I didn’t know George Tiller, but I know quite a few people who did. And they speak of him with nothing but the greatest respect and admiration.

George Tiller, for those of you who haven’t seen a newspaper this week, is the abortion provider who was shot and killed on Sunday in his Kansas church by a rabid anti-choice, anti-government extremist. I know abortion is a touchy issue for people, and that’s putting it mildly, and I know that even for those people who consider themselves pro-choice, the idea of late-term or the deceptively dubbed “partial -birth” abortion can be even touchier. And I have lots of arguments in favor of any woman’s right to choose abortion for any reason whatsoever, but the abortions that were performed by Dr. Tiller are actually among the least morally ambiguous in my opinion.

A few facts to get started: Late term abortions (after 21 weeks gestation) are exceedingly rare, making up only about 1% of all abortions, and are severely restricted by state laws. Willingness aside, there are few doctors in the country able to perform them, because of their high degree of complexity, and women were referred to Dr. Tiller from clinics all over the country, including the one here in Cleveland for which I am a proud member of the Board of Directors.  Late-term abortions are performed exclusively when the health or life of the mother is at risk or, in more lenient states, when fetal testing indicates a fatal condition for the developing baby.

Now I know that people, sometimes without even thinking it through, attach adjectives like “irresponsible” or “selfish” to women and girls seeking abortions.  The truth is that while some women and girls may have behaved in an irresponsible or selfish manner that led to their pregnancy, the decision to terminate that pregnancy is often an act of responsibility and selflessness. More than 60% of the women in this country who have abortions already have children and the need to care for and support their living children, both financially and emotionally, is the number one reason they site for not having another child. And furthermore, in my humble opinion, even if women are behaving in a way that is irresponsible or selfish, SO WHAT? They still deserve to choose when and if and under what circumstances to bring a child into the world. Being irresponsible and being selfish are not crimes and should not be punishable offenses. Those women still have rights, whether or not we “approve” of how they live their lives.

But all of this is irrelevant when talking about the women served by Dr. Tiller.  Most of the women who sought his care desperately wanted the child they were carrying. These were women who could be admired as mothers by both sides of the abortion argument: They had intended and carefully planned their pregnancies, they never missed so much as a pre-natal vitamin let alone a pre-natal doctor’s appointment, they’d decorated the nurseries and chosen baby names. Only to discover very late in the game that the fetus inside them was horribly sick and would probably never live. Or that they themselves had some rare and previously undetected condition that would kill them in childbirth and leave their new baby and already living children motherless.

These are not easy decisions. And these are not decisions that women take lightly. But none of us can be arrogant enough to tell a woman what to do in such a situation. That is completely up to her and her partner, her doctor and her god. I encourage you to read some of these women’s stories on A Heartbreaking Choice and RH Reality Check to put a face and a context to a choice that many condemn without ever understanding.

Dr. George Tiller was performing a necessary service, an act of courage despite years of threats on his life, for women who found themselves in a horrible position. And because of a heinous crime that was committed under the false banner of life, there will be more death. More women will die unnecessarily in pregnancy and childbirth and more severely sick or malformed babies will be forced to live short and painful lives before dying anyway. Doesn’t exactly fit the definition of being in favor of life, now does it?

Dr. George Tiller was a hero. And without him, the world is a sadder and more dangerous place.

This post is dedicated to the women and men who work to provide safe and compassionate abortion care to women and girls across this country and across the world, especially the staff at Preterm Cleveland.

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