How ironic and horrifying that headlines about the nomination of the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice – and the accompanying questions about her views on abortion – were replaced last week by news of the brutal slaying of a champion of women’s right to choose abortion. We went from celebrating Sonia Sotomayor to mourning George Tiller in the blink of an eye. What does it say about our nation when people who protest a reproductive choice they call “murder” choose to kill in cold blood?
This news is shocking, but hardly new; it’s a sad but old story. The early part of my career was spent as the executive director of two Planned Parenthood affiliates – first in Memphis and then for ten years in Maryland. Under my direction, Memphis became the first Planned Parenthood affiliate in the southern U.S. to offer women abortion services after the Roe v Wade decision. Later, in 1984, I headed Planned Parenthood of Maryland when its Annapolis clinic was among the first to be attacked and bombed by “Right to Life” terrorists. History too often repeats itself.
In the years since I left Planned Parenthood, seven reproductive health care providers were brutally murdered by those claiming to be “pro-life.” Now Dr. Tiller makes eight. Calling them “abortion providers” either intentionally or inadvertently marginalizes them. Each of them were providing services that are protected by the Constitution of the United States. They championed the rights of women to obtain a broad range of reproductive health care services – from pregnancy and HIV testing to prenatal care and yes, to abortion if that’s what they choose.
The Supreme Court did not mandate abortion; it reversed state laws making it illegal to interfere with physicians who were trying to provide good patient care. And it ruled that the Constitution’s privacy guarantee made it unconstitutional to deny women access to safe medical termination of a pregnancy.
I didn’t leave Planned Parenthood in the mid-1980s because I tired of ensuring women’s access to reproductive rights. I left because I wanted to help women in the developing world where choices are even fewer than those in the U.S. and where reproductive health care often makes the difference between life and death. Of the more than 500,000 maternal deaths worldwide, more than 13 percent are associated with unsafe and illegal abortions. More than 66,500 women die each year because where they reside, abortion is illegal and unsafe. For them and others who suffer severe medical consequences, the issue is not “privacy,” nor is it “choice.” These are powerless women with no access to contraception, and whose basic rights to health care are limited by laws, edicts, or custom.
In Kenya for example – where Pathfinder International is actively working to improve the lives of women and their families – accurate statistics on abortion are hard to obtain since the procedure in most instances, is illegal. Nonetheless, a 2004 nationwide study showed that about 300,000 abortions are performed each year in the country, causing an estimated 20,000 women and girls to be hospitalized with dangerous complications. Official statistics show that more than 40 percent of Kenya’s maternal mortality rate is due to unsafe abortions. This translates into about 800 abortions a day and the deaths of 2,600 women every year.
So what does the murder of a doctor in Kansas have to do with the deaths of women in Kenya? Everything. The reproductive rights and health of women not just in the U.S. but worldwide must be safeguarded, and it is only through a broad range of health care options – including safe, legal abortion – that women survive and thrive. No matter what one’s personal beliefs are about abortion, every one of us ought to condemn the cowardly and cold-blooded murder of Dr. George Tiller as he served as an usher in his church. Disagreements about abortion should be settled in the courts, in the voting booth, or with one’s own doctor providing sound medical counsel. From Kansas to Kenya, it is high time to put women, their health and that of their families first.