Late-Term Abortion Provider George Tiller Killed in Wichita Church

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009; A01

George R. Tiller, the nation's most prominent provider of controversial late-term abortions, was shot and killed yesterday in the lobby of his Lutheran church in Wichita, where he was serving as an usher.

Hours later, police stopped and apprehended Scott Roeder, 51, of Merriam, Kan., a Kansas City suburb, on Interstate 35. He had been driving a car that had been identified by churchgoers as leaving the scene of the crime. Authorities were returning him last night to Wichita, and he had not been questioned or charged with a crime.

Wichita Deputy Police Chief Tom Stolz said all indications were that the assailant acted alone. The FBI and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation are trying to determine whether others were part of the attack and whether the suspect had any connection to antiabortion groups.

Tiller, 67, had performed abortions since the 1970s. He ran the Women's Health Care Services clinic, one of three in the nation to perform abortions after the point when a fetus is considered able to survive outside the womb.

The clinic had been the scene of frequent abortion protests -- some peaceful, some not -- and had served as the national focal point of antiabortion activists during Operation Rescue's "Summer of Mercy" protests in 1991.

Tiller was shot in both arms in 1993 by abortion protester Rachelle "Shelley" Shannon, who remains in prison for the crime. Tiller received protection from federal marshals for a time. In recent years, he declined interviews and public appearances out of fear for his safety.

He had also been a frequent subject of attempted prosecution in a state that has become one of the battlegrounds of attempts to restrict abortion. In March, the physician was acquitted of criminal charges that he performed late-term abortions without properly obtaining a second medical opinion.

The killing brings renewed attention to the abortion issue, which is never far from the public spotlight. It moved to the forefront with the controversy that surrounded President Obama's delivery of a commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. And an opening on the Supreme Court inevitably leads to questions about constitutional protections for the procedure, especially in light of uncertainty about nominee Sonia Sotomayor's stand on the issue.

President Obama issued a statement late in the day saying he was "shocked and outraged" by the killing.

"However profound our differences as Americans over difficult issues such as abortion, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence," Obama said.

Tiller is the fourth abortion provider to be killed since 1993, and the first since Barnett A. Slepian was fatally shot outside Buffalo in 1998.

Tiller's family members said through their attorney: "Today we mourn the loss of our husband, father and grandfather. Today's event is an unspeakable tragedy for all of us and for George's friends and patients. This is particularly heart wrenching because George was shot down in his house of worship, a place of peace."

The statement also said "George dedicated his life to providing women with high-quality health care despite frequent threats and violence."

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said last night that he had ordered the U.S. Marshals Service "to offer protection to other appropriate people and facilities around the nation." He added: "As a precautionary measure, we will also take appropriate steps to help prevent any related acts of violence from occurring."

Activists on both sides of the issue denounced the attack.

"Dr. Tiller's murder will send a chill down the spines of the brave and courageous providers and other professionals who are part of reproductive-health centers that serve women across this country," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, who pledged support for "providing these essential services."

Operation Rescue President Troy Newman, whose group is based in Wichita and whose Web site carries a "Tiller Watch" feature, said he was "shocked" by the killing.

"Operation Rescue has worked for years through peaceful, legal means, and through the proper channels to see him brought to justice," Newman said in a statement. "We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place this morning."

But Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, called Tiller "a mass murderer" and added: "We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God."

A posting from May 2007 on Operation Rescue's Web site, from a person identifying himself as "Scott Roeder," sought volunteers to "attend Tillers church (inside, not just outside)" to "ask questions of the Pastor, Deacons, Elders and members. . . . Doesn't seem like it would hurt anything but bring more attention to Tiller."

Tiller was shot just after 10 a.m. services began at Reformation Lutheran Church, where he was handing out bulletins in the church lobby.

Adam Watkins, 20, told the Associated Press that he was sitting in the middle of the congregation when he heard a small pop at the start of the service.

"We just thought a child had come in with a balloon and it had popped, had gone up and hit the ceiling and popped," Watkins said.

Another usher came in and told the congregation to remain seated, then escorted Tiller's wife, Jeanne, out. "When she got to the back doors, we heard her scream, and so we knew something bad had happened," Watkins said.

The church held a special memorial service for Tiller on Sunday evening. Reporters were not allowed to attend.

Tiller's clinic was bombed in 1985, then rebuilt and fortified with bulletproof glass. A private security firm protected it, and Tiller at times wore a bulletproof vest, drove an armored car and was accompanied by a bodyguard.

Tiller, a former Navy flight surgeon, assumed his father's family practice in Wichita. He had said he learned that his father had performed abortions when one of his patients asked if he would continue the practice. Tiller said he was surprised his father had risked his medical license by performing the procedure.

He began performing abortions after the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade permitted the practice.

"Prenatal testing without prenatal choices is medical fraud," Tiller once said.

Tiller was closely aligned with former Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius, now Obama's secretary of health and human services. Her strong stand on abortion rights and association with Tiller held up her confirmation.

Upon questioning, she told the Senate Finance Committee that Tiller had contributed $12,450 to her campaigns from 1994 to 2001 and $23,000 to a political action committee Sebelius controlled.

"This is sad and shocking news," Sebelius said after Tiller's shooting. "My prayers go out to the Tiller family and to the members of his church who witnessed this terrible crime."

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