Slaying Could Galvanize Abortion-Rights Activists NARAL Pro-Choice America hopes the murder of a doctor who performed abortions will make more people join the debate, while the anti-abortion side worries that the entire movement will be blamed for George Tiller's death.
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Slaying Could Galvanize Abortion-Rights Activists

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Slaying Could Galvanize Abortion-Rights Activists

Slaying Could Galvanize Abortion-Rights Activists

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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A man named Scott Roeder is in a Wichita, Kansas jail. He's 51 years old. He's being held without bond. He is the lone suspect in the shooting death on Sunday of abortion doctor George Tiller. Mr. Tiller's shooting might affect a broader debate over abortion. And for that part of the story we go to NPR's Julie Rovner.

JULIE ROVNER: In life, George Tiller was one of the most polarizing figures in the already divisive abortion debate. His clinic was one of only a handful that performed the procedure late in pregnancy and had been bombed, picketed and targeted by Kansas prosecutors over the years. So it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that his death would spark controversy as well.

Opponents of abortion rights, like Tom McClusky of the Family Research Council, are afraid that supporters of abortion rights will try to mobilize the likely public backlash and use it to their advantage.

Mr. TOM MCCLUSKY (Family Research Council): One underlying fear right now is that pro-abortion members of Congress will use this and exploit this in trying to pass legislation as they have in the past, such as the Face Act.

ROVNER: The Face Act stands for the freedom of access to clinic entrances. It's a 1994 law that sought to quell violent protests around abortion clinics. It was passed under similar circumstances after two abortion clinic shootings in 1993. One involved George Tiller.

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, says her group is already trying to organize people who are calling to express their concern about the shooting.

Ms. KEENAN: Encouraging them to volunteer to protect the right to choose in this country. And they can do that by volunteering at a clinic. They can get involved in a campaign of a pro-choice candidate. And of course there are many, many vigils across this country I'm sure in the next few days that they can also participate in.

ROVNER: But Keenan says that while anti-abortion groups have been quick to disassociate themselves from the suspect in Tiller's shooting, she thinks they bear at least some responsibility.

Ms. KEENAN: I think it's part of an ongoing pattern of hateful rhetoric that unfortunately can lead to violence by some of the more extreme members of the anti-choice movement. And I think that organizations that use this inflammatory language to fire up their base, I think they need to do a better job of policing themselves.

ROVNER: McClusky of the Family Research Council says that's ridiculous.

Mr. MCCLUSKY: I think trying to lay blame on the rhetoric of certain people distracts from the real killer. I mean, the killer himself is to blame for what happened.

ROVNER: But Randall Terry, who founded the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue and lead the picketing of Tiller's clinic in the summer of 1991, says he's afraid that the pro-life movement will tone down its rhetoric.

Mr. RANDALL TERRY (Operation Rescue): If the Christian religion is true, then abortion is murder and George Tiller was a murderer and he was doing something that was literally demonic. So how can you not demonize something that is so intrinsically evil?

ROVNER: Terry, who now runs a group devoted to overturning the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, appeared at the National Press Club to urge his fellow anti-abortion activists not to back down. Rather, he said, they should focus on what Tiller was doing at his clinic.

Mr. TERRY: Mr. Tiller's untimely death can be a teaching moment for what child killing is really all about and what he was doing behind those doors in his grisly trade.

ROVNER: More than three decades into the national debate over abortion, however, it's far from clear there's much more the public can be taught. While opinion polls move a few points up and down from time to time, over the years the split between support and opposition to abortion has remained remarkably stable.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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