WICHITA, Kan. — The slaying of a Kansas abortion doctor put the anti-abortion movement on the defensive Monday with prominent leaders delicately distancing themselves from the accused killer while positioning their stand as one shared by a majority of Americans.
Already reeling from the failure to dominate last year's election and worried their cause won't be at the center of the hearings on President Obama's first Supreme Court nominee, anti-abortion leaders feared that backlash from George Tiller's death could temporarily silence the abortion debate.
"In the immediate future, it makes it difficult to even speak about an issue we've been speaking about for 365 days a year," said Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life. "Anything you say — somebody is going to pounce on us."
Abortion opponents were swift to condemn Tiller's shooting death Sunday during church services in Wichita. Kansans for Life and Operation Rescue, which is also based in Kansas, said 51-year-old Scott Roeder, who is being held without bail one count of first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated assault, did not belong or donate to either group.
'Operation Rescue condemned the killing as vigilantism and "a cowardly act." But its founder, Randall Terry, stressed that the anti-abortion movement should not tone down its rhetoric. He said the gunman was wrong to kill Tiller, 67, but that abortion opponents bear no responsibility for the action.
Tiller was 'mass murderer'
Tiller was "a mass murderer and horrifically, he reaped what he sowed," Terry told the National Press Club in Washington.
The Kansas doctor had been a lightning rod for abortion opponents for decades. The women's clinic he ran is one of three in the nation where abortions are performed after the 21st week of pregnancy, when the fetus is considered viable. It had been the site of repeated protests and was bombed in 1985. About eight years later, a protester shot Tiller in both arms.
Some anti-abortion leaders said they didn't believe people were paying enough attention to Tiller's abortion practices.
"What he did is being glossed over," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.
Abortion opponents have long argued that public opinion is moving toward their position. Several said Monday that they don't expect that trend to change, even with Tiller's death. Last month, a Gallup Poll found that 51 percent of Americans now call themselves pro-life rather than pro-choice — the first time since 1995.
"It's possible that the pro-abortion side will try to use an instance like this to avoid discussing the abortion issue itself, but that's not new," said David O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee.
But the election of Obama was a setback, because he's expressed support for the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion, opposed restrictions sought by anti-abortion groups and quickly reversed a policy that kept federal funds from going to international groups performing abortions. Senate hearings on Obama's U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor also appear likely to focus on her views on race as the first potential Hispanic justice — not abortion.
Worry protests will be hindered
Some abortion opponents also worried that federal officials will step up enforcement of a 1993 federal clinic access law to hinder protests, even peaceful ones.
"It creates a whole storm of emotions that can just make reasonable processes more difficult," said Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, referring to the legislative process. He said he worried that cities may also seek to enact their own ordinances blocking protests from abortion clinics.
In Washington, Attorney General Eric Holder ordered increased security Monday at some clinics.
Abortion provider Dr. Bruce Ferguson of Albuquerque, N.M., said he had contacted police to increase patrols around his office.
"I don't think Albuquerque is Wichita but you never know where people will hit after something like this happens," he said.
Still pending is a proposed federal "Freedom of Choice Act," which would overrule many state-level restrictions on access to abortion, and which Obama supports. Several anti-abortion leaders said they expect backers to cite Tiller's death as a reason for passing it, though they questioned whether it would succeed.
But several abortion-rights activists questioned the sincerity of anti-abortion leaders who have been condemning Tiller's murder while denying that their movement fosters extremism.
"It rings a little hollow to me," said Stephanie Poggi, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, which helped women pay for abortions at Tiller's clinic. "Anyone in the anti-abortion movement who has called abortion providers murders or called abortion a holocaust — any of those kind of vilifying statements — helps create the conditions where something like this can happen."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.