May 31, 2011 marks the second anniversary of the assassination of Dr. George Tiller in the vestibule of his church. This commentary is one of several pieces we will publish throughout the week in celebration of Dr. Tiller and his work.
On May 31, we mark the second anniversary of the death of Dr. George Tiller. Dr. Tiller was a physician who provided abortion care to women in need. He was also a man of faith, shot at his church while serving as an usher, greeting fellow worshippers as they entered. His wife was at church at the time, too, in the choir. And his life was celebrated and remembered in a Christian funeral.
There are some people who think a church would be the last place to find a doctor who performs abortions. With so much opposition based on religious beliefs, it’s easy to assume that ALL people of faith think abortion is wrong.
Lost in all the rhetoric is the reality that many religious people are pro-choice. Clergy and the faithful from a variety of denominations stand with me in believing that a woman’s decision about whether or not to carry her pregnancy to term is a private, personal, and spiritual decision. Furthermore, many religious women have abortions, whether or not their clergy support them.
Studies have shown that Protestants, Catholics and other women of faith terminate pregnancies. So if you worship at a church or temple, regardless of your denomination, the reality is that women sitting in the pews have had abortions, regardless of the views or judgments of others.
As a member of the clergy myself, I provide many hours of pastoral care to women and families in the congregations and communities where I minister. My work includes listening to the stories of women who must weigh whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term. The clergy experience confirms that these women come to their decisions with a sense of responsibility for themselves, their families, their other children, and their goals in life.
More than eight in 10 abortions occur within the first trimester, the initial twelve weeks of pregnancy. When an abortion comes later, it is often the result of a wanted pregnancy gone badly, a tragic turn in life circumstances, or some other catastrophic development. And the further out the pregnancy goes, the more likely it is that a woman would need a doctor with special training and experience, such as a doctor like George Tiller. Clergy hear stories of a non-viable fetus, a life-threatening development in the pregnant woman’s health or some other horror that reminds us not to take any pregnancy for granted. Being pregnant carries its risks and simply “giving birth and placing the baby for adoption,” is not an option for many women.
I am not the only spiritual leader to have been present in a hospital with distraught expectant parents and families as they deal with miscarriage and other unexpected pregnancy complications and loss. I am aware first-hand of the need for comfort and sensitivity as I personally suffered the physical and emotional loss of two pregnancies. My hope and prayer is that such women and their families receive the kind of professional, quality and compassionate care that Dr. Tiller was blessed to be able to provide until his untimely death.
The pastoral work of clergy includes providing spiritual support to doctors, nurses and other health professionals in our faith communities. These medical providers are often motivated by their religious beliefs to bring healing and comfort to those in need. These professionals tell clergy their stories, and we stand by them as they face the challenges of providing medical care in an ever more complicated health care system.
Religious faith is important to health care providers. When they tell me their stories, I tell them that I am convinced that they are doing God's work, that they are God's agents of healing and comfort. It upsets me greatly to think that Dr. Tiller, a compassionate provider of care for women in need, suffered from condemnation, harassment and eventually death because of the good care he provided for the women who turned to him in trust!
Dr. Tiller was murdered at his church. He was a person of faith. And the work of the faithful will endure.