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The Shooting of George Tiller

Pro-lifers fear that the shooting death of the late-term abortionist may bring greater restrictions to their largely peaceful movement.

BY JEFF GARDNER

REGISTER CORRESPONDENT

June 14-20, 2009 Issue | Posted 6/5/09 at 9:00 AM

 

WICHITA, Kan. — Just after 10 a.m. on Pentecost Sunday, May 31, George Tiller was shot in the head at the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kan.

The notorious late-term abortionist was serving as an usher at Sunday services.

While a search for his killer was under way, pro-lifers were already denouncing the murder.

Troy Newman, president of the Wichita-based Operation Rescue, said, “We were shocked at the news of Tiller’s death” and denounced the murder as a “cowardly act.”

“All life,” Newman said, “has intrinsic value, including the life of Dr. George Tiller.”

Less than three hours after the shooting, police near Kansas City, Kan., stopped a 1993 blue Ford Taurus and arrested Scott Roeder as a suspect in the murder.

On June 2, Roeder was charged in Sedgwick County District Court with one count of homicide in the murder of Tiller and two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Roeder, 51, is from the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kan. He was convicted in 1996 on criminal possession and use of explosives and sentenced to two years probation. That conviction was later overturned on appeal.

Additionally, Roeder is suspected of vandalizing a Kansas City abortion business. According to unconfirmed reports, Roeder may also have a history of mental illness and was once a member of the anti-government group Kansas Unorganized Citizens Militia.

Newman said, “This crime is antithetical to the pro-life movement. We were within months of having Dr. Tiller’s medical license revoked. That would have been a real victory for the pro-life movement.”

“The pro-life community can best put abortionists out of business by using legal, peaceful means within the system,” Newman said. “These acts of violence do nothing but set us back.”

In March, Tiller was acquitted on 19 criminal counts that stemmed from allegations that he carried out abortions in violation of Kansas state law.

Despite this acquittal, the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts had confirmed at least 11 violations of the Healing Arts Act against Tiller, including the charge that he performed an abortion on a viable “fetus without a documented referral from another physician not legally or financially affiliated with him.”

Chicago-based pro-life activist Joe Scheidler remembers abortionist George Tiller as “an odd fellow.”

Scheidler, founder and president of the Pro-Life Action League, said he first met Tiller in New Orleans in 1980. Scheidler was attending an abortionists’ convention “as a spy” and shared a taxi ride with Tiller “for almost one half hour.”

“Tiller told me about how he was using ultrasound to see what he was aborting and how great this was,” Scheidler recalled. “He was excited about abortion; he saw himself as significant, almost a pioneer in the business.”

Tiller was a Wichita native who, after serving as a Navy flight surgeon from 1969 to 1970, returned to Wichita to take over his father’s family practice. By the mid-1970s, Tiller had turned the facility into an abortion business, The Women’s Health Care Services. Over the years, as Tiller’s facility expanded, so too did its notoriety. It became known as one of only a handful of places providing late-term abortions.

“Later on, he got into a lot of quasi-religious stuff, installing a chapel at his facility and having a minister baptize the aborted babies,” Scheidler said, days after Tiller’s death. “Other abortionists admired him; to them, he was a hero, now perhaps a martyr. He would go and do what any others would not.”


Backlash?

Many pro-life leaders are concerned that one of the consequences of Tiller’s murder will be an increase by the federal government to see suspects where there are none.

After the Tiller shooting, Attorney General Eric Holder ordered the U.S. Marshal Service to “provide protection to other appropriate people and facilities around the nation.” A source within the Department of Justice, who asked not to be identified, confirmed that “U.S. marshals would be providing security to certain people and facilities.” The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI declined to comment on what actions they might be taking.

For members of the pro-abortion community, the actions taken by the attorney general, and even a strong statement by President Obama condemning the shooting, are not nearly enough. Reached at her New York home, Gloria Feldt, who was president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1996 to 2005, called the murder of George Tiller “domestic terrorism.”

“The definition of terrorism,” Feldt said, “is violence that is a result of a social climate that accepts such behavior or even, at times, condones it.”

“There is no denying,” Feldt claimed, “that there are groups who do in fact speak in such a way that foments this kind of behavior, so that individuals who are mentally unstable take action. Even if there is not a direct line from point A to point B, there is still a connection.”

As for pro-life denunciations of the murder, she said, “What do you expect those groups to say? Of course that is what they are going to say, but that does not mean that the climate that they generate does not create the conditions that bring violence or terrorism.”

Scheidler agreed that the climate is difficult — for pro-lifers.

“There is a sense already that we are being held down, and there is more coming,” noted Scheidler.

Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, said the movement always tries “to show people the peaceful things that they can do in support of life. Unfortunately, we do not reach everyone.”

“Part of the solution to this problem,” noted Pavone, “is for the government to not overreact and start to prohibit First Amendment activities or the freedom of assembly. If they overreach, we will end up with more violence, making matters worse.”

When asked to comment on Father Pavone’s call for the government not to overreact, Feldt said, “I do not think that there has been an overreaction [on the part of government], but an underreaction.”


‘Be Not Afraid’

Despite concerns that Tiller’s murder will lead to an increase in surveillance and harassment of pro-life activities, pro-life leaders are encouraging their members not to be afraid.

“We as pro-lifers are the majority,” noted Newman. “Be resilient, and let’s look at this horrible event as an opportunity to work more closely together, not for personal gain, but the advancement of life.”

Scheidler echoed that sentiment: “Tiller was a strange person. I am sorry about his death because not only does it hurt the movement, but I think we could have converted him over time. ... But we must proceed exactly as we have — fighting abortion nonviolently.”

Jeff Gardner is based in
Onalaska, Wisconsin.