When, like me, you live in Wichita, Kansas, you’re “privileged” to see more than your fair share of antiabortion hatred. That’s not a slam on Wichita, anymore than it would be a slam on New York City to note that New Yorkers have experienced more than their share of terrorism. When George Tiller, long the ultimate lightning rode in the abortion wars, calls your city his home, it goes with the territory.
I met Dr. Tiller once — a meeting on a minor legal matter that lasted only about a half an hour. He struck me as a nice enough person — though perhaps a bit eccentric. But I suspect that if people had hounded me for 20-plus years, repeatedly vandalized my place of business and on one occasion actually shot me in both arms, if the worst personality trait I could be accused of at the end was a little eccentricity I’d figure I had done pretty well.
Of course, the people who hated George Tiller didn’t hate him for his personal characteristics. They hated him for what he did for a living — for his willingness to provide women with a medical procedure guaranteed to them under the United States Constitution. And they — the haters — were determined to stop that at any cost.
Worried about the political fallout that may be caused by their incitement to violence against Tiller, most of the radical antiabortionists who regularly attacked him are now claiming that they never hated the man (although give Randal Terry one for honesty, if nothing else). They just hated his actions. In fact, they tell us they’re praying for both him and his family. Damn nice of them, don’t you think?
Bunk. They hated him, alright. They hated him with gusto in the name of God. And what’s more, they hated anyone associated with him.
For a time, for example, my family attended services at College Hill United Methodist. The chief pastor at the time was a man named George Gardner. A remarkable and brilliant man, George also unquestionably had his flaws, as he himself was the first to admit. He was a marvelous showman, though in a more thoughtful and philosophical sense than that word usually implies. As a politically conservative physician friend of mine once said of George (who was a liberal in every sense of the word), “I don’t agree with a lot of what George says, but he’s the only minister who can keep me awake.”
Sure enough, few people ever fell asleep at a George Gardner service. His words, more philosophical really than theological, could make you think in ways you might not have otherwise: he had that hard to describe knack for inspiring people. George baptized both of my children and, even speaking as a crusty old lawyer who had his children in his forties, the services were deeply moving experiences.
George was controversial for a number of reasons, but, without a doubt, abortion was the granddaddy of them all. He believed in a woman’s right to choose — and he put those beliefs into action. For many years, he made himself available to meet the spiritual needs of women and their families seeking abortion services at Dr. Tiller’s clinic. Late in his career he became the official clinic chaplain.
I remember one Sunday in particular, when he shared a story with the congregation involving one of Dr. Tiller’s patients. It was a couple who, desperately wanting children, had gone through years of fertility treatment. Finally, the woman became pregnant. In one of life’s impossible to understand cruelties, however, the fetus turned out to have serious malformations — defects that were inconsistent with human life. Traveling half way across the country to one of the few places where late term abortion services are available, they had come to Wichita. The couple wanted to see a minister and the clinic called George.
All these years later, I don’t remember the precise point George was making in his sermon, but I know what stuck with me: the haunting story of the couple’s profound grief and the willingness of two people to help them: one a doctor and the other a minister. And because of that willingness both were passionately hated by antiabortion extremists.
Eventually, George Gardner got into a controversy involving his personal life and left the church. With George gone, my family drifted away as well.
Sometime later, after a period when I’d been on the road a great deal, I became curious about “whatever happened to George.” So I Googled him, and it was then that I learned that he had died recently from complications related to a brain tumor.
The first Internet post I read on the subject, by the way, was from an antiabortion site and began with the joyful announcement that George Gardner was now burning in hell.
That’s the sort of hate we’re talking about here: the kind that doesn’t end even at the grave — a deep, burning and all-consuming loathing. A hatred that for the unbalanced few (a group that does not include the overwhelming majority of people who oppose abortion) will almost inevitably lead to acts of violence, like the recent assassination of Dr. George Tiller.
And it is that very hatred — and that very inevitability — that people like Bill O’Reilly, with their sensational and irresponsible attacks on people like Dr. Tiller, aid and abet every day in the media.
If there is such a thing as a sin, surely that must be one.