George Tiller Murder Knocks a Burgeoning Antiabortion Movement Back on Its Heels

The murder of a prominent abortion provider threatens the antiabortion movement's image.

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Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

The murder yesterday of Kansas-based abortion provider George Tiller presents a dramatic challenge to the antiabortion movement at a moment when its cause had found new resonance among rank-and-file conservatives and when polls showed the nation was moving toward a more antiabortion posture.

In statements on Sunday night, major antiabortion groups were swift to denounce the killing of Tiller, one of the few doctors in the country providing late-term abortions. But abortion-rights groups were just as quick to implicate the wider antiabortion movement in Tiller's death.

"It's impossible to separate today's tragedy from the violent language that has been directed for years at doctors like George Tiller," said People For the American Way President Michael B. Keegan. "Those who have inflamed emotions and dehumanized their opponents around the issue of abortion should take pause before they continue such dangerous rhetoric."

Antiabortion activists worry that these criticisms may gain traction. "I think it can definitely be a setback," Jill Stanek, a prominent antiabortion activist and blogger, said of the fallout from Tiller's murder. "The other side, which profits and promotes violence, has tried for years to peg us as the violent ones. And then something like this happens."

Many of the antiabortion group statements condemning the murder spoke to fears that the slaying would tarnish the movement's image. "If the perpetrator of this violence proves to be someone who was acting in the name of the pro-life movement, everyone in the pro-life community must swiftly and soundly repudiate him and his actions," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "Murdering someone is a grotesque and bizarre way to emphasize one's commitment to the sanctity of human life," Land continued. "People who truly believe in the sanctity of human life believe in the sanctity of the lives of abortion providers as well as the unborn babies who are aborted."

In recent months, antiabortion groups such as Americans United for Life and the Susan B. Anthony List—both of which condemned the murder—had seen their membership and fundraising numbers jump, mostly in reaction to Barack Obama's inauguration and to Democrats' across-the-board control in Congress.

That reaction showed signs of extending beyond the ranks of antiabortion activists. A Gallup pPoll released last month found that most Americans now call themselves "pro life" for the first time since Gallup starting asking the question in 1995.

Even Obama, a strong supporter of abortion rights, has said he wants to reduce the demand for abortion, with aides convening frequent meetings with outside groups from both sides of the debate to devise policy recommendations. "Maybe we won't agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually. It has both moral and spiritual dimensions," Obama said in a recent commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame. "So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions." 

It's too early to tell if the killing will halt the antiabortion movement's recent momentum. But liberal groups are working toward that end, partly by calling attention to an unapologetic-sounding statement about the slaying from Randall Terry, founder of the Kansas-based antiabortion group Operation Rescue. "George Tiller was a mass murderer," Terry said yesterday. "We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God. I am more concerned that the Obama administration will use Tiller's killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions." Within the antiabortion movement, Terry is largely seen as a fringe figure, though few antiabortion groups have denounced him in the past.

According to news reports, Kansas police have apprehended Kansan Scott Roeder, an abortion opponent, as a possible suspect in the murder. "Roeder is most definitely not part of the pro-life movement," said Charmaine Yoest, Americans United for Life president and CEO, in an E-mail message this morning.

In addition to abortion-rights groups, progressive religious groups that have advocated a "common ground" approach to abortion—which calls for taking steps like helping economically distressed pregnant women as opposed to criminalizing the procedure—seized on the murder to advance their cause. "Dr. Tiller's death comes at a time when some are calling for a heightened war of words over abortion even as a new common-ground approach . . . is gathering steam," said Chris Korzen, executive director of the progressive group Catholics United, which has worked closely with the Obama administration.

While saying that there is no reason to believe that mainstream abortion foes were responsible for Tiller's slaying, Korzen added that he feared that "this murder is a byproduct of increasingly hateful and intolerant language on the part of some militant opponents of legal abortion."

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