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Public Theology: Agonizing about Life: The Patients of Dr. Tiller
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Agonizing about Life: The Patients of Dr. Tiller
Those who hate this 'abortion doctor' are bearing false witness. They lie about what's at stake in abortion. Here are some facts and some truth.

By Ed Knudson

The killing of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita rightly raises ethical questions again in the public consciousness about abortion. Below are some stories of women facing problems in their pregnancies who were his patients. I suppose anti-abortion dogmatists will not want to read these stories because they do not want to admit to the ethical ambiguities involved. I suggest it is necessary to face these facts and that a truly Christian approach is not to stand on the outside and condemn these women, but to enter into their terrible ethical dilemmas with them, share their grief and heartache, and support them with compassion and mercy.

Furthermore, let me suggest some things to think about as you read these stories. First, nature is broken, it is not perfect, biological processes do not always follow the same normal path. The idea that "nature" is always benevolent is not a Christian notion. That nature itself is broken has been the primary Christian doctrinal understanding. So those who I call "biological fundamentalists" are wrong in their worship of biological processes or their claim that there is one romantic biological moment when human life is created in all perfection.

Second, the issue really is about the proper application of medical technologies. Our society faces moral issues across a large spectrum of cases here, from birth through death and in between. Abortion is not a special case. The question is under what conditions can medical technology be used to further life. Dr. Tiller used his expertise for the benefit of women in terrible circumstances, he believed in their freedom to make their own choices within very difficult circumstances. He was a Lutheran physician, and that is a traditional Lutheran understanding of morality. Each of us stands before God responsible for our actions within the concrete circumstances we are given.

Third, there is real moral ambiguity in all these cases as I indicated above. As Barack Obama has often said, it is wrong not to think that most women take the decision to have an abortion very seriously. Those who engage in anti-abortion rhetoric are bearing false witness, they are breaking the eighth commandment. Too many Catholic bishops and religious right preachers have been over many years now breaking that commandment by wholesale attacks on women who have chosen abortion in difficult circumstances and doctors who perform them. I believe myself that many of those involved actually are motivated more by political than ethical motives. It is possible to appeal to raw emotion in the abortion debate, raise funds for groups and churches, and otherwise profit politically, as the Republican Party has sought to do. If they were truly moral, those bishops and preachers ought now not just say they oppose violent acts but they should apologize to the family of Dr. Tiller and to the nation for simplifying difficult moral issues in such a way that a person like his killer can justify taking such action.


Hanna Rosin at doubleX provides a friend's description of her time at Dr. Tiller's clinic:

Story One
It was horrible. We were driving onto the grounds and the protesters were there with their ugly pictures yelling at us. Just yelling. Then we got inside and it was calm, very professional. Those people are miracle workers, every last one of them, from the littlest nurse to the admin guys. They had to know their lives were in danger, and there was security everywhere, but they just wanted to reassure us.

The baby had contracted a virus and you could see on the MRI that its organs were all messed up. It looked like there were bubbles in them, instead of solid masses like they were supposed to be. Then they figured out that the baby had been exposed to Fifth disease. All sorts of researchers contacted us, because they wanted to study it.

That was at about 20 weeks. I got a blood transfusion and I thought everything was cool. We went on vacation. But then we came back, and the doctor realized everything wasn't cool. His brain had a hemorrhage. The MRI reminded me of my other son's. He's autistic, and when he was three he'd had an MRI that also showed abnormalities. At a minimum, they said the baby would have developmental delays. But the doctor also used the words: "This child could not make it into childhood." I was six months along then, and I was already showing. But we couldn't handle having another special needs kid. Psychically, we just couldn't handle it.

It was definitely not a threat to my life. My doctor sort of indicated that there were other options but he didn't give us any contact info. He basically said we had to go to Wichita, Kan., and we'd be in good hands. It was an unusual environment. There were about 10 of us, with our husbands. We stayed in a hotel with all-night security. They were parents from all over the country, and racially mixed. Some of them definitely could have been Republicans, and Christians. Some wanted to give the fetus a name, and bury it, but I didn't want that. Most of them had babies with Down's Syndrome. They wanted us to go through this together, and in therapy sessions they let us talk about it.

After they injected us with something to kill the fetus, they used some kind of seaweed stick, to make the process more organic, so the body would naturally start to abort the fetus. The whole thing took two or three days. We were all pulling for each other.

There were elections going on at the time, and in my hotel room I remember seeing Sam Brownback, a senator from Kansas, on T.V. giving some big speech, and he kept saying this is a message for Americans and for the "unborn children." And I thought, "this is just horrible." This is a very difficult decision, a very personal decision, and it shouldn't be up for debate in this kind of forum. It seemed totally inappropriate.

I cry all the time, and that will be for the rest of my life. Because I really, really wanted that baby. It's so sad, that no matter what was wrong with it, it was trying to grow, that my body was still trying to make that body grow. It could even have looked like a perfect baby—it probably did look like a perfect baby. So it's just weird and sad that nature is trying to do this thing, and everything is working against it.
Story Two (from the same source)
In July 1993, my husband and I received the worst news about our son's impending birth: He suffered from multiple, severe fetal anomalies, both internal and external, thought to be the result of a rare blood disorder. If he could survive his early birth at 24 weeks he most likely would not survive his blood cancer beyond the age of 9.

After several years of trying to conceive our second child, the news could not have been more devastating. When we heard the news, I had been in Mt. Sinai Hospital in NYC for more than two weeks, hooked up to a subcutaneous pump delivering a medication to stop contractions. While still reeling from the shock, we were told we could take our chances and let the baby be born, but that the state would be forced to intervene if we did not then take every measure to keep our son alive. Or, we could consider two late-term abortion clinics—one in Wichita, Kan., the other in Holland! Our initial thoughts were "how could we be in a major NYC hospital in the United States and be told these are our only choices?" To say it was surreal is an understatement.

We made the very painful decision to travel to Wichita after many sleepless, tear-filled hours of discussion. The "quality" of life our son would have had, and the effects this birth could have had on our family for years to come, brought us to that difficult road. I could never explain to anyone how it felt to travel six hours with my baby kicking, knowing that I was about to end the life we tried so lovingly to create. While my husband lived this nightmare with me, even he could not understand or experience the depths of despair that I felt. The scars are still there.

My husband and I found Dr. George Tiller to be a caring, sensitive, and compassionate man who truly believed he was helping those of us who were desperate and had nowhere else to go. While we were at his clinic, he was very concerned about an 11-year-old child raped by her stepfather. And, when we were tormented by Operation Rescue protesters outside his clinic, he put on a bullet proof vest and personally drove us out of there while we hid in his van.

Story Three (Source)
I did not know Dr. Tiller, but his assassination vividly reminds me of events in 1983, when my wife and I had a devasting experience with a late-term pregnancy gone wrong at 38 weeks.

We had a daughter (I will call her that—in our case, the distinction between fetus and child was not relevant) who developed hydrocephalus (water on the brain) late in the pregnancy, which was discovered at the last ultrasound. Her head was huge with fluid, and therefore would not fit through the birth canal. Actually, it was called hydroencephaly, meaning that she essentially had no brain, because it had been substantially dissolved by the neural fluid from a spinal cord that had not properly closed.

Because of the head size, we learned that my wife would have to have a caesarian to deliver the baby—although common, a major surgery. My wife had had an ectopic pregnancy, with major surgery that devasted her, but we very much wanted the baby. Yet we learned that even with the caesarian, the baby would either die shortly after birth, or would live somewhat longer, and very, very badly—likely paralyzed, blind, and without significant mental faculties.

My brother is a neonatologist, an expert in premature babies and other problems, and he consulted with specialists around the country. Nothing could be done to improve the predicted outcome. We decided to terminate the pregnancy and avoid the caesarian, to preserve my wife's health and increase her chances for another child, and so we wouldn't simultaneously be grieving the child and coping with recovery from surgery. We made that wrenching decision and the pregnancy was terminated at Stanford University, with the baby delivered vaginally after the evacuation of the spinal fluid from her head.

This is what was much later termed "partial birth abortion" and villified by politicians and ideologues who have no idea of the reality we experienced. We buried our daughter in a cemetary in Santa Cruz, Calif. We continue to grieve her loss, and we are also grateful to the caring doctors who assisted us in our time of need.

Would that Dr. Tiller's killer, and his allies, had any idea of the nature of the medical disasters for which he offered his help. Would that they cared.

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Date Added: 6/3/2009 Date Revised: 6/3/2009

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