George Tiller’s Murder: How Will It Impact the Abortion Fight?

George Tillers Murder: How Will It Impact the Abortion Fight?

George Tiller long ago erased the line between his private life and his public cause, turning his Wichita, Kans., clinic into ground zero in the fight over late-term abortions. Tiller, 67, lived with death threats and was shot in both arms in 1993 by an antiabortion activist. His clinic had been bombed and was the frequent site of protests and prayer vigils, and he was the target of unsuccessful citizen-led legal challenges to shut down his clinic. Just a few weeks ago, the clinic was vandalized; security cameras and lights were damaged. Tiller asked the FBI to investigate.

So it was inevitable, perhaps, that within hours of Tiller’s death in the foyer of Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita — where he was slain by a single bullet as he handed out service bulletins to arriving parishioners — this latest act of apparent antiabortion violence was being scanned for its political implications.

“Please, don’t use this tragic situation to broad-brush the pro-life community as extremists,” the Rev. Pat Mahoney of the antiabortion Christian Defense Coalition told TIME Sunday. Condemning the murder, Mahoney worried that, “politically, this could not have happened at a worse time.” A Gallup poll in May found for the first time more Americans considering themselves pro-life than pro-choice. Mahoney had hoped this would inspire Republicans to take a hard line on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor and her views, largely unknown, of Roe v. Wade. “This might take some of the wind out of that issue,” he said.

In life, over more than three decades, Tiller unapologetically represented the most controversial aspect of the pro-choice cause: late-term abortions. In death, antiabortion activists fear he could boost the cause. They recall the public revulsion at the murder of Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola, Fla., in 1994, and the sniper killing of Dr. Barnett Slepian near Buffalo, N.Y., in 1998. Those and other acts of violence created a groundswell — if not in favor of abortion rights, then certainly against the antiabortion movement.

Tiller, one of the few doctors in America willing to perform late-term