Abortion Access & Zero Tolerance for Violence

Because this perspective is filtering in slowly, I wanted to call attention to some smart thinking about Dr. Tiller's murder. Amy Goodman wrote a piece in Huffington Post about Dr. Tiller's murder having been preventable. In her article, she asks, what if the laws already in place had been better upheld? After murders of abortion providers in 1993, the 1994 federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) made it a crime to block or damage a reproductive health service facility. Scott Rodeur was videotaped vandalizing an abortion clinic the day before. A question that rightly is surfacing is why police didn't arrest him the day before the murder.

Most chilling, this quote by Dr. Susan Robinson, a physician who flew in monthly to perform abortions at Dr. Tiller's clinic: "It is generally regarded amongst those who do clinic security, if local authorities are not responsive, if they don't show up or they don't vigilantly enforce the law, that it encourages the anti-abortion people to push it further and further." She continued: "In Wichita, Dr. Tiller was constantly dealing with the same lack of enforcement. Wichita prohibits placing signs on city property. But they allow the anti-abortion protesters to set up dozens of crosses and leave them all day. Dr. Tiller went to the city attorney over the crosses, and complained that people block the clinic driveway. He told me that the city attorney said, 'I would rather be sued by George Tiller than the anti-abortion folks.'"

Robinson's point underscores what we've learned about how when the extreme anti-abortion fringe steps it up when power–Democratic President, congress–belongs to more moderating forces than someone whose beliefs are at least much closer to their own. This administration did move swiftly to respond, yes. One could ask whether this administration could have been more proactive in its thinking and actions: watched more carefully, pushed local law enforcement to act more swiftly and definitively at the very first signs of violence, curbing damage at super glue on clinc door locks rather than bullets fired at a doctor in his church's foyer.

The word access in the 1994 FACE act is critical. Melissa Harris-Lacewell writes about this in the Nation this past week. She described the way shame and privilege have worked against strong assertions of abortion rights support, how the inherent loneliness in a decision often derided mutes women from being able to demand this essential freedom. She writes: "Even during the dark years of back alley abortions when all women seeking abortion were at risk, it was the most vulnerable women who carried the heaviest burden of infection, illness, and death…. Because women of privilege can keep their termination choices private while vulnerable women are exposed to public shaming, it becomes easier to believe that only those "other" women and "bad" women choose abortion. Telling our stories is part of counteracting the terrorism that seeks to divide, shame, and even murder to impose its own worldview. Nurturing a sense of commonality and shared experience reduces the power of terror. Women need realistic understandings of how many women grapple with these choices and the different ways they come to make a decision."

Melissa Harris-Lacewell appeared on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC program this past week (as she often does). Maddow has outdone herself, naming the terror as terror, remaining clear about the language surrounding abortion being matter-of-fact and not inflammatory. She's devoted a lot of air time to this story, and given room for her guests to talk about women having the right–and ability–to make choices about their own lives, something missing in a great deal of television and radio coverage about the aftermath of Dr. Tiller's murder.

Mentioned on Maddow's program is one of the most important organizations advocating for and providing access to abortion, the National Network of Abortion Funds. If you do not know about this organization, check it out. This is a grassroots coalition of over 100 groups that provide funds for women seeking abortion services and unable to pay, as well as doing critical advocacy work on behalf most especially of women whose voices are so seldom heard. In its description, NNAF invokes another important word: dignity, stating, "Every woman should have the right to shape her own life and the right to care for herself and her family with dignity."

A week after this outrageous violent act, those of us who believe in women's rights, women's dignity and women's equality have a moral imperative: to steer the conversations about abortion rights away from sensationalism and toward women's stories. Only with the pairing of zero tolerance for violence against abortion clinics, providers or health care consumers and the raising of respect and airtime for women's voices can we prevail in keeping abortion safe, legal and accessible. This past week offered us object lessons in how to proceed; now we must proceed.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

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