Murder Of Kansas Doctor Sparks Debate Over Shrill Religious Right Rhetoric

The murder of Kansas doctor George Tiller has sparked a new round of questions about the role that extreme rhetoric by anti-abortion groups may have played in the slaying.

Tiller was shot to death May 31 while serving as an usher at Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita. An abortion opponent named Scott Roeder has been arrested and charged with the crime.

Tiller was a frequent target for anti-abortion activism because of his willingness to perform late-term abortions. Protests at his Wichita clinic were common, and Tiller frequently received death threats. He had been shot once before, in 1993, but survived.

Several anti-abortion and Religious Right organizations issued statements condemning Tiller’s murder. But others applauded the assassination.

Days after the shooting, Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry gave a speech calling Tiller a mass murderer who “reaped what he sowed.” He called on the anti-abortion movement to escalate its rhetoric and employ “confrontational” tactics.

But critics said such tactics may have led to Tiller’s murder.

Writing on the liberal Huffington Post Web site, former Religious Right leader Frank Schaeffer blasted far-right zealots who have compared legal abortion to Nazi atrocities. Such language, Schaeffer charged, has led some anti-abortion activists to lapse into extremism and violence.

Schaeffer, son of the late theologian Francis Schaeffer, broke with the Religious Right and is now highly critical of that movement. He scored its leaders for their frequent use of incendiary rhetoric.

“The same hate machine I was part of is still attacking all abortionists as ‘murderers,’” wrote Schaeffer. “And today once again the ‘pro-life’ leaders are busy ducking their personal responsibility for people acting on their words. The people who stir up the fringe never take responsibility.

“But I’d like to say on this day after a man was murdered in cold blood for performing abortions,” he continued, “that I – and the people I worked with in the religious right, the Republican Party, the pro-life movement and the Roman Catholic Church, all contributed to this killing by our foolish and incendiary words.”

The Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, said anti-abortion groups share the blame for the Tiller murder.

“Pro-life groups…set the framework because they demonize those of us in the pro-choice movement,” Veazey told Religion News Service.

But some Religious Right leaders disagreed.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said liberals with “twisted minds” were trying to blame the shooting on the entire anti-abortion movement, while Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention called the killing the “act of a deranged individual.”