I never met Dr. Tiller, but he saved my life...and my baby's life.
When I was thirty, I was diagnosed as infertile--told that I could never get pregnant naturally, and cautioned not to pursue fertility treatments, as I would never be able to carry a baby past six months. So at age 44, when I started to feel sick, my various doctors attributed my symptoms to early menopause and other ailments. Six months, numerous x-rays, CAT scans, prescription hormones and a slew of doctors later, I was raced to an emergency CAT scan for a large abdominal tumor--which turned out not to be a tumor at all. I was 6 months pregnant.
My initial shock quickly turned to fear. The fetus had been subjected to six months of tests and treatments known to cause birth defects, and I had every reason to believe that the baby would suffer debilitating injury from premature birth. I told my doctor that I wanted an abortion, but at 24 weeks, she said, it was too late.
My fear turned to anguish. I was traumatized and guilt-ridden, convinced that I'd caused harm to the unborn baby. An abnormal fetal sonogram confirmed my fears. I was confined to bed rest for the duration of my high-risk pregnancy. Cut off from the rest of my life, I lay in bed on my left side feeling trapped, my dangerous pregnancy the wreckage from the perfect storm of multiple misdiagnoses. I was shocked that I couldn't feel love for the unborn baby. I'd always thought of myself as loving mother--my beloved adopted daughter was then nine-years-old--and I no longer recognized myself. I desperately didn't want to have this baby, and I hated myself for not wanting it. I had been unhappy before, but had never thought about killing myself. Now I fantasized about suicide as my way out, as the only way to end the pregnancy, and as the best method to protect the unborn baby from a life of pain.
A close friend, alarmed by my suicidal thoughts, arranged for me to see an abortion specialist at New York Hospital. "Since you're contemplating suicide, the mother's life is in danger, which is the only way you can get a legal abortion," he said. "Not in NY State, which has no exception to the 24-week limit. You could, however, have an abortion in Kansas, where, if the mother's life is in danger, an abortion is legal up until the 28th week. Seven days from today. Do you want me to call the clinic?"
I nodded. He scheduled an abortion for Tuesday, in one week.
I reserved a flight to Wichita and called the clinic. A soft-spoken woman did her best to prepare me for the terrifying procedure Dr. Tiller would perform, and for the anti-abortion hostility directed at the clinic: "There are protests outside the Center every single day. We've had some violent incidents. I must advise you to make reservations right away at the one hotel in town that is safe and secure for our patients. And there's only one taxi service in town that will be safe to take from the hotel to the clinic..."
What kind of country is this, I wondered, where a woman has to fear being stoned to death while taking a taxi to a health center, where she is harassed and insulted for seeking medical help? It sounded like the abusive and misogynist treatment of women in fundamentalist religious states and totalitarian regimes--not America.
I had a week to make a decision. A painful and nearly impossible choice, but it was my choice, and having a choice was a powerful antidote to my debilitating sense of entrapment. The suicidal thoughts abated. For a week, I lay in bed on my left side and thought and thought and thought. As that fateful Tuesday approached, I was scared and confused, but no longer hopeless. On Monday afternoon, I chose to have the baby. I cancelled my appointment at the clinic and my flight to Wichita. I didn't know what would happen after the baby was born, I didn't know if she would be healthy, but I could live with the uncertainty.
My "baby" is now 9 years old, and I love her beyond measure. If I hadn't been given the option of an abortion, would I have taken my life? I don't know. Had I given birth without choosing to have the baby, would I love my daughter as deeply and completely as I do now? I don't know. If I had been deprived of this choice, would my feelings for my daughter have been subverted by despair, guilt, and anger? I don't know.
I can only conjecture, and this is what I believe: I believe that Dr. Tiller saved my life and my daughter's life. I chose not to have a late term abortion, but in my desperate hour, knowing that I had the option gave me the courage and clarity to decide to bring my daughter into the world. For three decades at his besieged Wichita Women's Health Center, Dr. Tiller offered service to women in desperate circumstances, women facing nearly impossible choices. Dr. Tiller heroically risked his life on a daily basis, and tragically sacrificed his own life in his life-affirming commitment to protect a women's right to choose.