Shooting of US abortion doctor shocks Obama

Violence returned to the abortion debate in the United States yesterday when a doctor who has long been the target of right-to-life activists was gunned down and killed in a church in Kansas where he was an usher.

Lawyers for George Tiller, a 67-year-old doctor who has long been one of only a few in the US willing to perform so-called "late-term" abortions, confirmed that he had been killed in the attack, which happened as he walked into the Reformation Lutheran Church in his home town of Wichita.

It was only two weeks ago that President Barack Obama gave a major speech on the abortion issue at Notre Dame University, one of the leading Catholic campuses in America. He urged both sides in the debate to avoid extremist positions even though their disagreements may be profound. Last night President Obama said he was shocked and outraged over the killing. Dr Tiller's attorney, Dan Monnat, said Tiller's wife, Jeanne, was in the choir at the time.

Police in Wichita said that the killer of Dr Tiller was a white man who approached him and shot him at point-blank range. He fled in a powder blue Ford saloon. A 51-year-old suspect was later arrested 170 miles away in suburban Kansas City three hours after the shooting, Wichita Deputy Police Chief Tom Stolz said. He indicated that the man had acted alone, although the authorities were investigating whether he had any connection to anti-abortion groups.

Dr Tiller had long been a lightning rod for US groups opposed to all forms of abortion. He practised out of a clinic in Wichita that was bombed by protesters in 1985. Meanwhile in 1993, he was wounded in both arms when he was shot by an abortion opponent. On that occasion, the assailant was tried and served an 11-year prison sentence.

News of the killing drew condemnation from Operation Rescue, the biggest anti-abortion group in the country. "We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place this morning," it said on its website last night. "We pray for Mr Tiller's family that they will find comfort and healing that can only be found in Jesus Christ."

The attack will only undermine Mr Obama's effort to calm all sides in a debate that has repeatedly returned to the political conversation in the US. Attempting to take a middle line, the President has suggested that while he does not believe that abortion should be outlawed, the government should do all it can to curb unwanted pregnancies.

Mr Obama has nonetheless alienated many pro-life activists since taking office, notably by ending restrictions championed by his predecessor, George Bush, on using foetuses for stem-cell research and on federal funding for family planning organisations that work abroad for instance in Africa.

Mr Tiller, sometimes demonised by his opponents with the slogan, "Tiller the Baby Killer", is also known to have had a close personal relationship with Kathleen Sibelius, the former Governor of Kansas who has been appointed Mr Obama's Secretary for Health and Human Services, with special responsibility for overseeing his plans for healthcare insurance reform.

Pro-life groups have argued for a long time that Ms Sibelius stands out as the most pro-abortion Catholic political leader in the country.

Mr Tiller remained a focus for many extremists for so long because of his willingness to perform late-term abortions, which is usually taken to mean terminations of pregnancies in their 20th week and beyond. That is also taken to be the time when a foetus could survive if removed from the womb.

Witnesses at the church where the attack happened said emergency response doctors arrived swiftly but declared Mr Tiller dead almost immediately. It was not clear whether words were exchanged before the shooting.

The bombing of his clinic in 1986 caused serious damage. In 1991, there were summer-long demonstrations outside the building. In March of this year, Dr Tiller was acquitted of charges that accused him of performing 19 illegal abortions in 2003.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Sport
footballLive blog: Follow the action from the Capital One Cup semi-final
Life and Style
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Manager - OTE £40,000

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This web-based lead generation ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Intervention Teacher Required To Start ASAP.

£125 - £150 per day + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: A 'wonderful primary ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Our client is an 11-16 mixed commun...

Recruitment Genius: PHP / Drupal / SaaS Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly developing company in...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century