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.

Correction Appended: June 1, 2009

George Tiller long ago erased the line between his private life and his public cause, turning his Wichita, Kans., clinic into ground zero in the fight over late-term abortions. Tiller, 67, lived with death threats and was shot in both arms in 1993 by an antiabortion activist. His clinic had been bombed and was the frequent site of protests and prayer vigils, and he was the target of unsuccessful citizen-led legal challenges to shut down his clinic. Just a few weeks ago, the clinic was vandalized; security cameras and lights were damaged. Tiller asked the FBI to investigate. (Read "The Grass-Roots Abortion War.")

So it was inevitable, perhaps, that within hours of Tiller's death in the foyer of Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita — where he was slain by a single bullet as he handed out service bulletins to arriving parishioners — this latest act of apparent antiabortion violence was being scanned for its political implications.

"Please, don't use this tragic situation to broad-brush the pro-life community as extremists," the Rev. Pat Mahoney of the antiabortion Christian Defense Coalition told TIME Sunday. Condemning the murder, Mahoney worried that, "politically, this could not have happened at a worse time." A Gallup poll in May found for the first time more Americans considering themselves pro-life than pro-choice. Mahoney had hoped this would inspire Republicans to take a hard line on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor and her views, largely unknown, of Roe v. Wade. "This might take some of the wind out of that issue," he said. (TIME Archive: "Fear in the Land".)

In life, over more than three decades, Tiller unapologetically represented the most controversial aspect of the pro-choice cause: late-term abortions. In death, antiabortion activists fear he could boost the cause. They recall the public revulsion at the murder of Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola, Fla., in 1994, and the sniper killing of Dr. Barnett Slepian near Buffalo, N.Y., in 1998. Those and other acts of violence created a groundswell — if not in favor of abortion rights, then certainly against the antiabortion movement.

Tiller, one of the few doctors in America willing to perform late-term (or third-trimester) abortions, was a regular usher at his church, which was often the target of antiabortion protests. At about 10 a.m. Sunday, as the doctor was greeting church members at the sanctuary door, a middle-aged white male fired a single, fatal shot with a handgun. Three hours later police took a suspect into custody; they had a tag number on a fleeing powder-blue Ford Taurus registered in Merriam, Kans., a suburb of Kansas City, Mo., and were waiting on Interstate 35 near Kansas City. The 51-year-old suspect got out of his car with his hands up, police said.

The suspect was identified as Scott P. Roeder, 51, by the Johnson County Sheriff's office. Police were investigating his links to the antigovernment group the Freemen in the 1990s; he was also reportedly a subscriber to Prayer and Action News, a magazine that advocated a justifiable-homicide position on abortion. "He was on the radar screen" of the FBI, an officer said. In 1996, Topeka police found ammunition, a blasting cap, a fuse cord, gunpowder and other items that could be used to make small bombs. He was sentenced to highly supervised probation for two years. He was expected to be charged Monday with murder and two counts of aggravated assault.

"Look, this could be some lone nut out there," said Mary Kay Culp, the head of Kansans for Life. She feared that the murder would discredit the work her group is doing through proper channels. "We work through the legislative process. This is bad because it's murder and bad because it's a threat to the integrity of an important issue."

Mahoney said he will be interested to see how President Obama handles the attack; on numerous occasions, including at a recent speech at Notre Dame, the President has stressed the importance of finding common ground on the issue by focusing on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies. After Gunn's 1994 murder at the hands of Michael Griffin, then President Clinton "spent millions on investigations. It had a real chilling effect on pro-life groups." Financial contributions went down and churches became skittish about hosting pro-life speakers, Mahoney said. "If you demonize the messenger you undermine the message." (See a TIME graphic on the growth of crisis pregnancy centers.)

Obama's initial reaction was expressed in a White House statement. The President said he was "shocked and outraged" at the murder. "However profound our differences over difficult issues, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence."

Read more TIME stories about abortion.

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