Tuesday, June 02, 2009

On George Tiller, Reformation Lutheran Church, and "excessive certainty"

Not that I have much of value to add to the discussion of the murder of George Tiller on Sunday nor, for that matter, that the little I will say here will be said all that well, but: as not just a person profoundly conflicted about abortion but also a resident of Wichita and, as well, a member of Reformation Lutheran Church who once had a brief, genial conversation with Dr. Tiller, I feel the need to speak my little piece so, maybe, I can gain a little mental peace about that day's event.

While reading this post by hilzoy over at Washington Monthly this morning--one of those back-and-forth kinds of posts that frequently pops up as bloggers respond to responses to their posts--I was struck by these paragraphs:

Megan [McArdle; her post is here] claims to find "the certainty of the pro-choice side so disturbing". But that's not what is at issue in my post, or publius', or in the comments. What bothered me about Megan's post wasn't anything to do with which side is right in the abortion debate; it was her claim that whenever someone thinks that our government, through its lawful decision procedures, has done something that will result in the deaths of innocents, that person is justified in using lethal force to get her way.

If someone has a problem with excessive certainty here, it's not those of us who think that when we lose politically, and the stakes are non-negligible, we are not justified in resorting to political violence.
A few words about "excessive certainty" below the fold.

Well, okay: This blog is blessed in having regular visitors (or at least commenters) who, their personal opinions on issues aside, are thoughtful enough to see the dangers of excessive certainty, so I'll not dwell on those dangers here. But I feel compelled to say something about my conversation with Dr. Tiller and about my congregation.

Though Tiller's reputation most definitely preceded him, I had never seen a picture of him before the Sunday he and I chatted. I happened to be sitting next to him in the pew; after the service, he complimented me on my singing and asked if I had thought about joining the church choir, which his wife was a member of; I thanked him for his kind words and said that my teaching schedule at the time didn't permit me to attend rehearsals. Then he asked for my name and I asked for his, and I told him I was pleased to meet him. When I told a co-worker yesterday about this conversation, she said something to the effect that he must have felt uneasy to tell me his name; I said that if he was, he didn't show it: this is a man who, after all, after he was shot in both arms by an assailant, returned to his clinic the next day. As I think back on that Sunday I met him, in fact, I may have been the more intimidated.

I had read descriptions of procedures for late-term abortions before meeting Dr. Tiller. The specifics are such that, if such procedures are to be legal, one would want them performed as infrequently as possible. But as I have read these past few days in various places the accounts of women who were patients of Dr. Tiller's, I realized that those descriptions of the procedures that I'd read focused on the procedures themselves and on the number of times they'd been performed at the time of that writing. They'd not focused on why--except in all but dismissive terms, if at all--women would seek out those who perform them. The effect of reading only these accounts--and I admit to falling victim to assuming this--is to imply that the pregnancies terminated by these means were healthy ones. I've belatedly been learning about via these patients' accounts that that's clearly not the case: I've read about fetuses with exposed brains who would die soon after being born, assuming they survived being born; Down Syndrome babies with severe congenital heart defects (such babies are not eligible for heart transplants); twins, one of which had died in utero and the toxins from whose body were poisoning both the mother and the still-living twin; another set of twins conjoined in such a way that to surgically separate them would result in the death of one and the severe maiming (if not death) of the other; having to travel to Kansas for the procedure because the mother's obstetrician, even as he recommended that it be done, refused to perform it himself (or, in another case, had not been trained by his (Catholic-affiliated) hospital to perform it himself). I read more than these accounts, but you get the idea. All these conditions were found well into or even after the end of the second trimester. One can of course argue with these parents' decisions to seek late-term abortions, one can still loathe what Dr. Tiller did for these people; but two things came through to me in these accounts, again and again: a) these parents wanted to be pregnant when they learned, so late in their pregnancies, of their babies' conditions; b) these were the sorts of choices that too many people, whether pro-choice or pro-life, tend to erase via their glib sloganeering, their excessive certainty in their rightness. Questions of the moral or legal rightness of late-term abortion aside, who would want even to be presented with such circumstances, much less make decisions about them? The availability and legality of these procedures has not made these parents' lives one whit easier or more convenient--but nor, for that matter, would their lives--or the lives of their children--have been made one whit easier by choosing or being forced by law to carry these pregnancies to term.

I'm certain of very few things. But here's one thing of which I'm excessively certain: George Tiller was a sinner. In the sense that we all have fallen short, he was in no greater or lesser need of God's grace and mercy and love than any other member of the Church or of the larger human family. It was in that spirit that he was a welcome member of Reformation. He was welcome there not because the other parishioners individually agreed with Tiller's practice or, for that matter, felt his continued attendance at Reformation caused more trouble for the church than could be justified. For, you see, the church had for years been the subject of continual picketing on Sunday mornings and disruptions of services when Tiller was in attendance--disruptions frequent enough that the church council felt compelled, a few years ago, to institute a policy permitting ushers to forbid the presence of cameras or recording devices in the sanctuary without the pastor's prior approval. Those disruptions interfered not just with Tiller's right to worship where and as he pleased but with the right of every other member of Reformation to do the same. I admire my church's defense of its members' right to worship in peace and its refusal to ostracize someone who attracted such unwanted attention, no matter what its members may have privately thought about that person.

So here I am, at the end of this post, not understanding anything any more clearly (much less rightly) than before I started writing it. That's because, so far as I can tell, nothing in the larger debates about abortion has changed, really, as a result of Scott Roeder's alleged act. Tiller's clinic will re-open this coming Monday. Whether we like it or not, abortion is still just as protected an act. Medical technology will continue to reveal fetuses with abnormalities and parents will still face soul-searing dilemmas about what to do. On the other hand, a family and a church congregation have been violated, and who knows how that fact will affect them in the days, the years ahead.

Roeder's acting on his excessive certainty has left the world just as uncertain a place--though in ways his certainty had blinded him so as not to see.


R. Sherman said...

Unfortunately, the tragedy of Dr. Tiller's death at the hands of a very disturbed individual is being seized by both sides of the "debate" for use in making implications greater than the evidence or circumstances warrant.

As you point out, we're all sinners and there is no hierarchy of sin. It's all the same, and if I expect forgiveness for mine I'd better be prepared to exercise it freely without precondition to others.

The problem with the "A" issue, as I view it, is that the extremes on the opposite ends of the spectrum drive the discussion. Further, no one can decide which field upon which to play. I may reach different conclusions depending upon whether I'm thinking about from a spiritual perspective versus a constitutional perspective versus a legal perspective acknowledging the the current state of the law versus a sort of general philosophical view about the nature and extent of societal meddling in individual affairs. Instead, we've come to view the issue as merely a conclusion without any acknowledgment of role of reason and compromise in our society.

SighSorry for the long comment. Dr. Tiller's family is in my prayers.

Nick said...

Another perspective -

Abortion is legal, period. Any and all extralegal attempts at blocking it are illegal. Moreover, 'religion' should have absolutely no place here.

Yet, it does.

That in a nutshell sums up not only what is going wrong with our country but also much of the world, that and the venal politicians who pander to it.

Somewhere along the way, indivduals not content to quietly worship their own particular imaginary deity have also decided that the rest of us need 'saving'; not just in the US, but, again, around the world. And this whether we want saving or not. ( All the while, of course, in total dark side of the moon ignorance of the fact that most of us regard those who pledge fealty to non-existant supernatural beings somewhat mad to begin with: conversion through arms is only going to futher strain the 'relationship'.)

History shows that this never ends well. History shows that volence begets more violence, usually with the blessing and support of whatever 'religion' holds sway at the time...

We will superstion ouselves back to another stone age at this rate...

R. Sherman said...

Hi, Nick.

No snark here, but an observation.

First, I certainly don't disagree with you regarding the current legality of abortion. Further, I wholeheartedly condemn the perpetrator of this act, without reservation, as would the vast, vast majority of my coreligionists.

That said, a few questions, if I may.

Is there there a moral -- irrespective of religious imperative -- component to the abortion question? If so, what is is the moral imperative underlying your assertions?

Second, does society have some obligation, if not a right or responsibility, to intervene in the relationships between or among humans?

If so, what constitutes a "human?" Who decides what the appropriate definition is and under what circumstances?

These are the questions which trouble many of us.

Again, were we to be playing solely in a "Judeo-Christian" ballpark, the ground rules would be clear. Yet, we're not, and I do not wish to force you to do so. Nevertheless, these questions remain from a philosophical perspective, and they trouble many of us.

The problem, as I see it, is the refusal of many to acknowledge the legitimacy of the internal conflict which is intimated in John's post.

Best regards.

BruceA said...

Well said. I, too, am conflicted on the abortion issue. I, too, was long unaware of the facts about late-term abortions.

Dr. Tiller's death is a tragedy. Although I consider myself (vaguely) pro-life, I am finding a growing respect for Dr. Tiller as I learn more of the details about his practice.

Nick said...

@ R. Sherman -
"Is there a moral -- irrespective of religious imperative -- component to the abortion question?"
Certainly - and SCOTUS took it full into consideration when deciding Roe v Wade.
"If so, what is the moral imperative underlying your assertions?"
"MORAL - 1 a: of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior."
SCOTUS ruled that a woman has the right to determine the physical destiny of her own body. Period, end of story. Therefore, whatever she chooses in terminating (or not) a pregnancy is therefore correct, or right.
You may not like her choice; indeed, I may not like her choice. But it is a legal moral choice she gets to make, no one else.
"Second, does society have some obligation, if not a right or responsibility, to intervene in the relationships between or among humans?"
Yes, where obvious illegal harm is being done; the deliberate starvation and slaughter of whole peoples in Africa and, earlier, Europe, comes immediately to mind.
However, 'society' does NOT have a right to interject itself into purely legal acts (except where that intercession is also strictly legal, e.g. court orders et alis...), regardless of the intercessory’s view of the act..
"If so, what constitutes a "human?"
1: of, relating to, or characteristic of humans 2: consisting of humans 3 a: having human form or attributes b: susceptible to or representative of the sympathies and frailties of human nature [such an inconsistency is very human — P. E. More]
No mystery there, eh? Yes, I know you believe a human is more. As do I. However, we would disagree on what that more is. I suspect you would want to talk of ‘souls’, immortal and otherwise; I would speak of racial memory and evolution. Perhaps we’re both right. Or both wrong. In any event, neither viewpoint has any legal standing in abortion.
"Who decides what the appropriate definition is and under what circumstances?"
This is a worthy question and is on the mind of many of us as we peep through the slightly ajar door of science to behold the wonders we're but scant decades away from. I fully intend, should I live long enough, to be subsumed by the Borg to improve and extend my life. I will guess you’ll give future medical miracles a pass based on…well, heavens, I have no idea why anyone would pass up a fuller, longer life, even though augmented, but sure as Thor makes thunder and lightning many, many folks will.
But, again, I suspect that you really mean is "when does 'life' begin?" Fair enough. My personal opinion is our lives begin only with self-awareness. Thus, in my view of things, your earliest memories pinpoint when you started living. But that's just my view and has, nor should have, any sway over the current law of the land. Just as the notion that life begins the instant an ova is fertilized is irrelevant (at the moment) to current law.
Let us say I believe a man should have at least a partial say in the abortion issue. That being the case I could avail myself of whatever legal resources I might amass and try and change the law. I suspect that I would fail, but there you have it; one doesn’t always prevail in life. I doubt I would be satisfied with the outcome – that’s MY sperm, MY seed, part MY child the courts are talking about, right? But, hell, I’m sentient; internal conflict is my daily life:
• Ethics v. meat
• Desires v. need
• Selfishness v. charity
• Et cetera
So it goes.
Internal conflict is part and parcel of any thinking individual. To assume that only those of a ‘religious’ bent are concerned here is at best shortsighted and at worst dangerous: that sort of haughty self-absorption often leads to the exact sort of behavior as (allegedly) exhibited by Mr. Roeder.
Again, the problem, as I see it, isn’t the refusal of many to acknowledge the legitimacy of the internal conflict intimated in John's post, it is the willingness of those of ‘religious’ tendencies to practice terrorism in order to try and enforce their world view on the rest of us.


Infinite Jester said...

First, thanks for taking time to look around my site, John. Yes, I stumbled upon your blog after doing a DFW search; I have basically formed a synoptic religion out of his work (I had a genuine religious experience after he gave the commencement speech to my graduating class at Kenyon) and end up Googling his name a couple of times a week to see what people are saying. However, I added your site because of similar tastes we share in things you listed on your profile—I too, for example, would list Vertigo as my single favorite film, loved Wittgenstein’s Mistress and all things William Faulkner, studied epic poetry in college and theology in grad school, spent time teaching English to high school kids, etc.—and figured I would like to check back in from time to time.

Now that I have and seen your most recent post, I am pleased I did. Your piece on Tiller/abortion/rights-to-worship are nicely and respectively handled.

Keep up the good work.


Diane said...

I am as conflicted as you are John. And also finding things out about Dr. Tiller. I think you spoke well.

Thank you for sharing this. I'm glad I found it.

And I pray for your church's healing.