They’re killing doctors. That’s what I thought in October, 1998 when I heard that Dr. Barnett Slepian had been gunned down in his home (in front of his family, no less) in a suburb of Buffalo, NY by an anti-abortion activist.This week, when I heard the news of Dr. George Tiller’s murder, I felt a similar sense of sick disbelief.
The news of Dr. Tiller’s murder seems both surreal and also intensely personal: I grew up in Buffalo and in the summer of 1998 I had been a volunteer escort at a clinic where Dr. Slepian sometimes worked, walking women past anti-choice protestors. I had been trained not to respond to the protestors in any way; our job was to make the women entering the clinic feel safe. It was difficult to stay calm sometimes, particularly when protestors carrying posters of mutilated fetuses shrieked, “Mama, mama, please don’t kill me!” to young women entering the building. Most of the patients, already shell-shocked by the weight of their decisions, did not seem affected by the protestors. Or so it seemed. The boyfriends, husbands, mothers and friends seemed most angered at having to drive past the grotesque images and angry messages.
I remember one morning when we thought we would see a scuffle. A man entered the rear parking lot, helped a woman to her appointment, and then began driving away. After passing the protestors, he drove half a block, pulled over to the side of the road, and angrily stormed out of his car. (At this point, I’m afraid my fellow volunteer and I, exhausted from holding in our own anger, whispered, “punch ‘em!”) Just as abruptly he wheeled around in mid stride and got back into his car and drove away.
I empathize with this man’s disgust and anger at the protestors. And I also understood why he turned around and drove away.
Every time I see a group of anti-abortion protestors, I remember myself at 19. Finding out I was pregnant was (and remains) the most traumatic thing that had ever happened to me. I knew I was pregnant immediately and called the hospital and asked for the rumored “morning after pill.” They told me there was no such thing. At Planned Parenthood I was told I’d have to wait weeks before I could be tested. My panic and hysteria grew during the period I was forced to wait. I tried jumping down stairs, taking baths in Epsom salts, and other non-invasive “tips” offered by girlfriends. Even though my parents were supportive, finding out I was pregnant and making that decision was a horrifying experience. Most of that summer seems a blur, but I do remember being asked by a thoughtful counselor if I was very sure about my decision, I remember the professionalism of the doctor who performed the abortion, and I remember the nurse who placed a heating pad on my stomach when it was over. And I remember feeling relief that I had my body back, my life back.
I have never felt regret about having that abortion, but I have found it increasingly difficult to tell this story. Women friends used to confide in each other about their abortions; none of the women I’ve met in the past 10 years has ever mentioned it. Perhaps that’s a coincidence, but I wonder if the chilling violence against doctors Slepian, Tiller, and others has silenced us all.