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Living in the abortion wars



My mom proudly called herself an "abortion doctor." She was proud of what she did, but it was just a part of her job and, really, she just considered herself a doctor. She declined the bulletproof vest other "abortion doctors" wore. An assassin would just go for her head, she figured. Mom had received death threats in person and by mail and was regularly greeted by protesters holding pictures of bloody fetuses outside of her home. She fought back in her own way, learning evasive driving techniques and joking that, should an assassination attempt come, it might finally provide her with the opportunity to take someone out with her Jeep Cherokee. She held a counterprotest on her front lawn, too, complete with hundreds of her friends and neighbors, cake and ice cream.

The recent murder of Dr. George Tiller, a Wichita, Kan., doctor who provided late-term abortions until he was killed while serving as an usher in his church two weeks ago, made me think of my mom, Dr. Liz Karlin, who practiced internal medicine, and performed abortions, in Madison, Wisc. My mom knew Dr. Tiller and worked to support him after he was shot in both arms at his clinic in 1993. Mom volunteered to perform late-term abortions in Dr. Tiller's practice while he recovered. His death brought back memories of living in the abortion wars, and the courage that it took my mom, and Dr. Tiller, to do their jobs.

Mom died in 1998 of non-terrorism-related causes, and I've missed her a lot over the past 11 years. It was odd to see her vilified by some and lionized by others. But she loved the fight. She worked short hours, and the pressure of her job exhausted her. Protesters scrutinized even her own simple pleasures: When she adopted a black German Shepherd dog, they complained that she was "intimidating" them. Still, she felt a unique sense of responsibility to the patients. If she didn't care for her patients and fight for their rights, who would? No one, perhaps. She kept coming back until she was too sick from cancer to practice.

Sometimes, women who had protested outside of mom's house or office would come in to her clinic seeking abortions. Mom would listen to their stories and counsel them, even as they tried to tell her that they weren't like the other "bad" women who came in to get abortions, and that they didn't need to think about contraception because they didn't have sex. Sometimes she would agree to perform an abortion, sometimes not, and sometimes she would refer them to a different clinic. She said she was learning not to judge, although she wasn't known for suffering fools gladly.

She knew that just about any woman might find themselves in need of her services. That they would be scared or desperate when they showed up. They'd had to run the same gauntlet that she did just to get into the building. It was her job to treat her patients as any patient would want to be treated by any doctor. She thought of herself as a regular doctor, a mom. It was sad to her that her job required a fighter. It was sad to her that no one would take her place.

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