George Tiller shooting could alter debate over abortion

03/01/2011 1:23 PM

03/01/2011 1:23 PM

The shooting death of George Tiller will fundamentally alter the abortion debate across Kansas and possibly the nation, advocates on both sides of the issue said Sunday.

Since the "Summer of Mercy" protests nearly two decades ago, Tiller had been the primary focal point of an abortion battle that has zig-zagged through the state's medical establishment, elections, Legislature and courts.

While Tiller himself remained largely reclusive since being shot and wounded by an abortion protester in 1993, the continued existence of his clinic provided the political fuel for both sides of an abortion debate that has shaped state politics for years.

Tiller founded and largely funded the state's most active abortion-rights lobbying group, ProKanDo, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting abortion-rights candidates and causes.

For his opponents, stopping Tiller drove thousands of people to give money and time to build a powerful bloc of abortion opponents.

Advocates on both sides of the abortion issue agree that Tiller's death changes the equation, but no one seems to be sure exactly how.

Anti-abortion side

Kansans for Life, the state's largest and most influential anti-abortion group, immediately sought to distance itself from the shooting suspect, whom the Johnson County Sheriff's Office identified as Scott P. Roeder, 51.

"He's never been a member of KFL, I've never heard of him," said the group's executive director, Mary Kay Culp. "He's not on our mailing list. He's never given us money."

The two most vocal anti-abortion groups operating in Wichita, Operation Rescue and Kansas Coalition for Life, rushed to condemn the shooting.

Anti-abortion advocates pleaded with the public not to link the actions of the gunman to what they say is a vocal, but peaceful, pro-life movement.

"If this person's connected in any way to the pro-life movement, it'll set us back 20 years because the people of America do not approve of this behavior," said Mark Gietzen of Wichita, who heads the Kansas Coalition for Life and has organized 1,846 consecutive days of protest outside Tiller's clinic.

At the time of his death, Tiller had avoided being indicted by two grand juries and successfully defended himself against state charges that he inadequately documented the justifications for late-term abortions.

But the case remained under review by state medical authorities, and abortion opponents had been hopeful he would lose his medical license.

Troy Newman, leader of the Wichita-based Operation Rescue, denounced the shooting and said he was "mourning with everybody else" Sunday.

"We hold no animosity toward Mr. Tiller or his family," Newman said. "We were working to bring Mr. Tiller to justice through peaceful, legal means."

But the shooting does not alter the group's mission, he said.

"We'll continue to speak out against abortion," he said.

Pro-abortion side

Some supporters of abortion rights said they've seen a pattern of escalating rhetoric and increased low-level harassment and vandalism since the November election put the reins of government in the hands of a pro-abortion-rights president and Congress.

Cathleen Mahoney, vice president and general counsel of the National Abortion Federation, said anti-abortion extremists had been somewhat dormant under the Bush administration because they believed things were going their way. But they "got restless" when their political power slipped away, she said.

She called the Tiller shooting "a setback for everybody who believes in the rule of law," and said it will make it harder for the sides to find common ground going forward.

"How do you meet in the middle with people who kill people who don't agree with them?" she said.

Tiller held a special place in the abortion-rights movement because he was one of only a handful of doctors in the country to perform high-risk and late-term abortions, said Sally Burgess, chairwoman of the federation.

She said she thinks Tiller's clinic will continue with other doctors because a large number of people nationwide are committed to its mission.

But she said it's too early to forecast how that will work.

Political shake-up

The Tiller shooting shakes up what had become a sort of political standoff on the abortion issue in Kansas.

Jim Ward, D-Wichita and assistant minority leader in the state House of Representatives, said he had perceived a cooling of anti-abortion ardor at the Statehouse recently.

Ward was a Wichita City Council member during the 1991 "Summer of Mercy," when thousands of abortion opponents descended on the city in an effort to shut down Tiller's clinic.

For the past few sessions, the Legislature has passed bills aimed at forcing Tiller to disclose more information about the medical diagnoses for abortions he performed, efforts routinely blocked by former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' veto pen.

Tiller's contributions to Sebelius became an issue while she awaited confirmation to become President Obama's secretary of Health and Human Services. Her successor, Gov. Mark Parkinson, vetoed the first abortion bill to land on his desk, a measure that would have stripped state funding from Planned Parenthood.

Ward said that veto took place a month ago and he had heard little about abortion politics since.

"If you'd have asked me yesterday where the abortion battle was, I'd have said people were settling into the trenches, waiting for a change in the Supreme Court or something of that nature," he said.

"Even the bills that were being brought (in the recently concluded 2009 session) were more technical in nature," he said.

A former city prosecutor, Ward said he thinks it is too early to assess the potential fallout from the Tiller slaying because of the shocking nature of the crime.

"How could you work it out in your mind that you're going to walk into a church and shoot somebody, even if you thought they were evil incarnate?" he said.

Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, who has voted for more restrictions on abortion, said he opposed Tiller's work, but "this isn't the way to win."

"I hate what he (Tiller) did, but he wasn't a coward about it. This guy (the suspect) is clearly a coward," he said.

He said he hopes Tiller's death doesn't stop the Legislature from addressing what he sees as flaws in state abortion law and that people won't allow the killing to taint the anti-abortion cause.

"I think people can understand the differences between the two," he said. "The American people get this. They're not stupid. And this really is a rare thing."

"I'm against what he (Tiller) did," Schwab added. "But this is not how you win our cause. You win by winning hearts, not by stopping them from beating."

State Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said strident abortion opposition created a dangerous atmosphere.

"I don't think there's any question that the harsh rhetoric that has prevailed, particularly in the right-to-life movement, tends to incite people and we know that Dr. Tiller became a real target, not only for protests but for violence," Hensley said.

He added that he expects the debate to continue pretty much as it has.

"I'm very sad that something like this happened," he said. "But I don't think it will have much of an impact on the issue in the Legislature."

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527.

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