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.