Appearing on a nationally syndicated daytime talk show five days after losing a parent is not a good idea. Indeed, I am sure that nine of 10 grief counselors would agree that subjecting oneself to a live studio audience less than a week after your father has been murdered is most assuredly unhealthy. When you compound the death with a handgun murder, multiply it by a controversial subject such as abortion, and cube it by a guest list which includes someone who you know is anti-abortion, it can only yield pain. Not your typical blunt object to the gut pain but anguish that leaves you crying open mouthed with no sound.
I was ill-prepared to say the least.
I flew to New York City from Nashville the Sunday before the show aired, or it could have been that same Monday. I don’t really remember. In fact, I have remarkably little recall of the show. I do remember meeting Phil Donohue. He was a fixture in my life since childhood. My mom watched his show daily when I was smaller—I’d say I was a child, but I was pretty much a child on that day though I thought I was so much more at the time. I guess everyone looks back on their past selves and says, “damn was I a dumbass.” Perhaps not. I do it constantly.
In addition to Phil, I met the producers and the other guests. I do recall what they called the “green room,” getting the hair and make-up treatment, someone saying “time will go by quickly,” and thinking to myself, “you will not break.” In fact, one of my most vivid memories of that day is parroting that simple phrase mantra like over and over again.
Honestly, from a choreography standpoint, the producers did an excellent job. The cast included the following players: Susan Hill, a strikingly beautiful Southern clinic owner and co-worker of my dad’s; Ron Fitzsimmons, a tough but pragmatic lobbyist and head of NCAP (National Coalition of Abortion Providers); Tavey Crist, a no bullshit OB/GYN and abortion provider who chartered his own plane to get to New York to serve as a panelist and advocate for his fellow besieged doctors; and me, the open wound. Then there was the as yet unknown anti-abortion activist named Paul Hill. In fact, we almost appeared in that order left to right on the stage, but someone—I believe Dr. Crist—was strategically placed between Hill and I.
The choice side of the cast knew one another and had worked together for some time. I was new and had only recently talked to Susan—she was instrumental in convincing me to go on the show. No one knew Paul Hill, but we all knew he was decidedly of the anti-abortion persuasion likely (as many in the anti-abortion crowd had already done) to explain how unfortunate dad’s killer’s actions were and to placate those ready to label the anti-abortion crowd as zealots with passive qualifiers, half hearted indignancy, and self serving non apologies.
I knew Paul was there to speak for the other side—the producers told me an anti abortion spokesperson was on the panel prior–and wondered nervously how the show would go, how I’d hold up under Phil’s and the audience’s questions, and whether I’d keep my promise to remain solid.
When we went live, I blanked out. I have never had an out of body experience or amnesia of the non-drunken variety; however, I honestly have no memory of the show other than small slices. When Paul Hill uttered the soon to be famous words “justifiable homicide,” though, I woke up from my somnolence and remembered why I agreed to go on the goddamned show in the first place.
My formative years were spent in abortion clinics. I visited my first clinic when I was 14, attended my first pro-choice rally at 15, witnessed protesters and their ever growing ire for the better part of my life, and lost my dad to a religious terrorist’s gun, but I had never heard someone argue it was justifiable, and I was woefully emotionally unprepared for Paul Hill and his advocacy for what he claimed he wanted to prevent: murder.
When he uttered the phrase “justifiable homicide,” it was as if Ross Perot’s giant sucking sound removed all air from the room. We were in New York City with a predominately female New York City audience confronted by a Southern, Presbyterian minister openly advocating for the murder of a doctor.
Silence typically predicates an eruption, and most of the audience was aghast at Hill’s remarks. He, though, seemed to relish the attention. My clearest memory of that day was his analogy about the “justifiable” actions of my dad’s assassin. I’m paraphrasing, but he coldly explained that dad’s assassin was no different than someone who, when confronted with a mad gunman picking children off at random in a playground, elects to kill the murderer in defense of innocent life. In his view, abortion providers deserved death and deserved it immediately, without remorse, and without consequence.
I did not break. Perhaps a combination of shock and exhaustion prevented the proverbial dam from bursting, but I did not break. I maintained my composure. I did not give in to anger and hate. I did not become Paul Hill.
I did realize, though, that Paul was right about one thing: If you believe abortion is murder, then you believe doctors are murders. If you believe in an eye for an eye type justice as most on his side do, it is only logical to conclude what Paul concluded and said on 15 March 1993: abortion is murder; abortion providers are murderers; murderers deserve death; hence doctors deserve to die. It is very simple syllogistic logic. It is terrifyingly simplistic. It is most assuredly absurd and fucked up logic, but to those of Hill’s ilk, it makes perfect sense.
Maybe someone prior to Hill and dad’s murder silently advocated for a doctor’s murder? I certainly believe Michael Griffin—dad’s assassin—did not suddenly become an anti-abortion murderer and terrorist. I think what Hill expressed that day on national television five days after the first abortion provider was murdered was said in private by many on his side for years; however, on that day, he let the genie loose. He had the appalling courage to say what many believed and were waiting to hear. In one hour of daytime drama, the bait blood clouded the water and a national spokesman was born.
Simultaneously, a palpable shift occurred in the audience. It was a man behind the curtain moment. They watched in person how the debate immediately changed, and they recoiled at Hill’s arrogance. Doctor. Crist spoke forcefully on behalf of doctors. Susan and Ron remained calm but effective in their defense of clinic owners and staff as well as in their condemnation of Hill. I simply did not break.
I know I participated in the conversation. I have fleeting memories of telling dad’s story, talking about the murder, peeling back the skin of the open wound, and allowing a small voyeuristic glimpse of my pain; yet, I did not break. As much as Donohue and the show’s producers wanted the money shot, I did not weep. I was not provoked to hysterical anger.
I never viewed the show. I never will. It was the show that launched a murder epidemic which continues to this day. We did not know, nor could we predict, at the stage how serious Hill was and that he eventually murdered a doctor, his escort, and seriously wounded the escort’s wife.. We do now, and his influence is as palpable today as it was 21 years ago.
As a result of my performance on the Donohue Show, I suddenly became abortion rights chum the antithesis of Hill’s pro-murder anti-woman blood bait. He and I crossed paths many times over the next year while the sharks circled concentrically.