Dr. George Tiller’s murder May 31 in the lobby of his Lutheran church counters the secular image of a late-term abortion provider, pinning him more as a churchgoing “martyr” than a godless murderer.
Shot and killed while passing out bulletins in the lobby of his Wichita, Kan., church as his wife sat in the choir, Tiller is already challenging popular perceptions of both abortion providers and the abortion-rights movement.
“It shows a dimension of the movement that a lot of people don’t know about,” said the Carlton Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. “This man was castigated for what he did — but he was a faithful member of the Lutheran church and that gives a different view of him and his work.”
Veazey sees the face of Tiller as more of “a martyr in the same sense that Dr. (Martin Luther) King was.”
“It has always been a fallacy” and a “malicious manipulation” that progressive supporters of abortion are seen as murderers, devoid of ethics, said Katherine Ragsdale, president of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.
“These doctors are not acting outside of their churches, much less outside of their faith commitments,” Ragsdale said. “People should notice it’s about differences of conscience, not lack of conscience.”
She and others, however, aren’t convinced that Tiller’s murder will change much in the long run. The public image of abortion providers did not soften in 1998 after Dr. Barnett Slepian, an abortion doctor, was killed just after returning home from his synagogue in Buffalo, N.Y.
“These two deaths (Slepian and Tiller) are a tragic reminder that people who care deeply and passionately about religion also can and do care deeply and passionately about guaranteeing women the right to make their own decisions,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which supports abortion
Abortion rights activists aren’t the only ones talking about a shifting public image. The Rev. Susan Thistlethwaite, former president of the Chicago Theological Seminary and a supporter of abortion rights, said anti-abortion activists must now wrestle with outspoken activists like Randall Terry, who led protests outside Tiller’s clinic as far back as 1991, who said Monday that Tiller “reaped what he sowed.”
If Terry is the public (or at least the loudest) voice in the anti-abortion movement, that’s a problem because Tiller’s death “shows the consequence of the inflated language of murder,” she said.
“The broad middle of Americans regard choice as a legitimate and moral option,” she said.
The fact that Tiller was a churchgoing Christian muddies the long-held perception that the only religious activists in the abortion debate were those who rallied in opposition. That’s no longer the case, said David Gushee, a Christian ethicist at Mercer University and opponent of abortion, who said he has witnessed that “even thoughtful and committed Christians can end up on opposite sides of this question.”
“In our polarized debate about abortion, it becomes very easy to ascribe nothing but evil motives to people with whom we disagree,” Gushee said.
In fact, those who knew and worked with Tiller, including Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for Choice, said people “definitely got the feeling that the nature of his commitment to women stemmed from a very deep belief.”
“I don’t specifically remember him … talking about his faith specifically” but “he certainly referenced it in conversation, that he was a churchgoing person with an engagement with religion,” she said.
She added that Tiller’s Wichita clinic included a small chapel, and media reports say he had a chaplain on call. “There are many facilities that I know that have publications that are religious in nature, that are fully prepared to deal with post-abortion rituals for women.”
Activists say religion, and religious clergy, have always played a role among abortion rights supporters, even though much of it was never publicly visible. Tom Davis, an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ, documented in his book, “Sacred Work: Planned Parenthood and Its Clergy Alliances,” how clergy rallied for the
legalization of abortion in New York in 1967, six years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
“They broke down the doors, and they did it on the basis of Scripture,” Davis said.
Still anti-abortion activists, like Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition, questioned Tiller’s personal faith and brand of mainline Protestantism.
“The fact that he could go to church on Sunday and brutally abort babies on Monday is inconsistent,” said Lafferty. “But I don’t think that means you can take matters into your own hands.”
The anti-abortion movement has long been dominated by evangelicals and Catholics, while the more liberal mainline Protestant churches — including Tiller’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — have been marginally supportive of abortion rights.
Lafferty criticized any faith-based support for abortion rights, saying “Americans are not interested in this liberation theology, liberal theology that is being preached at these churches.”
“They say they’re Christians, but people want a true gospel message, not a watered-down version,” she said.
Troy Newman, of Operation Rescue, has made a career of fighting Tiller’s work, particularly late-term abortions, which opponents find particularly abhorrent. Though he condemned Tiller’s murder, he said churches that support or tolerate abortion need to re-examine their positions.
“Can an abortionist be a deacon or hold a leadership position in a church?” Newman asked. “Those who would somehow justify their sinful actions are misguided, steeped in sin or heretics.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Adelle M. Banks contributed to this report.)