WASHINGTON - The slaying of a Kansas abortion practitioner is bringing the polarizing issue of abortion back into the political spotlight in the United States, renewing an emotionally charged debate U.S. President Barack Obama had hoped to avoid.
Some extreme anti-abortion activists went so far Monday as to say Dr. George Tiller got what was coming to him - precisely the sort of heated emotional rhetoric, astonished pro-choicers said, that's to blame for such violent turns of events in the first place.
Dr. George Tiller, one of the few doctors in the U.S. who still performed late-term abortions, was gunned down Sunday in Wichita as he attended church with his wife.
A suspect in the killing, 51-year-old Scott Roeder, was arrested three hours later along a stretch of highway near Kansas City while Eric Holder, the U.S. attorney general, ordered increased security at abortion clinics across the country.
Obama issued a statement soon after news broke about the shooting.
"However profound our differences as Americans over difficult issues such as abortion, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence," he said.
But a day after the shooting, the debate was growing increasingly ugly.
Tiller was "a mass murderer and horrifically, he reaped what he sowed," said Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, a U.S.-based anti-abortion website that denounced the killing in a statement Sunday.
Terry urged his movement not to tone down their attacks on abortion providers because of the killing.
"The pro-life movement must not be browbeaten by Obama or the child-killers into surrendering our best rhetoric, actions and images," he said in a statement.
Dave Leach, a pro-life activist in Iowa, said Roeder subscribed to his newsletter, Prayer and Action News, and once left a message on it comparing Tiller to Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele.
Referring to Tiller's death, Leach said Monday: "To call this a crime is too simplistic ... there is Christian scripture that would support this."
More moderate pro-life groups condemned the slaying, saying it represented a significant setback to their cause.
Obama has steered clear of wading too deeply into the abortion debate, saying those with differing opinions must work together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in the United States. The U.S. has the highest rate of teen pregnancies in the industrialized world.
His caution likely stems from recent polls suggesting there are now more pro-life than pro-choice Americans. A recent Gallup survey found that 51 per cent of U.S. citizens call themselves pro-life as opposed to 42 per cent who identify as pro-choice.
Sarah Seltzer, a feminist commentator who writes a weekly column for the Rhrealitycheck.org website, said Obama must not shy away from the debate and urged him to be more forceful about his commitment to the pro-choice cause in the wake of Tiller's slaying.
"He could and should be a lot braver on abortion," Seltzer said in an interview.
"I wish he would speak out against the demonization of Planned Parenthood, for example, since that organization does more to reduce the rate of abortions in the United States than people protesting outside abortion clinics do."
Obama is a popular president whose intellect is well-respected, meaning he has the power to enlighten Americans on difficult social issues, Seltzer added.
"He's been so effective on foreign policy and the need for diplomacy; he's done such a good job challenging the conventional mindset on those sorts of issues, and it would be so great to see him do it on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage as well."
Tiller's clinic, where abortions are performed after the 21st week of pregnancy, had been a target for anti-abortionists for 20 years. A protester shot Tiller in both arms in 1993, and his clinic was bombed in 1985.
Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly has long had Tiller in his crosshairs, and he was among those on the receiving end of harsh criticism on Monday from pro-choicers and liberal commentators for his anti-Tiller tirades of the past few years.
O'Reilly has called Tiller's clinic a "death mill," referred to the doctor as a "baby killer" who was "executing babies about to be born" and said he was doing "Nazi stuff" for which he "had blood on his hands."
"There's no other person who bears as much responsibility for the characterization of Tiller as a savage on the loose," said Salon.com's Gabriel Winant.
Tiller's death marks the first such killing of an abortion provider in the U.S. since 1998, when Dr. Barnett Slepian was shot by a sniper in his home in the Buffalo area.
James Kopp is serving life in prison for the shooting, but he won't be prosecuted for the 1995 attempted murder of Canadian physician Dr. Hugh Short.