Abortion opponents caution critics not to use Tiller's murder for 'political gain'

WASHINGTON | Abortion opponents today condemned the fatal shooting of a prominent Wichita abortion provider and warned against attempts to “demonize” their movement because of one “unbalanced” person.

“We are pro-life,” the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, a religious freedom and social justice group, said at a press conference. “We stand against violence. That is why every pro-life leader of any reputable organization has unequivocally condemned this act, especially in the lobby of a church.”

George Tiller was gunned down at his Wichita church while serving as an usher during the Sunday service. His women’s health clinic has long been a flashpoint in the long-running battle over abortion rights because it was one of the few to perform late-term abortions.

“This is a great evil for we know that vigilantism is an act outside (God’s) moral will,” said the Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, in a prayer at the event outside the U.S. Supreme Court.

Abortion opponents also worried that Tiller’s shooting could impact their ability to influence the upcoming confirmation hearings of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the U.S. Supreme Court.

With the court’s massive Greek columns and bronze doors as a backdrop, they cautioned their critics not to use the murder for “political gain.”

Mahoney said that painting the entire anti-abortion movement as violent could intimidate their supporters on the Judiciary Committee and others from speaking out.

He said that the groups standing with him had so far not taken positions on Sotomayor’s nomination. Besides his and Schenck’s organizations, they also included Bound4Life, a grassroots prayer group; and Faith & Action, a Christian government outreach effort.

Sotomayor’s views on abortion, however, are not clear because she has never dealt with the constitutional right to an abortion in 17 years on the federal bench.

But Mahoney noted that President Barack Obama’s pledge during the campaign to send an abortion rights advocate to the court would seem to answer any doubts. He also noted that a recent Gallup Poll found for the first time that 51 percent of respondents refer to themselves as “pro-life.”

Abortion has long been a hot button in politics and a dividing line in most of the recent Supreme Court nomination battles.

Tiller, meanwhile, has long been a rallying symbol for both camps. The 67-year-old physician’s clinic was bombed in 1985 and he was shot in both arms in 1993. He was acquitted of criminal charges in March related to performing late-term abortions.

Abortion rights supporters praised his work.

“He provided critical reproductive health care services, including abortion services to women facing some of the most difficult medical circumstances,” said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a statement.

Meanwhile, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice president nominee and abortion opponent, issued a statement that conveyed sympathy for the Tiller family.

“This murder also damages the positive message of life, for the unborn, and for those living,” Palin said. “Ask yourself, ’What will those who have not yet decided personally where they stand on this issue take away from today’s event in Kansas?’”