When I came to America six-and-a-half years ago, I was fairly sure I knew this country. My mother is American, I’ve been a citizen my whole life, and before I moved here for college, we used to visit for two or three weeks every year. I’d seen lots of the East Coast, and California, and Missouri, and Colorado. I was fairly sure I understood the USA.
A week into my freshman year, I realized that I knew almost nothing. I didn’t know America. America was different. It was complicated. It was really, really diverse and the small bits of it that I knew well weren’t in any way representative of the nation, nor was the college campus where I would be spending the next four years.
I did spend the next four years on that campus, slowly getting to know this small part of America. And I took classes – sociology, politics, history – that would help me understand the country beyond the little, lush bubble where I lived. Half way through my senior year, I decided that it would be a terrible waste of all that class work, all that informal field work, all those embarrassing moments of cultural misunderstanding, and all those awful moments of culture shock, to go back home right away. I had spent four years trying to figure out how things worked in America – it would be a shame to go home now and not put that knowledge to use.
And then, the day before I graduated from college, the news flooded my inbox: in Kansas, Dr. George Tiller had been shot. Point blank. In the head. In his church.
Welcome to America. You don’t know shit.
One of the things that was most different, and most complicated, about this country was the vehemence and violence of its anti-abortion politics. In Australia, where I grew up, there are people who are deeply anti-abortion. There are anti-choice organizations, and there are protesters with signs outside clinics. But clinics don’t get bombed. Australia doesn’t have to pass laws mandating where protestors can stand outside clinics to ensure they don’t prevent patients from getting in to see a doctor. Australia’s abortion laws aren’t ideal, but we don’t have mandatory penetrative ultrasounds and we don’t require doctors to lie to patients about what abortion does and we don’t have politicians going around saying that the state should force a rape victim to carry her rapist’s baby. And where I come from, people don’t get shot over abortion.
In my final year of college, when the right wing media was ratcheting about the violent rhetoric about Dr. Tiller, I started paying attention. I learned about the previous violence at his clinic, and about how he’d been shot before, in the arms. I learned about how his employees had been threatened, how anyone who associated with him was risking their livelihood and their life to do so.
And then, the night before Commencement, as my parents and I were driving to a celebratory dinner with my American relatives, I learned thanks to an email from Planned Parenthood that Dr. Tiller had been killed.
College is over. Welcome to the real America.
Of course, in the same way that my college campus or my grandmother’s Long Island suburb are not representative of America, neither is Wichita. Not every American city is as inhospitable to abortion providers as Wichita, and America isn’t populated entirely by anti-choice people, violent or otherwise. But as long as any one city looks like Wichita, America is blighted. As long as there is any place in this nation where doctors and their employees (and their landlords, and the taxi drivers who convey people to and from the clinic) are threatened for performing legal medical procedures for women, America is blighted.
In the three years since Dr. Tiller was murdered, efforts to roll back reproductive rights have become fiercer, more draconian, and more widespread than ever before. It’s not just Kansas anymore – it’s Mississippi, and Virginia, and Texas, and Utah, and Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma, and Wyoming.
I don’t have to stay in America. I make the choice every day, for a number of reasons. I make that choice despite the friendly faces and blinding blue skies that wait for me in Sydney. I make that choice despite the fact that on the eve of my graduation into real America, I learned that real America is a place where doctors are killed in cold blood for performing abortions.
Today is the third anniversary of Dr. Tiller’s murder. What will you do today – and tomorrow, and the next day – to make a different real America?
For more blog posts marking this anniversary, head to Abortion Gang.