In reading about the life of Wichita, Kan., physician George Tiller, who was murdered in May, I was reminded again of an abiding truth: Doctors who perform abortions for desperate women are courageous, moral agents for good.
If we are going to be debating abortion again — and skirmishes are already erupting over whether abortion services will be included in the nation's health care overhaul — the prochoice side needs to pridefully assert the moral high ground. Because it is ours.
Our side saves millions of women from having children they cannot afford or care for properly. Our side prevents women from dying from botched illegal abortions. Our side ensures that the children brought into this world are truly wanted. Our side brings women hope and vanquishes misery on a towering scale.
Dr. Tiller was one of the few physicians in the nation who would perform late-term abortions for women facing severe health consequences by continuing their pregnancy or for women carrying fetuses so massively deformed they would only survive a short time after birth.
His clinic would treat these women regardless of their ability to pay, according to Dr. William Harrison, a physician from Fayetteville, Ark. In a moving remembrance in the Arkansas Times, Harrison said Dr. Tiller was called St. George for the care and kindness with which he treated every patient. (Read it at tinyurl.com/m9y3kb.)
But Dr. Tiller, a former U.S. Navy flight surgeon, was endlessly harassed, shot once before and ultimately murdered for the abortions he performed. Some on the religious right suggest he reaped what he sowed; others decry the murder but think that an evil man was subdued. In fact, Dr. Tiller was a national hero, brave, kind and devoted to conscience.
Which brings me back to the national debate on health care, where there is a major effort stirring to block abortion coverage in the plans that emerge. If abortion becomes a disposable pawn in this political game, then the Democrats will have betrayed women.
Among the numerous anti-abortion amendments filed in Congress last week on health care reform were measures to ban abortion services in any government-defined health plan or one subsidized by federal funds. This would mean no abortion coverage in any government option, and women who currently enjoy such coverage in private insurance could lose it. About 90 percent of private health insurance plans currently cover abortion services.
Why am I worried that Democrats, who are in solid control of Congress, and the White House may allow this? Because they refuse to be out front making the humanist case for the right to choose. This political cowardice plays into the perception that the other side has cornered the market on morality.
Here's how gutless Democrats have gotten. After Dr. Tiller was murdered three Democratic women senators offered a resolution condemning violence against providers of reproductive health care. (Read it at tinyurl.com/m8uyaq.) It should have passed unanimously. But apparently any notion of protecting abortion clinic workers from violence is too much for so-called prolife lawmakers. An anonymous senator put a secret hold on the resolution, preventing a vote. Republicans wanted any reference to reproductive health services eliminated.
This disgrace should have led the nightly news, but there was no concerted effort by Democrats to make an issue of it, preferring instead the typical strategy of cowering in a corner.
How about taking the offensive for once? Here's a start: Go after the Hyde Amendment, a law that for more than 30 years has yoked poor women to their unwanted pregnancies by preventing them from using federal Medicaid money for an abortion. These are destitute women. How is it in any way moral to force them to have children they can't afford?
Here's another idea: Demand that restrictions on abortions at military hospitals be lifted so our deployed women service members aren't left stranded. How about the slogan "Support our troops' constitutional rights — you know, the ones they are fighting and dying for."
Giving women control over their biological destiny is not simply a right, it is a social good. The women Dr. Tiller helped sent him piles of grateful letters. This case is easy to make, so let's hear it made from the people who count. Hello, Democrats? We're waiting.