A few years ago I was invited to appear on The O’Reilly Factor to “defend” Dr. George Tiller, who at the time was being lambasted for not honoring the district attorney’s subpoena of his patients’ files. I had long admired Dr. Tiller for his own work and recognized him as a symbol of the precarious state of reproductive rights in this country. I was happy to take this opportunity to point out how many obstacles still confront women who try to act upon their reproductive freedom and to honor a doctor who prioritized women’s human rights and decency. Plus, O’Reilly doesn’t scare me – it’s much harder to debate with people who I actually respect.
I knew that O’Reilly wouldn’t make it easy for me to make my own points, but leaving a more sympathetic voice absent from this conversation about the merits of Tiller’s work was more troubling to me. I also accepted in part because I was confident that my perspective was more in line with most people’s actions (not necessarily words); most people are opposed to abortion until they need one. Likewise, most of Tiller’s patient didn’t want to be there.
When I arrived at the Fox news headquarters, after hair and makeup, where they physically transform you into someone other than yourself, I learned that the segment had been billed as “Tiller the Baby Killer.” Tiller was being investigated under the assumption that he was suppressing cases of rape and incest. Being a consummate medical professional Tiller, of course, refused to comply – he as his life’s work affirms always prioritized his patients.
I had done my research before the segment and felt pretty prepared to argue that Tiller was doing the right thing by protecting his patients’ privacy. Nonetheless as the segment began I realized that my only option was going to be to argue that Tiller was a medical professional and he wasn’t doing anything that he wasn’t legally empowered to do. Though I was arguing my beliefs, I did feel that I should be revealing some emotion – if only for the sake of my in-laws who loyally tune into O’Reilly every night. I wanted to say “of course, I think it might be a baby not a fetus for some women” or “of course, I think that some women are irresponsible.” But I knew I couldn’t go there – to show any sympathy would signal to O’Reilly that I was willing to see fault with Tiller. So I held my ground – and as the segment wrapped, got out as quickly as a I could – with a big pit in my stomach. Politically I knew that I had done the right thing, but personally I was feeling insecure. The make-up ladies cheered for me as I exited and the female producer profusely thanked me.
Though I was “proud” of how I held my ground, it sadly wasn’t until Dr. George Tiller was brutally murdered a few weeks ago that I felt vindicated –and reminded how truly personal the political can be. The heroic efforts of Tiller were scary—even to vehemently pro-choice people—precisely because he made it possible for women to take control over their lives. And his life was sadly taken because giving that power to women is still more controversial than taking a life. What Tiller knew more than anyone else was that the vast majority of his patients were in impossible situations—but still that seemed to matter less than his work to ensure that women make the best decisions they could.
I will certainly miss his leadership.