The shooting death in Kansas on Sunday of George Tiller, one of a handful of doctors in the nation who performed abortions late in pregnancy, is reverberating all the way to Washington, D.C.
Groups on both sides of the polarized abortion debate were already facing a summer of conflict, with Congress prepared to wage abortion-related battles over a new Supreme Court justice, several spending bills and even a health care overhaul.
Now activists on both sides say the Tiller murder has the potential to change the terms of the debate.
"I do think that many more people will become involved around this issue as a tribute to Dr. Tiller and his service to women," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. She said her group is already connecting people who contact them with volunteer opportunities, including working in clinics, on campaigns of pro-choice candidates and other activities.
Indeed, what worries the anti-abortion Family Research Council most "is how an action like this might be exploited" by the other side, said Tom McClusky, vice president of the group's legislative arm. Of particular concern is the idea that the abortion-rights movement would blame the entire anti-abortion movement for Tiller's killing, he said, "and we're already seeing some indications of people trying to throw everybody into the same boat."
But it's not everybody on the anti-abortion side that Keenan blames for Tiller's death — just those who have ramped up what she terms "hateful rhetoric" in recent months.
Among those is Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, who appeared at the National Press Club to urge anti-abortion leaders not to back down in the face of what's likely to be a public backlash from the shooting, which took place while Tiller was acting as an usher in his Wichita church.
"What that man did by shooting George Tiller is wrong. Period," Terry said.
But at the same time, he added, "the Obama administration, the child-killing movement, is going to try and lump all pro-life people together and to use Tiller's death to smear us all. And we can't let that happen. We can't flinch. We have to look them dead in the eye and say no, [Tiller] was a mass murderer. ... He killed tens of thousands of innocent human beings at his own hand."
It's exactly that kind of rhetoric, says Keenan, that can prompt people to action. Indeed, news reports say that 51-year-old Scott Roeder, who has been charged with Tiller's shooting, had suggested to friends that lethal force was an acceptable way to protect unborn children.
"If they truly abhor the violence their rhetoric is encouraging, then they need to stop using the inflammatory phrases to describe the people they don't agree with," Keenan said. "And until then, I think their claims of the shock of Dr. Tiller's murder rings very hollow."