Freedom of Choice: Living for What You Would Die For

I was a teenager in 1968 when I learned that I was pregnant. Through a friend, I tried to arrange for an illegal abortion, only to be sent down a rabbit hole that involved a uniformed police officer, secret password, and hundreds of dollars that I didn’t have.


Young and terrified, unable to raise the money, and turned down by the therapeutic abortion committee at my local hospital, I eventually was forced to carry the pregnancy against my will and put the child up for adoption, an experience that was hands down the most difficult and painful of my life.

Now, as Chief Medical Officer at Planned Parenthood of New York City, I make sure that women have access to the reproductive health care they need. But these days, with the recent the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I cannot help but think of another provider – a friend, colleague, and hero, Dr. George Tiller. George was a family physician who took over his father’s practice in Wichita after his parents, sister, and brother-in-law were killed in a plane crash. It was only when women in the community began asking him if he would offer them the same services that his father did that he learned that his father had provided then-illegal, but safe, abortions. When one of those women sought care from someone else and died because of it, George Tiller devoted his career to abortion provision, eventually becoming one of the few doctors in the country with the skills and commitment to provide later abortions to women whose wanted pregnancies had gone awry.  

For this dedication and service, he became the target of vehement anti-abortion hatred.  His clinic was firebombed, and he was shot in both arms, harassed relentlessly at his home, persecuted, prosecuted, and finally assassinated while serving as an usher in his church…the one place, the only place in his community where he said he always felt safe.  

I have often wondered to myself how Dr. George Tiller did what he did. As a physician, I know the emotional fortitude it takes to care for even one woman who is experiencing the pain of losing a wanted pregnancy. George put his whole heart and soul into caring for thousands and thousands. As an abortion provider, I have some inkling of the enormous stress providers feel when they are subject to even one act of harassment and violence. George experienced it every day and kept coming back again and again.  How does anyone have that much courage?  

The answer comes from a phrase from one of my favorite authors, Anne River Siddons. “Close your eyes and think about what you would die for…and now open your eyes and live for it.”

George Tiller never should have died the way that he did.  But he lived every minute of his life with the passion of a man who knew it might be his last…a passion guided by the needs, hopes and aspirations of women, a passion that fostered unfathomable courage, undaunted by hatred, and marked by the most exquisite love, joy, humility, and grace.  

I was one of the young girls who “went away.” I was also one of the few fortunate enough to come back. Thousands upon thousands of women of my generation faced the back alleys of America before the legalization of abortion. They stood on dark street corners and were taken in cars blindfolded to clandestine locations. They filled the beds of special wards in public hospitals, misogynously called “septic tanks” by some because they were dedicated to the care of women sick with and dying of sepsis -- an overwhelming infection caused by botched abortions. They were the poor and desperate women who resorted to coat hangers, catheters, coke bottles,  turpentine, and lye because they had nowhere else to turn.

Today we live in a world where we have the technology to provide safe abortion to every woman who chooses it. Yet somewhere in the world, one woman continues to die every 8 minutes from an unsafe abortion.

Today we live in a country where generations of women have never known what it is like to not have the legal right to abortion. Yet hundreds of bills are introduced in state legislatures every year to restrict their access to abortion, and many women have to travel long distances, cross picket lines, survive harassment, and brave the stigma to get a safe abortion. Often, I am struck by how similar the experiences are for these younger generations of women and my own.

So, today on the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I dream of a world where a women’s ability to control her fertility, to decide whether or not to have a child, and to have that child thrive and grow is not compromised by poverty or discrimination or violence or age or immigration status or how close she lives to a toxic waste dump.  

Achieving this bold mission will certainly take all of us.  As George Tiller understood so well, it is a mission rooted in the everyday stories of women that coin our personal passion and become our movement…a human rights movement that reaches into all parts of the globe and will never be stopped because it is ultimately rooted in matters of the heart.

Maureen Paul MD, MPH is Chief Medical Officer at Planned Parenthood of New York City (PPNYC) and Associate Clinical Professor in the Dept of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Science at Mt. Sinai Medical Center. Dr. Paul served on the Board of Directors of the National Abortion Federation (NAF) for several years and as Board President from 1998-2000. She has authored several publications on abortion, and she is Chief Editor of the first NAF textbook on abortion as well as its recent sequel, Management of Unintended and Abnormal Pregnancy: Comprehensive Abortion Care (Blackwell-Wiley & Sons, 2009).
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