Tiller's Killing Puts Abortion Issue Back in Spotlight

Hundreds gathered in downtown Wichita, Kansas, Sunday to remember George Tiller, the abortion doctor shot dead at his church Sunday morning during weekly services. Video by AP
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

WICHITA, June 1 -- As the U.S. Marshals Service moved to protect abortion clinics and doctors nationwide, the fatal shooting of the country's most prominent provider of late-term abortions reignited a national debate about reproductive rights.

Supporters of the right to legal abortion worried Monday that the killing of George Tiller in his Wichita church could foretell fresh protests and violence even as many abortion opponents fretted that his death could hurt their image and cause.

Although mainstream antiabortion groups largely condemned Sunday's shooting, Operation Rescue founder Randall A. Terry called Tiller a mass murderer who "reaped what he sowed." Terry said the antiabortion movement is facing irrelevance and must use "confrontational" tactics and "highly charged rhetoric."

Nancy Keenan, president of

NARAL Pro-Choice America, said antiabortion groups should soften their words. She said the killing was "not an isolated incident. It is part of an ongoing pattern of hateful rhetoric that unfortunately can lead to violence."

In Wichita, dozens of mourners left flowers outside Tiller's clinic, where an American flag flew at half-staff. Across town, the man accused of killing the doctor awaited formal charges in the Sedgwick County jail.

Scott Roeder was arrested on an interstate a few hours after an assailant fired a single bullet from a handgun at Tiller at Reformation Lutheran Church as he handed out church bulletins. Roeder, suspected of acting alone, has emerged as a fierce abortion opponent once arrested with bomb components in his car.

Fellow abortion opponents described Roeder as a foot soldier convinced that killing an abortion doctor is not a crime because it saves the lives of unborn children. In a 2007 Internet posting, a person identifying himself as "Scott Roeder" said Tiller is "the concentration camp 'Mengele' of our day and needs to be stopped."

One doctor remembers Roeder confronting him inside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Kansas City in the 1990s after first asking for him by name.

"I came out and he stepped up about six inches from me and said, 'Now I know what you look like,' and turned and walked out of the building," said Robert Crist, 73, adding that he had put the incident out of his mind until Sunday. "It really does send a chill down my spine. You wonder, 'Was I a target?' "

Crist has endured shotgun blasts at his home and picketers at his clinic. He was once knocked down and pummeled by protesters. Since Tiller's killing, he said, he has been pondering whether to stop performing abortions.

"I don't want to be forced out," Crist said. "But it impacts my wife and family, and I've had discussions with them, saying, 'Isn't retirement time about here?' "

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