s late term abortion history. I doubt very much if it was “thousands of babies about to be born because the mother was depressed,” as O’Reilly claimed. I do know he was acquitted in a court of law in Kansas. 

The outpouring by the religious right has been strongly in favor of what happened. “There is a special place in the Bible that allows for this type of killing,” is the quote that comes to mind here. I set all of this aside now, and I go back to my days at the University of Nebraska in the mid seventies.

In the early seventies, abortion was legal only in New York. Birth control was not what it is today. Most of the sexually active college girls I knew used condoms when they had the nerve to get them, but really it was about counting days and scary nights leading up to each monthly period hoping they weren’t pregnant. To be honest, some didn’t care if they got pregnant, so sure were they that it would lead to a hasty marriage, dropping out of school, and many happy years together with the guy of their dreams. Promiscuous sex was not the norm, and if they did ‘it’, he was ‘the one’.

Most of the students I knew at the University had never been out of Nebraska. Most of them were from small towns where the trip to Lincoln to go to college was their first time away from the shelter of a small town’s vigilant oversight of all their business.

I was in a sorority. We all ate dinner together each night at 6:00 PM in a lovely dining room with our “mother” at the head of her table. Everyone said grace before being served family style. Every now and again – not often – a can would go from table to table and we all put whatever we had into the can. No one knew who was getting it, but we all put in as much as we could trying to raise the $300 to $500 needed. No one judged. Not all agreed with the decision, but everyone put what they could into that stupid can. We also didn’t discuss it. We looked down and put the money in in the can shamed by the thought of what it all meant. In some ways it was the height of compassion and in other ways, I look back thinking we were cowardly and harsh. Put our money in and don’t ever think about it again.

The recipient of the money (I have no names) would take a morning flight from Lincoln or Omaha (which had a change over in Chicago) and get to New York late in the afternoon. She would stay at the airport in a lounge chair until the next morning when she would take a cab to the clinic on 60th Street and 5th Avenue. She would have the abortion, and then go back to the airport where she would again spend the night in a lounge chair until the next morning when she would fly back to school. 

She went alone. No hotel. No friend. No sleep. I hate that I feel the need to say here I was never in need of the can’s gold. I should say I did just to be one with the sisterhood of what we all did. I don’t recall ever knowing who it was, but I do recall wondering if anyone was one of my close friends, too ashamed to reach out and tell me.  There were only sixty or so young women in the house. It was not so easy to get lost in the crowd. I heard the details of how it worked from one person or another in hushed whispers late at night.

I moved to New York City after college, where I found out about the clinic on 60th street. Ten years later, I met the clinic’s doctor. He and his wife are now good friends. He told me about guards outside his apartment house in the seventies as his small children went to school. He told me about the clinic and the stories of young girls from such far away places struggling to do the sometimes unthinkable. He told me about his commitment and his belief in the right to choose. I told him about my Nebraska days and thanked him for making it possible.

It scares me that there is such anger in America. I feel it growing, and not just around abortion. Perhaps it’s the economy, or perhaps it’s the prejudices brought to life by the differences between the past administration and the present one. I don’t know. This is the first killing in a decade. What does it mean? I sense it’s the beginning, not the end.

I also know that when I was in college, I was glad New York and the brave doctor were there if someone chose to go. Choice. I believe in choice.