My Family Was an Abortion-War Casualty

My mother left me a voice mail last Sunday afternoon. Before she even spoke, I could hear that she was crying. "Another doctor has been killed," she said, then hung up. Suddenly I felt the need to sew up a big hole in my comforter. Failing, I cried too. The evening news filled in the particulars: Dr. George Tiller, a physician who performed abortions in Wichita, Kans., was shot and killed while his wife sang in the choir and he handed out programs at his church.

For my family, the scenes on TV were like déjà vu. In October 1998, minutes after returning home from his synagogue, my uncle Bart Slepian—an ob-gyn who performed abortions in upstate New York and who had raised me after my own father died when I was 4—was shot in his kitchen. He was talking to his wife and his young sons when a bullet shattered a window, pierced Bart's spine, lung and aorta, then ricocheted into the den where it landed, still shiny, in the fireplace.

People try to be nice. I don't how Dr. Tiller's family is dealing with the onslaught of teddy bears, origami birds and prayers for his soul, but in my grief I was terribly critical of many efforts to comfort. The worst thing you could say to me: "Bart died for his cause." Bart was a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist who delivered babies, conducted annual gynecological exams, dispensed birth control to young women and hormone therapy to older women, performed all sorts of surgeries and also did abortions. Dr. Tiller was a family doctor. He did specialize in late-term abortions. But given how few of those procedures are performed in the U.S.—some 14,000, or about 40 a year for the 350 or so physicians who do them—it's unlikely that Dr. Tiller made his entire medical living from these procedures alone. Certainly his family considered abortion just one facet of the man; to them, others were far more important. The day Dr. Tiller was killed, they said, "Today we mourn the loss of our husband, father and grandfather."

Truth told, the people at an abortion clinic who are superpolitically pro-choice are the people who work at them for little or no money—the support staff and volunteers. Doctors, in general, feel like they are just doing their jobs, and the ones I have known experience the efforts to stop them from doing their work far more personally than politically. When Bart's children were stalked (while they walked to their grade school, activists would ask my cousins, "Why does your dad kill babies?"); when his home, car and office were vandalized; when he was

threatened with everything from being buried in cement to maiming to shooting, my uncle never said, "I need to protect a women's right to choose." He said, "No goddam bully is going to tell me what to do."

Of course Bart was pro-choice—sort of. Like most people who suctioned a 10-week-old fetus out of a woman's womb or cut a 16-week-old fetus into five pieces so it could be extracted, my uncle had a nuanced view of the procedure, far, far removed from political rhetoric. He often referred to abortion as a "lesser of evils," meaning keeping the procedure safe, legal and affordable was better than the annual addition of a million more unwanted children to the U.S. population. But in his last speech Bart called abortion "the killing, at least, of potential life." Dr. Tiller must have thought so too. He offered his patients funerary services for aborted fetuses.

The death of a loved one is always the worst thing that can happen to a human being. But when someone dies before they've had the life you think was rightfully theirs—long, joyful, fully realized—well, it's not that you don't think you'll survive the wound, you just don't want to. You flail—if, like me, you have the luxury. Some in my family did not.

When Bart was killed, his wife, Lynne, had been a stay-at-home mom for 15 years. She was proud of her role. It was all she wanted to be—before and after. Because, however, economically she had to, she returned to the work of her young adulthood, nursing. But raising four children alone on that salary, sending them to college—well, it is impossible. She may soon have to give up her house.

Loss is long and canny, and murder, in particular, offers two new companions. Grief, and the most terrible knowledge. Anything can happen. My friends were shocked when children shot their schoolmates at Columbine High School and again when a posse of young men hijacked airplanes and flew them into New York's tallest buildings. But once someone you love dies while waiting for his soup to warm—or, I imagine, handing out church programs—you know that anything can happen. Aliens could land.

So, while pundits puff and activists argue, we trudge on. Of course, life is not without joy. Bart's oldest son graduated from law school; my mom—Bart's sister—has started a thriving retail business. I had a baby. But every day—every hour, really—longing seeps out of your heart. What would Bart make of his grown, handsome accomplished sons, my daughter, my sister's twins, my mom's store, of flat-screen TVs, of 9/11, President Obama, what I have written about him? On the really bad days, I try to sew up the hole. On better ones, I just miss him.