Tiller's Murder: How Will It Impact the Abortion Fight?

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From left: Orlin Wagner / AP; Larry Smith / AP

The body of Dr. George Tiller, left, is removed from the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kans., on Sunday, May 31.

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Tiller found his life cause, according to a source close to his clinic, when the Wichita native's father was killed in a plane crash. He discovered that his father, also a doctor, had provided abortions. At the urging of his father's patients, the source said, Tiller let his general practice evolve into one focused on abortions. Many, if not most, providers stop performing abortions around 20 weeks; Tiller would extend past 24 weeks "in extreme cases of risks to the woman's life," the source said. "These patients were not simply women who waited too long to decide."

But the doctor's foes had a different view. In one story widely recounted by antiabortion activists, Tiller's clinic allegedly performed an abortion at six months on a young girl forced by her parents to undergo the procedure. In the hothouse of Kansas abortion politics, Tiller was perpetually in the spotlight, the target of lawsuits and legislative efforts to crack down on late-term abortions. Former Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius, now Obama's Secretary of Health and Human Services, always vetoed such attempts. Republicans in the Senate tried to rattle her confirmation hearings by raising the question of Tiller's campaign contributions to her.

Tiller was in court earlier this year, charged with evading a law that required two separate doctors' opinions before a late-term abortion could be performed. In March, a Wichita jury acquitted him.

To many pro-choice observers, Tiller's murder smacked of a sort of frontier justice that could intimidate abortion providers in the country's heartland. It was a sober reminder that, even as pundits have claimed abortion would not be a key issue in Sotomayor's Supreme Court confirmation hearings, it remains an incredibly divisive moral issue — and one that is still a province of extremists.

Operation Rescue, which kept a "Tiller watch" on its website, issued a strained denunciation of the killing. But the words of its founder, Randall Terry, were not so measured. "George Tiller was a mass murderer," said Terry. "We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God. I am more concerned that the Obama Administration will use Tiller's killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions."

The original version of this story misstated that Paul Hill killed David Gunn. Gunn was killed by Michael Griffin. Hill murdered another doctor, John Britton, in Pensacola, Fla.

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