I have been thinking this week about how we, as people who love justice and love peace, respond to injustice, violence, and tragedy. On Monday, I walked to the clinic where I volunteer, carrying a thank you gift to the people who work there, and I pictured the faces of those I see weekly, with whom I laugh and gossip, and I thought: violence could strike anyone of them. For the first time since I heard of Dr. Tiller’s murder, my anger turned to fear, and I began to cry as I walked.
I volunteer at this clinic because I believe that access to health care is vital. I believe that women’s choices are private, to be made in consultation with a trusted doctor. Unfortunately, health care is not always affordable or available, leading women to clinics like the one where I volunteer to seek well-woman care, pre-natal care, contraception, STD testing, education, and abortion services. These things are legal, and may sometimes be affordable (many clinics charge on a sliding scale, and many clinics refer clients to funds that help to cover the cost of care), but walking into a women’s clinic can be a harrowing experience. Twice a week, outside the clinic where I work, there are people who will follow patients and their companions down the sidewalk, begging patients loudly not to go inside and arguing with those who disagree with them. These patient's private choices and their private health care are preceded by a gauntlet of harassment and confusion. I do the work I do because affordable health care, received in a feeling of safety, should be a right, not a privilege, and because no one should be harassed for seeking reproductive health care. Dr. Tiller, who offered services at his clinic including well-woman care, adoption services, and abortions, was harassed daily, was shot in both arms, had to live under Federal Marshall protection for many years, and had to face not only frequent vandalism but also the burning down of his clinic. He continued his work in the face of all of this because of his conviction that access to necessary, legal procedures was more important than giving in to fear.
Often, in the face of events like the murder of Dr. Tiller on Sunday, we feel impotent, enraged, and deeply grieved, and it is a challenge to react to these events and these feelings with positive steps. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three major things we can do. The first is to speak out. Too often, the voices of extremism are the only voices heard. In the case of Dr. Tiller’s murder, the first and loudest responses came from those who had previously raged against him. The responses that are repeated throughout the media are often the ones that do not condemn the violence, but instead condemn Dr. Tiller (I am intentionally not repeating these words). Instead of accepting that these are the only voices, we must insist that our own voices be heard. As poets, writers, and artists, we can write about the effects of such events. We can create pieces that indicate the urgent realities of choosing – we can write about our own choices and our own experiences. One way to do this is to visit websites like I Am Dr. Tiller, where abortion providers and pro-choice volunteers share their stories. We can read and preform the works of others, such as the play Words of Choice, created by Cindy Cooper, a long time reproductive rights advocate. Alix Olson, a 2008 Split This Rock featured poet, is a contributing writer to the play. Putting art that speaks to the truth of these experiences into the world is one vital way to fight against violence by promoting understanding.
If you are hesitant to create words of your own, forward the responses of reproductive health providers like Planned Parenthood to your friends and family. If you see this murder being downplayed, or presented as one lone event, or as just one man’s action, write letters to your local media explaining the root causes of intimidation and harassment of women’s health clinics and their staff. If you or your friends and family members are not pro-choice, renounce and refuse to join or support those groups that engage in or tolerate extremism and violent behavior. Voice your support for actions, groups, and legislation that helps to prevent abortion via education and contraception. Finally, ask the Department of Justice and the Obama administration to enforce the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. During the Bush administration, the task force that monitored enforcement of the FACE act was largely inactive. Insist that it be re-activated and that even minor occurrences of vandalism be investigated and procescuted.
Your voice can also be heard with your presence – attend a vigil, light a candle, hold a sign. These things are powerful visual reminders of the numbers of people who will not condone violence for political purposes. Educate yourself about the kinds of services offered by reproductive health clinics in your area, especially ones that may be facing protests. Tell others about these services and why they matter to the community.
Make your presence felt in a second way by volunteering at a local clinic or reproductive health organization. Clinics facing protest often need volunteers to do clinic defense – helping patients gain access in the most peaceful way possible. Clinics are often underfunded, and so they may have other volunteer needs. You can look up your clinic online, but the best way to get the most up to date information on what the clinic needs is to call them. As you respond to injustice by helping ensure that more justice is done, a kind of healing happens. If you can spare a few hours a week, please do (a list of local D.C. vigils and volunteer opportunities, as well as national organizations is at the end of this post).
The third way to respond to injustice is by donating, or speaking with your money. Donating is not just for those with disposable income – every dollar counts. I have heard fundraisers speak of the emotional power present in the one dollar pledge that comes from a poor student. There is no donation that is too small, and there are many places you can donate, including Medical Students for Choice, The George Tiller Memorial Abortion Fund, Planned Parenthood, and the DC Abortion Fund (for an abortion fund in your state, check out the National Network of Abortion Funds list). Remember, some of these organizations have trouble funding themselves with grants because it is politically challenging to fund a group with the word “abortion” in the name. They rely solely on donations.
After tragic and unjust events, there will always be questions and the search to place blame. There will always be a feeling of uncertainty about how to react. Speaking out, volunteering, and donating are three powerful ways to respond to any event that affects our lives, not just to this one. I encourage you to look into the organizations below and to look into organizations that support causes that are also close to your heart. Our voices and our presence are the tools we always have – use them.
George Tiller Memorial Abortion Fund Mailing Address:
National Network of Abortion Funds
ATTN: George Tiller Memorial Abortion Fund
42 Seaverns Ave.
Boston, MA 02130
Washington Area Clinic Defense Task Force
National Abortion Federation's list of ways to get involved
Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice's Tiller Memorial
NARAL Pro-Choice America
Feministing.com's list of upcoming vigils for Dr. Tiller.
Feel free to respond in the comments with any other resources, or with links to poems or other works.
Katherine Howell is the Blog Goddess for Split This Rock Poetry Festival; she lives and writes in Washington, D.C.