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Abortion Doctor’s Murder Puts Debate Into Sharper Focus

June 1, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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The murder of prominent Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller has raised new questions on where things stand among groups on both sides of the abortion debate. Kevin Eckstrom, editor of Religion News Service, examines the impact of Tiller's death on the abortion issue.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. George Tiller’s murder yesterday, while he stood in the lobby of a Wichita church, was the first killing of an abortion provider in 11 years.

Tiller practiced medicine in Kansas for more than three decades and offered a variety of reproductive health services. But he was one of the very few doctors in the U.S. who performed especially controversial late-term abortions, those in the third trimester of pregnancy.

Tiller was a staunch defender of the practice.

DR. GEORGE TILLER: I have a right to go to work. What I am doing is legal, what I am doing is moral, what I’m doing is ethical, and you’re not going to run me out of town.

RAY SUAREZ: Tiller was a frequent target of anti-abortion activists.

BILL O’REILLY, FOX NEWS HOST: We have incontrovertible evidence, incontrovertible evidence, right, that this man is executing babies about to be born in late term because the woman is depressed.

RAY SUAREZ: Violent activists had Tiller in their sights for years. He was shot twice in 1993. His clinic was often vandalized; in 1995, it was bombed.

A suspect in yesterday’s murder was quickly apprehended: 51-year-old Scott Roeder is being held on one count of murder and two counts of assault. Roeder was reportedly affiliated with anti-abortion and anti-government groups.

Tiller family attorney Dan Monnat says the murder may have its intended effect: stopping or limiting the practice of abortion.

DAN MONNAT, Tiller Family Attorney: Regardless of the motivation for this senseless act, the act itself will probably discourage other physicians from being involved in this high-risk health care.

Tiller was a symbol

Kevin Eckstrom
Religion News Service
There was only three clinics in the country that still perform this procedure, and [George Tiller] was one of them.

RAY SUAREZ: Tiller's clinic took many security precautions. He was often shadowed by a bodyguard.

Now there will be federal assistance in guarding clinics and doctors. Attorney General Eric Holder ordered U.S. marshals to guard some abortion providers. President Obama joined groups on both sides of the issue and denounced the killing.

But some anti-abortion activists called Tiller a mass murderer, and one told reporters his death was "overdue."

For more on the death of Dr. Tiller and the state of the abortion debate in Kansas, I'm joined by Kevin Eckstrom, editor of Religion News Service.

And, Kevin, George Tiller has been a prominent and, I guess to some, controversial figure in Kansas for a long time, hasn't he?

KEVIN ECKSTROM, Religion News Service: Yes, he really was sort of public enemy number one of the anti-abortion movement, but especially on this question of late-term abortion or what they term partial-birth abortion. This is the most abhorrent part of abortion for this crowd, and he was sort of the poster boy.

There was only three clinics in the country that still perform this procedure, and he was one of them. So in that mental image in your mind of these raucous, noisy, threatening, nonviolent sort of protests outside of an abortion clinic, that was him or that was his clinic that sort of people imagined.

RAY SUAREZ: Didn't George Tiller's name come up during the recent effort to confirm Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as health and human services secretary?

KEVIN ECKSTROM: It did. That was when he was most recently in the news, because he had contributed fairly heavily to her campaigns, and, you know, there was talk that she had attended a fundraiser where he was present. And the anti-abortion crowd was basically saying, if this woman will be in a room with this guy, much less take money from him, you know, who is she? And do we really want her overseeing health care policy for the country?

The law in Kansas

Kevin Eckstrom
Religion News Service
[T]here is an exception for a late-term abortion. One is if it jeopardizes -- if the mother's health is in jeopardy.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, there are a lot of lawsuits and a lot of legal fights over abortions in many states in the union, but has the battle between particularly tough in Kansas?

KEVIN ECKSTROM: Intense, I think, is probably a pretty good word. Back in March, just a couple months ago, Tiller was acquitted on 19 counts of basically performing illegal abortions. He's been in the news for a long time.

They had a particularly aggressive attorney general, Phil Kline, for a couple years ago who went after Tiller personally and sort of wanted the names of teenaged girls who were either getting pregnant or having abortions, and it was sort of honing his laser in very tightly on Tiller's clinic.

So he has been a very public figure and a very hated figure by a lot of groups for quite a long time.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Kansas law, as I understand it, prohibits the abortion of viable fetuses. Now, in some cases, that's just past 20 weeks, in the second trimester. How was Dr. Tiller able to have this practice where he still continued to do third-trimester abortions?

KEVIN ECKSTROM: My understanding of it is that there is an exception for a late-term abortion. One is if it jeopardizes -- if the mother's health is in jeopardy. Late in the pregnancy, they can do that.

The other one -- and this is where Dr. Tiller entered -- was if carrying the fetus to term would result in sort of irreparable harm or damage to the mother's health, and sort of factored in that was a mental health exemption.

So if carrying the pregnancy to term would injure or somehow damage the mother's mental health, then she would be eligible to have a late-term abortion that she otherwise would not be. And in all of the cases or most of the cases that Dr. Tiller performed, he used that mental health exemption in order to allow the procedure.

RAY SUAREZ: And used that -- I think the law also requires a second opinion?

KEVIN ECKSTROM: Right, yes, two doctors, as I understand it, have to sign off on it, saying that, you know, this would cause irreparable mental damage in this case. And then they would basically refer the woman to Dr. Tiller's clinic to have the procedure.

Suspect had mental health issues

Kevin Eckstrom
Religion News Service
It's the worst image I think that the anti-abortion crowd could have dreamed of or could have to deal with.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, he was apprehended very quickly after yesterday's shooting. Do we know very much yet about the accused in this crime?

KEVIN ECKSTROM: The initial reports from what I've seen seem to indicate that this was a guy who sort of drifted around the periphery of the anti-abortion movement. There are guys with his name in criminal databases that were, you know, known to associate with anti-government groups, sort of militia types.

He, if this is the same guy -- and everyone thinks it is -- would post on the Operation Rescue Web site fairly frequently, even suggesting, why doesn't someone sort of confront Tiller at his church, which is what happened in this case.

His family issued a statement saying that they never thought that he would do this; they didn't think he was capable of it. But they also indicated that he had a history of mental health issues, which might explain a lot, as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Kansas, a very church-going state. Is the fact that this murder happened right in a sanctuary there, did that give it particular impact?

KEVIN ECKSTROM: It's the worst image I think that the anti-abortion crowd could have dreamed of or could have to deal with, because, if you think about it, just two or three weeks ago, you had President Obama at Notre Dame sort of appealing for common ground, fair-minded words, sort of a common respect between both sides.

And then now we have an image of someone being gunned down in a church, you know, which is supposed to be a place of sanctuary and refuge and sort of hands-off to violence. And so now what the anti-abortion -- the pro-life movement has to contend with is this call for moderation from the president versus an image of a gunman going into a church and taking out an usher.

The murder's effects

Kevin Eckstrom
Religion News Service
They can issue all the statements they want, saying, 'We don't condone this,' but at the end of the day that's the image that people have in their minds.

RAY SUAREZ: But the groups inside Kansas that have been working to make abortion illegal distanced themselves from anybody who would do anything violent, didn't they?

KEVIN ECKSTROM: Oh, absolutely. Yes, absolutely. Every leading anti-abortion or pro-life group immediately issued statements saying, This is not us. We don't condone this. This is completely antithetical to the pro-life ideal and that you cannot be pro-life by taking another life.

So everyone has distanced themselves from this, but yet, at the end of the day, the image on the TV that people see is of violence. And the calls for, "That's not us, we don't condone this," a lot of that sort of gets drowned out by the images that we just saw of a guy getting gunned down in his own church.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, there have been several other highly publicized cases of attacks against doctors who continue to perform abortions. Is there a track record? Do they have a chilling effect? Do they end up being a setback, at least temporarily so, for those working against legal abortion in the United States?

KEVIN ECKSTROM: If nothing else, it certainly is an image problem, where they are rightly or wrongly, justified or not, their cause becomes sort of associated with violence. They can issue all the statements they want, saying, "We don't condone this," but at the end of the day that's the image that people have in their minds.

I mean, this hasn't happened in -- 11 years was the last time that we had an abortion doctor who was killed. It's going to take some time, I think, for them to sort of get past this and to convince in people's minds that this isn't how they operate, because, you know, the headlines are going to be a pro-abortion person was gunned down.

RAY SUAREZ: Kevin Eckstrom from Religion News Service, thanks for being with us.