George Tiller Murdered

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In the highly charged debate over abortion, nothing so stirs the moral ambiguities as the question of late abortion. As a pregnancy progresses closer and closer to viability–the point at which a fetus could survive outside the womb, generally thought to be around 24 weeks–even those who consider themselves pro-choice begin to have their qualms. “As much as I would prefer to avert my moral gaze, a late abortion forces me to confront the reality of abortion and my own incompletely suppressed doubts,” wrote ethicist Daniel Callahan, co-founder of the Hastings Center, a medical-ethics research institute in New York. “I suspect that for all but a small minority of those who, like myself, count themselves on the pro-choice side in the abortion debate, the matter of late abortions cannot help triggering distress. It stretches our commitment to the breaking point.”

It was because he practiced here–at the place where law and ethics and morality collide–that George Tiller was the most infamous abortion doctor in the country. He was an unapologetic specialist in late-term procedures. His website claimed “more experience in late abortion services over 24 weeks than anyone else currently practicing in the Western Hemisphere, Europe and Australia.” His website further noted: “Kansas law allows for post-viability abortion procedures when continuing the pregnancy is detrimental to the pregnant woman’s health”–a standard, his critics said, that could be stretched to apply to just about any circumstance. Why did he do it? “Women and Families are intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and ethically competent to struggle with complex health issues — including abortion — and come to decisions that are appropriate for themselves,” he said.

And as a result, George Tiller had been a target like no other for the anti-abortion movement. Protesters were a constant fixture outside his clinic and his home. In 1993, he had been shot in both arms, but he recovered and continued to practice; more recently, abortion foes had tried–and failed–to shut him down through legal means. In March, he was acquitted on 19 misdemeanor charges of failing to follow state law in getting a second opinion. Within moments of that verdict, Kansas’ medical board announced it was investigating allegations viritually identical to the ones the jury had rejected.

Today, it appears that abortion opponents finally succeeded. From Wichita comes the news that Tiller was shot to death this morning as he attended church:

Wichita police said that the shots were fired from a handgun in the church lobby during the morning service. The authorities gave few details, but said they were searching for a powder blue Taurus made in the 1990s that had been seen leaving shortly after the shooting. They said witnesses had described seeing a white man departing.

“This is going to be a larger search than maybe just Wichita,” said Brent Allred, a police captain, who said that the FBI and state police had been called to the scene. By noon, few parishioners remained at the church, a modern, red brick facility that seats about 500 people. Police cars surrounded the building.

UPDATE: The local CBS affiliate is reporting a suspect in custody.