By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
WICHITA, June 1 -- 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 reignited 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 antiabortion groups largely condemned Sunday's shooting, Operation Rescue founder Randall A. Terry called Tiller a mass murderer who "reaped what he sowed." Terry said the antiabortion movement is facing irrelevance and must use "confrontational" tactics and "highly charged rhetoric."
Nancy Keenan, president of
NARAL Pro-Choice America, said antiabortion groups should soften their words. She said the killing was "not an isolated incident. It is 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 a few 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."
One doctor remembers Roeder confronting him inside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Kansas City in the 1990s after first asking for him by name.
"I came out and he stepped up about six inches from me and said, 'Now I know what you look like,' and turned and walked out of the building," said Robert Crist, 73, adding that he had put the incident out of his mind until Sunday. "It really does send a chill down my spine. You wonder, 'Was I a target?' "
Crist has endured shotgun blasts at his home and picketers at his clinic. He was once knocked down and pummeled by protesters. Since Tiller's killing, he said, he has been pondering whether to stop performing abortions.
"I don't want to be forced out," Crist said. "But it impacts my wife and family, and I've had discussions with them, saying, 'Isn't retirement time about here?' "
Tiller, shot once before by an antiabortion crusader, in 1993, and witness to the chaos of more than 2,000 arrests outside his clinic in the 1991 "Summer of Mercy," reportedly became worried last month about a return of trouble after his clinic was vandalized. Someone scaled the fence, cut wires to knock out lights and surveillance cameras, then sliced holes in the roof and plugged drain pipes to allow rain to pour in, Dan Monnat, Tiller's attorney, said in an interview.
Tiller alerted the FBI, Monnat said. The lawyer said that the clinic is closed for mourning but that 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. The group flies physicians anonymously into Sioux Falls, S.D., each week because no doctor in the state is willing to perform elective abortions.
The shooting returned the violent side of the abortion issue to the spotlight just as a diverse array of advocates has begun meeting with White House officials to explore President Obama's appeal for common ground.
The political effect of Tiller's killing is hard to gauge. Shaun Kenney, executive director of the antiabortion American Life League, worries that "extreme" groups "will try to use it for political advantage" and harm the larger movement.
Cynthia Gorney, author of "Articles of Faith," a book about the abortion wars, said the killing will weaken antiabortion forces because Americans will see all opponents in the same light, whatever their moral and tactical differences.
"It's going to bite them in the leg," Gorney said. "And it's going to do it in a very big way."
Roeder has not been charged with a crime in Sedgwick County, where prosecutors have 48 hours to file charges or request more time. District Attorney Nora Foulston told reporters that the case will be tried in state court.
As news of Roeder's arrest traveled, abortion opponent Regina Dinwiddie remembered the day a dozen years ago when Roeder hugged her in glee after his encounter with Crist.
"He grabbed me and said, 'I've read the Defensive Action Statement, and I love what you're doing,' " said Dinwiddie, of Kansas City, Kan. She was a signer of the 1990s statement, which declares that the use of force is justified to save the lives of the unborn.
"I said, 'You need to get out of here. You can get in a lot of trouble,' " Dinwiddie recalled.
Dinwiddie does not consider Tiller's death a murder.
"I don't think he was murdered," she said. "I believe he was absolutely stopped in his tracks and it was long overdue."
Dave Leach, who also signed the statement, said he published some of Roeder's writings in the newsletter Prayer & Action News, which describes itself as "a trumpet call for the Armies of God to assemble."
Leach, who described Roeder as "anti-government," said he stopped to see Roeder in Kansas years ago after visiting Rachelle "Shelley" Shannon in prison. Shannon was convicted of shooting Tiller in his arms outside his clinic 16 years ago.
Roeder's arrest in April 1996 on explosives charges -- dismissed when a court ruled that the car search was improper -- came during a period in which he was captivated by the anti-government Montana Freemen, his father said.
The group, which said it owed allegiance to no government authority, held FBI agents at bay for 81 days before surrendering peacefully. John Roeder, who has since died, told the Atchison Daily Globe that year that his son was "obsessed" and went to Montana for unspecified training.
"Scott would not kill a fly. He would not kill a worm," the elder Roeder said. "So how could he possibly, unless he was being used by somebody, be planning anything that would take human life?"
Roeder's ex-wife told the Associated Press that he had become "very religious, in an Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye way," and moved out of the house at about this time, after 10 years of marriage and one son.
"That's all he cared about is antiabortion, 'the church is this, God is this,' yada yada," Lindsey Roeder said. "The anti-tax stuff came first, and then it grew and grew."
While Roeder remained in custody Monday, flowers stretched for 25 feet along a tall wooden fence outside Tiller's clinic. A police cruiser sat in the driveway, but on the day after the killing, at least, there were more tears than trouble.
Tiller "did what was right. He did nothing illegal," Julie Lawson, 45, said after placing a bouquet. "I knew that if I ever needed him or my daughter ever needed him or a loved one ever needed him, he was there. And now he's not."
Staff writers Garance Franke-Ruta, Philip Rucker, Jacqueline L. Salmon and Rob Stein and staff researcher Julie Tate, all in Washington, contributed to this report.