07/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Murder to Prevent "Murder"

We, as is no doubt true for most Americans, were deeply shocked by the recent news about the cold-blooded murder of Dr. George Tiller, the Wichita, Kansas, obstetrician and gynecologist (See, "Dr. Tiller's Important Job," by Judith Warner, The New York Times, 06/04/2009).
The NYT article tells of Dr. Tiller having been the "doctor of last resort" for many desperate women, especially from the rural South. Many of them had, for one reason or another had to end their pregnancies, after the first trimester. Their chances of doing so earlier had "somehow been elided," as Judith Warner in the Times article put it. That is, they had, in plain English, "missed their chances" of doing so earlier, our guess being that ignorance and poverty having been two of the main reasons.

As a consequence, most doctors would not touch these controversial and medically risky cases with a thirty foot pole, not last because of the likely political fallout involved. Moreover, the "average" ob/gyn doctor who may be perfectly competent enough for most "routine" and fairly early abortions, may not have the special skills, nor the stomach--not to mention the "heart"--needed for the difficult and messy procedures involved in late-term cases.
The murdered Dr. Tiller was one of the few specialists who did have all these qualifications--the special medical know-how, as well as the fortitude and, above all, the heart or compassion--for helping these desperate women seeking late-term abortions. For quite a few of them were also poor and could not possibly even compensate him adequately for his risky services, or could not pay him at all.

Such must have obviously been so in the incredible case of the 9-year-old girl, raped by her father and 18 weeks pregnant, mentioned in Judith Warner's NYT article. As Judith Warner points out, being forced to "carry the baby to term, going through labor and delivery, would have ripped her small body apart." In fact, it would have amounted to legalized homicide, that is, murder. Yet, none of the doctors, clinics, or hospitals anywhere within accessible radius, was willing to take her case.

Somehow, Susan Hill, president of the National Women's Health Foundation, had been made aware of the girl's case called the sixty-seven year old Dr. George Tiller and begged him to try and help. She did not have to plead very long. Despite the many medical and possibly legal problems involved, Dr. Tiller "took her for free," as Susan Hill told Judith Warner. Not only that but, according to the same sources and mentioned in the Times article, "He kept her three days and checked on her himself every few hours." Adds Ms. Hill, "She and her sister came back to me and said he couldn't have been more wonderful. That's just the way he was."

Judith Warner also tells of a New York mother who found out in the 27th week of her pregnancy that the baby boy she was soon to deliver would be "so very sick" that he would have only "a brief life of respirators, dialysis, surgeries and pain." Yet, as we read in the cited article, "In-state doctors refused to perform the abortion" (and, mind you, this was not somewhere in the deep, rural South but almost within sight of Manhattan's skyscrapers!). So, that desperate woman, too, had to travel all the way from New York to Wichita, Kansas, to ask for and get help from Dr. Tiller, the now murdered "doctor of last resort."

When this woman finally approached Dr. Ritter's clinic and tried to enter, she was met by a phalanx of angry anti-abortion protesters, holding up signs showing grisly pictures of mutilated and bloodied babies, taunting her with shouted insults, taking photos, and filming her with a video camera.

There are laws against all of that but, if not locally enforced, as in Kansas and many other places, they mean nothing.

For instance, the alleged killer was well known, both to the Wichita police and the FBI. As Amy Goodman, fellow contributor to the HP and host of Democracy Now (a daily international TV/radio news hour) has vividly described, the man alleged to have killed Dr. Tiller, had been videotaped vandalizing another Kansas City clinic, AID FOR WOMEN, "both the week before and the day before the murder, putting glue into its door locks." (HP 6/8/209)
Both incidents had been reported to the authorities, who could have arrested the man on these grounds alone and thus, possibly prevented the murder. However, both the police and the FBI used one feeble excuse or another to do nothing. Conclusion: the Kansas law enforcement agencies are either indifferent toward people vandalizing abortion clinics. Or, they are too intimidated by the Religious Right, which is very powerful in Kansas, to take any action in such cases; or maybe a little of both! In any case, had the local authorities done their duty, Dr. Tiller might still be alive today!

However, as things were and still are in Kansas, Dr. Tiller had to live like a soldier in a combat zone, wearing a bullet proof vest when outside, driving a bullet-proof car, and living in a gated community. No wonder, thus, that in news reports about the "abortion doctor's" murder, this ghastly and senseless killing was treated "almost as a kind of combat death: a natural, occupational hazard." Yet, the murder took place not on a battle field but inside a church, where the doctor was volunteering as usher and with the slain doctor's wife looking on from the choir, of which she is a member.

All of this brought to mind a discussion between the Dalai Lama and several scientists, mostly in the area of neurobiology but also including some psychologists and other social scientists, at the Second Mind and Life Conference (Published in 2003, as "Healing Emotions," by Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, Daniel Goleman, ed.).

In the course of that discussion, extending over a whole week, one of the participants Lee Yearley (a specialist in estheticism and, at the time, professor of religion at Stanford University) raised the question of whether there is ever any justification for killing. In response, Dalai Lama is quoted as saying, "...the Buddha sees the afflictive emotions as the faults, not the person who possesses them. It's more or less the case that there's no such thing as justified anger directed toward the person. There are no authentic grounds for being angry toward a person."

At that point, Lee Yearley, asked the Dalai Lama, "Could one's anger toward a quality one thought had to be eliminated lead one to destroy the quality if it might involve destroying the person?"

She then cited, apparently from personal experience, a case about a particularly vicious concentration camp guard in Nazi Germany, "whose furious hatred was leading him to kill...I also realized he was a good father and a person who deserved to live. However, I understood that the only way his hatred could be destroyed was to destroy the person."

To this the Dalai Lama responded as follows: "This is justified in the following sense: You recognize this evil propensity, or vice; you know it must be dispelled because of the ensuing harm that it would bring about; and--this is an extremely important point--out of great compassion arising from the wish to avert the great harm, you see that you must dispel the vice. Recognizing that there is no way to dispel that vice other than through an act of violence, then you may take the life of the person who bears that vice, without ever losing compassion for that person, and while being willing to take on that act yourself."

The Dalai then proceeded to qualify what he had just said by citing many precautionary conditions. In the end it came down to him saying: "Violence is like a very strong pill. For a certain illness it may be very useful, but the side effects are enormous. On a practical level it's very complicated, so it's much safer to avoid acts of violence."

Well, there was certainly no compassion in the wanton murder of Dr. Tiller, who was only performing acts of mercy to so many people and never harming anyone.

The only argument anti-abortionists might bring up, in such a context, might be that by killing a doctor who performs abortions, they are only protecting the as yet unborn. However, this is an argument based solely on a certain, irrational ideology rather than on scientific fact. We say "irrational," because it postulates that as little as a few gram of embryonic cells or even just a zygote (a fertilized ovum) already constitutes a human being, entitled to the same protections under the law as a fully formed human, or even a newly born baby.

Even in the cited cases of late-term abortions, one has to weigh the health hazards of the pregnant woman, as well as the suffering of a seriously ill embryo, if brought to term and actually born, against the basic principle of preserving life. We have no doubt that, in all of the cited cases and many more like them, even a "messy" and most regrettable late-term abortion is better than condemning both parents and the still unborn to a life of pain and misery. In no way are they any excuse for murder, as in the case of the merciful and compassionate Dr. George Tiller.

Post-script: Should Dr. Tiller's assassin be convicted of First Degree Murder, we are pleading in advance that his own life be spared, while keeping him in lifelong custody to protect the community. For, to our minds, the death sentence is nothing more than another kind of "murder to prevent murder" (something it does not do, anyway, as has been scientifically proven over and over again (See, e.g., psychiatrist Dr. Dorothy O. Lewis' brilliant book, Guilty by Reason of Insanity, or the extensive chapter on this topic in our own, recent book, Staying Sane in a Crazy World).