Monday, June 1, 2009

The Murder of Dr. George Tiller

In order to assert the sanctity of life, an abortion opponent murdered Dr. George Tiller, one of only three physician providers of late term abortion in the U.S., as he served as an usher of his church yesterday.

Sadly, as shown in a New York Times article this morning, at least one anti-abortion spokesman, while intending to condemn the murder, showed how deeply entrenched hate-laden rhetoric is:
Opponents of abortion, including those here who have been most vociferous in their protests of Dr. Tiller and his work, also expressed outrage at the shooting and said they feared that their groups might be wrongly judged by the act.

Troy Newman, the president of Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group based in Wichita, said he had always sought out “nonviolent” measures to challenge Dr. Tiller, including efforts in recent years to have him prosecuted for crimes or investigated by state health authorities.

“Operation Rescue has worked tirelessly on peaceful, nonviolent measures to bring him to justice through the legal system, the legislative system,” Mr. Newman said, adding, “We are pro-life, and this act was antithetical to what we believe.”
Of course a group that is "pro-life" must oppose murder. Sadly, Mr. Newman's statement about "bring[ing] him to justice" pours gasoline onto the fire of hatred. "Bring[ing] him to justice" states as a fact that Dr. Tiller was a criminal. Operation Rescue is entitled to believe that. But Newman should have said something like "Operation Rescue has worked tirelessly on peaceful, nonviolent measures to make a practice we abhor illegal..." The murderer, who may already be in custody, will probably claim that he was "bringing Dr. Tiller to justice."

When I use the terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice" I always put them into quotation marks. For almost 400 years the King James translation of Deuteronomy 30:19 has told us that choice and life go together:
I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live
I don't know the Qur'an well enough to identify a similar teaching, but I'm sure it's there.

Abortion deserves to be controversial. I believe that abortion should be legal, safe and available. But I have friends and colleagues who I respect who believe abortion is evil and should be banned. In my view, "therefore choose life" says it all. In three words it unites the pro and anti abortion believers in the tent of humanity.

This effort to find an overarching principle of unity is what President Obama did with such eloquence in his graduation speech at Notre Dame. Here's part of what he said:
In this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you've been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. Stand as a lighthouse.

But remember too that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.

This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open, and curious, and eager to continue the moral and spiritual debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works, charity, kindness, and service that moves hearts and minds.

For if there is one law that we can be most certain of, it is the law that binds people of all faiths and no faith together. It is no coincidence that it exists in Christianity and Judaism; in Islam and Hinduism; in Buddhism and humanism. It is, of course, the Golden Rule - the call to treat one another as we wish to be treated. The call to love. To serve. To do what we can to make a difference in the lives of those with whom we share the same brief moment on this Earth.
(See here and here for recent posts about President Obama's leadership on the abortion controversy.)


Anonymous said...


The other ethical issue this brings up to me is how we address our own safety as clinicians. I can't help but recall when the well-known psychiatrist, Wayne Fenton, was killed about 3 years ago by a patient when he took the chance to see a psychotic patient by himself on a weekend. How much courage and principles is worth the increased chance of being killed and no longer being able to work? How much security does an organization need to put in place to adequately protect us?

Steve Moffic

Jim Sabin said...

Hi Steve -

As always, you raise very important issues. It's always good to hear from you.

For you and me as psychiatrists safety concerns emerge with regard to individual patients. With patients we know we have to use our own best clinical judgment. Years ago I was seeing someone who (a) had committed murder years before while in a state of florid psychosis and (b) was still somewhat paranoid. I left the door open when we met. When my patient asked me who I was doing it for I explained that it was for both of us - "people whith paranoia are often more comfortable when not closed in, but the open door helps me relax as well." But in emergency rooms, where we may be asked to see patients we've never met before, the facility should provide appropriate security. Defining what constitutes "appropriate security" can be difficult, but the principle is clear.

Concerns about clinician safety and how much self-endangerment our professional commitments require us to accept were prominent at the start of the HIV epidemic, and will be again if H1N1 or another influenza form becomes pandemic.

In my view abortion providers are in the worst possible situation. The danger they experience is from targeted assassination by domestic terrorists, not from the intrinsic risks that come with their professional role.

The question you raise would be a fine topic for your excellent column in Clinical Psychiatry News!