WICHITA, Kan. – 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 has started anew 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 anti-abortion groups largely condemned Sunday’s shooting, Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry called Tiller a mass murderer who “reaped what he sowed.” Terry said the anti-abortion movement is facing irrelevance and must use “confrontational” tactics and “highly charged rhetoric.”
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said anti-abortion groups should soften their words. She said the killing was “… 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 freeway 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.”
Tiller, shot once before by an anti-abortion crusader in 1993, reportedly became worried last month about a return of trouble after his clinic was vandalized, Tiller’s attorney Dan Monnat said.
Tiller alerted the FBI, Monnat said. The lawyer said that the clinic is closed for mourning but doctors intend to reopen next week to serve women who “came to Dr. Tiller because they had nowhere else to turn.”
“He often expressed fear about his patients or his family, but I never saw him fear for himself or even flinch,” Monnat said. “He was a very dedicated, courageous, compassionate man who devoted his life to serving women patients and honoring their constitutional right to choose.”
In accepting the Obama administration’s offer of extra protection, clinic operators said women seeking abortions must have secure places to turn to.
“It is critically important that we ensure the safety of our doctors, staff and patients,” said Sarah Stoesz, president of a Minnesota-based Planned Parenthood chapter.
Roeder has not been charged with a crime in Sedgwick County, where prosecutors have 48 hours to file charges or request more time.