Freedom of Choice: Living for What You Would Die For

Dr. Maureen Paul

I have often wondered how Dr. George Tiller continued his work. The answer comes from a phrase from writer Anne River Siddons. “Close your eyes and think about what you would die for…and now open your eyes and live for it.”

I was a teenager in 1968 when I learned that I was pregnant. Through a friend, I tried to arrange for an illegal abortion, only to be sent down a rabbit hole that involved a uniformed police officer, secret password, and hundreds of dollars that I didn’t have.

Young and terrified, unable to raise the money, and turned down by the therapeutic abortion committee at my local hospital, I eventually was forced to carry the pregnancy against my will and put the child up for adoption, an experience that was hands down the most difficult and painful of my life.

Now, as Chief Medical Officer at Planned Parenthood of New York City, I make sure that women have access to the reproductive health care they need. But on a day like today, the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I cannot help but think of another provider – a friend, colleague, and hero, Dr. George Tiller. George was a family physician who took over his father’s practice in Wichita after his parents, sister, and brother-in-law were killed in a plane crash. It was only when women in the community began asking him if he would offer them the same services that his father did that he learned that his father had provided then-illegal, but safe, abortions. When one of those women sought care from someone else and died because of it, George Tiller devoted his career to abortion provision, eventually becoming one of the few doctors in the country with the skills and commitment to provide later abortions to women whose wanted pregnancies had gone awry.  

For this dedication and service, he became the target of vehement anti-abortion hatred.  His clinic was firebombed, and he was shot in both arms, harassed relentlessly at his home, persecuted, prosecuted, and finally assassinated while serving as an usher in his church…the one place, the only place in his community where he said he always felt safe.  

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I have often wondered to myself how Dr. George Tiller did what he did. As a physician, I know the emotional fortitude it takes to care for even one woman who is experiencing the pain of losing a wanted pregnancy. George put his whole heart and soul into caring for thousands and thousands. As an abortion provider, I have some inkling of the enormous stress providers feel when they are subject to even one act of harassment and violence. George experienced it every day and kept coming back again and again.  How does anyone have that much courage?  

The answer comes from a phrase from one of my favorite authors, Anne River Siddons. “Close your eyes and think about what you would die for…and now open your eyes and live for it.”

George Tiller never should have died the way that he did.  But he lived every minute of his life with the passion of a man who knew it might be his last…a passion guided by the needs, hopes and aspirations of women, a passion that fostered unfathomable courage, undaunted by hatred, and marked by the most exquisite love, joy, humility, and grace.  

I was one of the young girls who “went away.” I was also one of the few fortunate enough to come back. Thousands upon thousands of women of my generation faced the back alleys of America before the legalization of abortion. They stood on dark street corners and were taken in cars blindfolded to clandestine locations. They filled the beds of special wards in public hospitals, misogynously called “septic tanks” by some because they were dedicated to the care of women sick with and dying of sepsis — an overwhelming infection caused by botched abortions. They were the poor and desperate women who resorted to coat hangers, catheters, coke bottles,  turpentine, and lye because they had nowhere else to turn.

Today we live in a world where we have the technology to provide safe abortion to every woman who chooses it. Yet somewhere in the world, one woman continues to die every 8 minutes from an unsafe abortion.

Today we live in a country where generations of women have never known what it is like to not have the legal right to abortion. Yet hundreds of bills are introduced in state legislatures every year to restrict their access to abortion, and many women have to travel long distances, cross picket lines, survive harassment, and brave the stigma to get a safe abortion. Often, I am struck by how similar the experiences are for these younger generations of women and my own.

So, today on the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I dream of a world where a women’s ability to control her fertility, to decide whether or not to have a child, and to have that child thrive and grow is not compromised by poverty or discrimination or violence or age or immigration status or how close she lives to a toxic waste dump.  

Achieving this bold mission will certainly take all of us.  As George Tiller understood so well, it is a mission rooted in the everyday stories of women that coin our personal passion and become our movement…a human rights movement that reaches into all parts of the globe and will never be stopped because it is ultimately rooted in matters of the heart.


Commentary Sexuality

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday Must Become an Annual Observance

Raquel Willis

As long as trans people—many of them Black trans women—continue to be murdered, there will be a need to commemorate their lives, work to prevent more deaths, and uplift Black trans activism.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

This week marks one year since Black transgender activists in the United States organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday. Held on Tuesday, August 25, the national day of action publicized Black trans experiences and memorialized 18 trans women, predominantly trans women of color, who had been murdered by this time last year.

In conjunction with the Black Lives Matter network, the effort built upon an earlier Trans Liberation Tuesday observance created by Bay Area organizations TGI Justice Project and Taja’s Coalition to recognize the fatal stabbing of 36-year-old trans Latina woman Taja DeJesus in February 2015.

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday should become an annual observance because transphobic violence and discrimination aren’t going to dissipate with one-off occurrences. I propose that Black Trans Liberation Tuesday fall on the fourth Tuesday of August to coincide with the first observance and also the August 24 birthday of the late Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson.

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There is a continuing need to pay specific attention to Black transgender issues, and the larger Black community must be pushed to stand in solidarity with us. Last year, Black trans activists, the Black Lives Matter network, and GetEQUAL collaborated on a blueprint of what collective support looks like, discussions that led to Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“Patrisse Cullors [a co-founder of Black Lives Matter] had been in talks on ways to support Black trans women who had been organizing around various murders,” said Black Lives Matter Organizing Coordinator Elle Hearns of Washington, D.C. “At that time, Black trans folks had been experiencing erasure from the movement and a lack of support from cis people that we’d been in solidarity with who hadn’t reciprocated that support.”

This erasure speaks to a long history of Black LGBTQ activism going underrecognized in both the civil rights and early LGBTQ liberation movements. Many civil rights leaders bought into the idea that influential Black gay activist Bayard Rustin was unfit to be a leader simply because he had relationships with men, though he organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Johnson, who is often credited with kicking off the 1969 Stonewall riots with other trans and gender-nonconforming people of color, fought tirelessly for LGBTQ rights. She and other trans activists of color lived in poverty and danger (Johnson was found dead under suspicious circumstances in July 1992), while the white mainstream gay elite were able to demand acceptance from society. Just last year, Stonewall, a movie chronicling the riots, was released with a whitewashed retelling that centered a white, cisgender gay male protagonist.

The Black Lives Matter network has made an intentional effort to avoid the pitfalls of those earlier movements.

“Our movement has been intersectional in ways that help all people gain liberation whether they see it or not. It became a major element of the network vision and how it was seeing itself in the Black liberation movement,” Hearns said. “There was no way to discuss police brutality without discussing structural violence affecting Black lives, in general”—and that includes Black trans lives.

Despite a greater mainstream visibility for LGBTQ issues in general, Black LGBTQ issues have not taken the forefront in Black freedom struggles. When a Black cisgender heterosexual man is killed, his name trends on social media feeds and is in the headlines, but Black trans women don’t see the same importance placed on their lives.

According to a 2015 report by the Anti-Violence Project, a group dedicated to ending anti-LGBTQ and HIV-affected community violence, trans women of color account for 54 percent of all anti-LGBTQ homicides. Despite increased awareness, with at least 20 transgender people murdered since the beginning of this year, it seems things haven’t really changed at all since Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“There are many issues at hand when talking about Black trans issues, particularly in the South. There’s a lack of infrastructure and support in the nonprofit sector, but also within health care and other systems. Staffs at LGBTQ organizations are underfunded when it comes to explicitly reaching the trans community,” said Micky Bradford, the Atlanta-based regional organizer for TLC@SONG. “The space between towns can harbor isolation from each other, making it more difficult to build up community organizing, coalitions, and culture.”

The marginalization that Black trans people face comes from both the broader society and the Black community. Fighting white supremacy is a full-time job, and some activists within the Black Lives Matter movement see homophobia and transphobia as muddying the fight for Black liberation.

“I think we have a very special relationship with gender and gender violence to all Black people,” said Aaryn Lang, a New York City-based Black trans activist. “There’s a special type of trauma that Black people inflict on Black trans people because of how strict the box of gender and space of gender expression has been to move in for Black people. In the future of the movement, I see more people trusting that trans folks have a vision that’s as diverse as blackness is.”

But even within that diversity, Black trans people are often overlooked in movement spaces due to anti-Blackness in mainstream LGBTQ circles and transphobia in Black circles. Further, many Black trans people aren’t in the position to put energy into movement work because they are simply trying to survive and find basic resources. This can create a disconnect between various sections of the Black trans community.

Janetta Johnson, executive director of TGI Justice Project in San Francisco, thinks the solution is twofold: increased Black trans involvement and leadership in activism spaces, and more facilitated conversations between Black cis and trans people.

“I think a certain part of the transgender community kind of blocks all of this stuff out. We are saying we need you to come through this process and see how we can create strength in numbers. We need to bring in other trans people not involved in the movement,” she said. “We need to create a space where we can share views and strategies and experiences.”

Those conversations must be an ongoing process until the killings of Black trans women like Rae’Lynn Thomas, Dee Whigham, and Skye Mockabee stop.

“As we commemorate this year, we remember who and why we organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday last year. It’s important we realize that Black trans lives are still being affected in ways that everyday people don’t realize,” Hearns said. “We must understand why movements exist and why people take extreme action to continuously interrupt the system that will gladly forget them.”

Analysis Politics

Timeline: Donald Trump’s Shifting Position on Abortion Rights

Ally Boguhn

Trump’s murky position on abortion has caused an uproar this election season as conservatives grapple with a Republican nominee whose stance on the issue has varied over time. Join Rewire for a look back at the business mogul's changing views on abortion.

For much of the 2016 election cycle, Donald Trump’s seemingly ever-changing position on reproductive health care and abortion rights has continued to draw scrutiny.

Trump was “totally pro-choice” in 1999, but “pro-life” by 2011. He wanted to shut down the government to defund Planned Parenthood in August 2015, but claimed “you can’t go around and say that” about such measures two months later. He thinks Planned Parenthood does “very good work” but wants to see it lose all of its funding as long as it offers abortion care. And, perhaps most notoriously, in late March of this year Trump took multiple stances over the course of just a few hours on whether those who have abortions should be punished if it became illegal.

With the hesitancy of anti-choice groups to fully embrace Trump—and with pro-choice organizations like Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and EMILY’s List all backing his opponent, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton—it is likely his stance on abortion will remain a key election issue moving into November.

Join Rewire for a look back at the business mogul’s changing views on abortion.

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