The killing of a Kansas abortion doctor has thrust the issue of abortion rights and abortion violence into the headlines again. George Tiller was shot to death on May 31, 2009, while serving as an usher at his Lutheran church in Wichita. A 51-year-old suspect, Scott Roeder, was apprehended later that day. As a result, Roeder was sentenced to life in prison on Jan. 29, 2010.
Concerns over a resurgence of right-wing violence emerged in the wake of the shooting. In April 2009, the Department of Homeland Security produced a report on the prospects of a rise in right-wing extremism in part because of the declining economy and the election of President Barack Obama. The 10-page report twice briefly mentions single-minded opposition to abortion as a potential marker of some extremist groups or individuals.
When the report emerged in the media it elicited strong condemnation from conservative groups and others who protested the way the DHS framed the issues, as this April 14, 2009, Huffington Post article reports.
Several other developments had already pushed the abortion issue to the fore. One was the election of Obama, who has expressed his commitment to maintaining abortion rights. That prompted strong reaction from abortion opponents, which was crystallized in the controversy over his commencement address at Notre Dame on May 17, 2009.
Obama’s nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to be the next Supreme Court justice — and the first Hispanic and only the third woman on the high court — drew scrutiny of her views on Roe v. Wade and abortion rights.
What to cover
The shooting of Tiller, who was one of the most controversial abortionists in the United States because he performed the procedure in the later stages of a pregnancy, immediately inflamed passions on both sides of the abortion debate.
There are two main aspects to this story: One deals with the investigation and details of the Tiller killing. News outlets with up-to-the minute coverage included The Wichita Eagle, The Washington Post and The New York Times.
The other aspect is how this killing affects the debate surrounding abortion in the United States.
ReligionLink has a comprehensive guide to experts and organizations on all sides of the issue, as well as information on relevant federal and state laws and abortion-related statistics.
A June 2, 2009, Wichita Eagle profile says that when Roeder turned to religion he became “adamant about his Old Testament beliefs and observed the Sabbath from Friday night through Saturday.”
A June 2, 2009, Time magazine story notes that Roeder’s car was “decorated with a red rose — an antiabortion emblem — and a Jesus fish.”
A June 1, 2009, New York Times story quotes Roeder’s ex-wife as saying he was looking for a “scapegoat” to blame for his troubles. “First it was taxes — he stopped paying. Then he turned to the church and got involved in anti-abortion,” she said.
According to a June 1, 2009, profile of Roeder in The Wichita Eagle, Roeder has connections to extremist anti-government groups and is a long-standing opponent of abortion.
See a June 1, 2009, New York Times roundup and analysis of surveys on abortion and the possible impact of the Tiller shooting on public opinion.
The impact of the shooting on public opinion is another question mark. In May 2009, the Gallup Poll reported that a majority of Americans identified themselves as “pro-life” — the first time that has surpassed 50 percent since Gallup began asking the question in 1995. The survey found that 51 percent of Americans called themselves “pro-life,” and 42 percent said “pro-choice.” Experts debated whether the identifiers represent any change in views on the legality of abortion, but they say the adoption of the “pro-life” label by so many is significant.