As night fell on May 31, the candlelight vigils around the country for the murdered Dr. George Tiller included one at Dupont Circle. Several dozen abortion-rights advocates gathered beside the fountain holding candles. We listened to the Rev. Mark Thompson, an associate minister at Israel Baptist Church.
Thompson, who also hosts a talk show on Sirius-XM radio, decried the incendiary speech favored by right-wing radio talk-show hosts, and urged his fellow broadcasters to foster a more civil discourse. He expressed outrage that Tiller was shot inside a church, traditionally a place of sanctuary. He called Tiller a martyr.
My surprise at a minister calling an abortion doctor a martyr inspired me to ask myself: What impels me, as someone who regards the ending of an unwanted pregnancy as a tragedy, not only to attend vigils but to defend abortion rights as part of my gay-rights advocacy?
One connection between abortion rights and gay rights is in constitutional law. Several key rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, from Griswold v. Connecticut to Eisenstadt v. Baird to Roe v. Wade to Lawrence v. Texas (the 2003 ruling overturning sodomy laws), uphold a right to privacy grounded in due process. Despite complaints that Roe was poorly argued, this body of rulings holds that individuals enjoy a zone of privacy that is not properly subject to governmental coercion.
But ”Abortion is always killing; sex is often loving,” wrote gay writer Dale Carpenter in a 2005 column titled, ”Abortion Rights Are Not Gay Rights.” He makes a fair point. I agree with him that connecting gay rights to abortion rights will win no conservative converts to gay equality. But the comparison I am making is legal, not moral. While I agree that we should make the case that same-sex love is virtuous and good for society, I do not accept the idea that only activities that receive widespread moral approbation deserve legal protection.
Rozalyn Farmer Love, a third-year medical student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, wrote a compelling account in the June 7 Washington Post of her personal journey toward support for women’s right to choose abortion. ”I don’t claim that abortion is morally acceptable. I think that it’s a very private, intensely personal decision.”
Love was ”shocked at how little many of my friends — women who were studying biology and planning to become doctors — knew about their own sexual health. They didn’t know about or couldn’t get the reproductive health care they needed because of barriers put up by their culture, their religion and their parents, whose sole contribution to sex ed was generally an unspoken ‘Thou shalt not!”’
Of course, abortion-choice opponents argue that abortion isn’t a purely personal matter because another life is involved. The most concise answer to that is: Who decides? That is the bottom-line legal question. As morally fraught as the decision on whether to continue a pregnancy is, no one other than the woman herself is in a position to make it. If I am going to defend my own sexual self-determination, I owe it to my sisters — and I actually have four — to respect theirs.
Maintaining the peace in a diverse society depends on distinguishing between the civil and religious spheres. This is undermined by the ”baby killer” rhetoric of people like Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, who repeatedly demonized Tiller with statements that he ”destroys fetuses for just about any reason right up until the birth date for five thousand dollars,” and ”No question Dr. Tiller has blood on his hands.”
O’Reilly is not responsible in a legal sense for the murder of Tiller, but he bears moral responsibility for his inflammatory comments. As the Rev. Thompson noted at the vigil, there are disturbed people who need little provocation to go over the edge. One example is Richard Andrew Poplawski, accused in the recent murder of three Pennsylvania police officers, who was stirred by the drumbeat of pro-gun Web sites that accused President Obama of trying to ”get your guns” and urged readers to ”Get your guns while you still can.”
Fortunately, as a Bible Belt med student and a young Baptist minister demonstrated, defenders of choice are standing up for women’s reproductive freedom and the doctors who serve it. Through their courage and commitment, these civil libertarians send a message to religious authoritarians that murder won’t overturn Roe.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist whose work has appeared on Salon.com and the Independent Gay Forum. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.