Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Doctor's Perspective on Dr. Tiller's Murder

Jennifer Chuang was the chapter leader for Medical Students for Choice at Temple University. She has worked closely with the Duvall Project, and is currently on her way to completing her residency. This is her response to the murder of Dr. Tiller.

I am saddened, angry, and heartbroken over the murder of Dr. George Tiller. I remember meeting him at a conference during my first year of medical school in 2001. I was facing a conflicting time in my career decision making. Do I follow what is safe and easy and make little stir? Or do I do what is just and right though it could come at a harder personal price? I always believed in abortion rights; that was never a question. But now that I was entering the field of medicine, could I count myself among those who were willing to provide abortions?

As I sat in the back of the room preparing for Dr. Tiller's speech, I thought to myself, "why would anyone willingly become an abortion provider?" As one provider once said to me, "it is easy to walk into a party and state that you are the local cardiologist. It is much harder to announce yourself as the local abortion provider."

Dr. Tiller began by saying he never planned to become an abortion provider. After finishing his service in the Navy, he had planned to go into dermatology. “Yes," he said, "I was going to be a pimple and wrinkle doctor." Prior to embarking on his dermatology plans, his father passed away, and he went to his office to close things down. The women who worked in the office quietly asked him who would take over his father's work. He did not initially understand what they were talking about. He then learned that his father was the local physician who safely terminated women's unwanted pregnancies. With what sounded like a reluctant beginning, Dr. Tiller did indeed carry on his father's practice. He spoke how he performed abortions because what lies behind a woman seeking a pregnancy termination were her "dreams, goals, and potential."

The room was silent at the end of his talk, and nearly all of us young future physicians in tears. Dr. Tiller's wife and daughter were also present. Dr. Tiller had already been shot several years prior by a protestor at his clinic (rumor has it that he was giving her the finger and thus he was shot in the arms instead). He still went to work the next day. He went to work in a bullet proof vest and continued to be subject to constant threats of violence. Someone in the room asked his daughter how she felt about her father being a high profile abortion provider and constantly under physical threat. She stated that she was proud of her father.

In a country where 87% of counties have no abortion provider, we have to ask ourselves whether we are going in the right direction in medicine. Whether our society likes it or not, abortion is one of the most common surgical procedures performed in the United States. Without practitioners committed to performing safe terminations, unsafe abortions will occur. Over 50% of our current abortion providers are approaching retirement age. These are the physicians who saw first-hand the atrocities of illegal abortions and the sepsis and death that ensued. My generation has not witnessed such devastation. We have instead witnessed the atrocities of the murders of Dr. Barnett Slepian, Dr. David Gunn, and now Dr. George Tiller.

That day that I met Dr. Tiller had a strong impact on me and I had the opportunity to meet him a few more times. I spent those years a bit more outspoken, ruffled a few more feathers. What have I been doing in these last 5 years? I've kept my head down, trying to get through residency quietly. As I near graduation from residency, I see that I have made it through successfully: quietly, complacently, ruffling fewer feathers than in previous years. I read the news quietly. I read the news reports that Dr. Tiller's clinic was facing increasingly violent threats. And yet, did I turn to one individual in the last month and tell them that we must protect physicians' lives, protect our own? No, I didn't. I was getting by quietly, and perhaps I have contributed to the complacency that has allowed this heinous act to occur in Wichita.

"It's about a woman's dreams, goals, and potential." Our complacency has let these women down.

Jennifer H. Chuang, M.D.


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