What Operation Rescue Doesn’t Understand About Abortion.

This is not a political blog. This is a medical, and sometimes a science blog. Mostly it’s a blog about combating willful ignorance. So as I write the rest of this post, set aside your party affiliation, your rhetoric, and just be a human being for a few minutes.

I’ve been pondering George Tiller’s murder over the past few days, it’s left a bitter taste in my mouth. Abortion is a complicated issue, everyone carries their own baggage of beliefs to the conversation.

 What is indisputable is that someone murdered George Tiller, for practicing medicine. Yet people are primarily discussing his death in terms of how it helps or hurts their movement. Worse, they caricature Tiller as a villain, and then characterize abortion as “Murder”.

The decision to abort is never a simple one. It’s even more complicated in the case of late term abortions. Characterizing a doctor who decides to do this procedure as a “murderer” is beyond ridiculous. It’s disingenuous. And like all things I discuss here, it’s all about ignorance.

 Lets have a little respect for a man whose job involved more difficult decisions, and more heart-breaking stories in a day than most of us have to make in a life time.

It’s never easy to make the decision to abort. This is especially true for late term abortions. How do I know?

Lets look back at  Bittersweet. I wrote this:

We’re attempting a cephalocentesis, transabdominally. Using ultrasound Dr Rike placed the needle in a fluid filled space in the skull. We drain almost half a liter – a quarter of a big coke bottle. We’ve removed enough fluid for our patient to deliver her baby vaginally. That’s the only thing the patient want…her religious convictions tell her that a vaginal birth is what she should do. Early in her pregnancy she didn’t want to terminate for the same reasons. Her fetus had severe holoprosencephaly, and won’t likely survive long after birth.

As it was, this was considered controversial. We talked to an ethics committee, and legal before proceeding. Why? Because this could be construed as a “partial birth abortion,” even though the patient and patient’s baby lived. As it turns out, the partial birth abortion ban isn’t worded with science, so it could describe any number of obstetric procedures, depending on the circumstance. In fact, “partial birth abortion” doesn’t actually describe any single procedure accurately, but touches on a number of procedures. That’s what happens when you have politicians and advocates write laws about medicine and science. 

What if I had written this instead:

We’re attempting a cephalocentesis, vaginally.  Through the patient’s dilated cervix, Dr Rike placed the needle in a fluid filled space in the skull. We drain three quarters of a liter – over a third of a big coke bottle. We’ve removed enough fluid for our patient to finish this ordeal. That’s the only thing the patient wants…She’s been through hell and back.  Early in her pregnancy everything was fine, her baby lookd healthy. Later ultrasound revealed some abnormalities, but it was just too late for a normal abortion. She didn’t want an abortion. She didn’t want any of this. She just wanted her baby. She can’t have her baby. Her fetus had severe holoprosencephaly, and wouldn’t likely survive long after birth. What time the baby would have would be filled with constant seizures, and inconsolable screaming, until the poor thing couldn’t breath any longer. The heart stops beating. we’re ready to go on.

Would this story have been any less tragic? Is it any less a story about an immensly difficult situation? Would the mother’s choice have been wrong? Would this be murder? Would this really be an easy decision for anyone?  Of course not.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, our second story is just as true as the first – except that I wasn’t there, and it happened before I was on rotation.

Characterizing this as simple, as murder, a soundbite, or catchy rhyming slogan for your political rhetoric is hateful, hurtful, and morally reprehensible. So is saying that you can make this decision for someone else, who you’ve never met, whose story you know nothing about.

Mrs Christine, and this patient, are exactly the kind of women  Dr Tiller helped.  Could you have made the decisions he did? If you disagree with his decisions, could you have looked these women in the eye and said “We can’t help you, that’s murder. What you want me to do is wrong. You’d be murdering your child. You would be a baby killer.”

 My writing is a poor substitute for the women’s own words on the subject. These  are the real stories you should read. Those are the kind of people Dr Tiller helped, and the kind of situations we discuss. As Dr Tiller himself said quite eloquently:

After I had been there for a little while, patients in the practice began to ask me if I was going to do abortions like my father did. I was outraged. Why would these nice people say that he was a scumbag kind of a physician?

I began to ask some of these women. And I found out that in 1945, ‘46, or ‘47, a young woman for whom Dad had already delivered two babies came to him pregnant again right away, and she said something to the effect that, “I can’t take it, can you help me?” That is apparently the way you asked for an abortion from your regular doctor before abortion was legal. Dad said, “No. Big families are in vogue, by the time the baby gets here, everything will be all right.” She had a non-health-care provider abortion and came back and died.

I can understand how upset my father was. I do not know whether he did 100 abortions or 200 abortions or 300 abortions. I think it may have been something like 200 over a period of about 20 years, but I don’t know for sure. The women in my father’s practice for whom he did abortions educated me and taught me that abortion is about women’s hopes, dreams, potential, the rest of their lives. Abortion is a matter of survival for women. (emphasis added)

Understand that noone makes these decisions on a whim. I encourage you all to take a minute and learn from Dr Tiller’s patients as well. Humble yourself. Read about their struggles, their courage, and then tell me you think that soundbites are real. Tell me they’re honest. Tell me it’s still doing the right thing to call them murderers.  


This post is dedicated to the memory of Dr George Tiller, a good doctor, which is the highest compliment I will ever pay anyone on this blog.

Please note that the respect clause absolutely applies to this post. Anyone using epithets involving “baby killer”, will be banned, no questions asked.

Explore posts in the same categories: Medicine, OBGYN dreamin', Teachable Moments

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7 Comments on “What Operation Rescue Doesn’t Understand About Abortion.”

  1. MXH Says:

    Well said. The people who call physicians like Dr. Tiller a murderer have not thought seriously about the implications of his work (and don’t want to think about it). They are people who see the world as black and white. They do not think of what the child or the mother has to go through.

  2. Liz Ditz Says:

    Thanks for writing this and the Bittersweet post. I am sick of the rigid, inaccurate thinking of the anti-choice zealots.

    • Thank you for reading 🙂

      While I am pro choice myself, these pieces aren’t meant to say that no pro-life position is reasonable from a science perspective. In the end these are moral discussions. To have that moral discussion, we must have it from a position of knowledge, rather than a position of ignorance.

      I just want to point out that the discussion is much more complicated than “Murder” vs “just another doctors appointment”.

      At least some pro-choice individuals treat this issue as flippantly as the far right.

      This post is aimed as much at them as it is to the hardcore pro-life movement.

      It’s really the Zealots on both sides that I struggle with. Both usually forget that women’s lives are torn apart by this decision. Regardless of what decision they make, many women will afterwards have guilt, and a difficult time dealing with the consequences emotionally. Oversimplfying the issue is just disrespectful to these women, regardless of what they personally decide to do.

  3. Katherine Says:

    Thank you for posting this, especially this sentence: “What is indisputable is that someone murdered George Tiller, for practicing medicine.”

  4. Dawn Says:

    @whitecoat: Thanks for this post. My mom delivered an anencephalic baby back in the 60’s. To this day, she talks about how awful it was. A doctor who performed the terminations he did, deserved kudos, not murder.

  5. Papa Tales Says:

    Well said.

  6. mickymayor Says:

    Although fertility doctors would prefer patients to stay in their clinics for the entire IVF cycle, some patients may reduce the number of days spent abroad by way of initial ovulation stimulation by a local OBGYN doctor. oB/GYN South Florida

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