Kansas physician George Tiller, long renowned for being one of the nation’s handful of late-term (and partial-birth) abortion providers, was shot and killed in a Wichita church Sunday, when a lone gunman entered the building and fired a single bullet from a handgun at him.
Arrested for the crime was one Scott Roeder, who, as far as I am currently aware, is now in the Sedgewick County jail awaiting charges.
The killing has predictably become a lightning rod in the abortion debate in the U.S. Some pro-choice groups have condemned the act as terrorism, and several large pro-life representatives, such as Operation Rescue’s Randall Terry, have found it difficult to completely denounce the act. Dan Holman, of Missionaries to the Preborn Iowa, told CNN’s Drew Griffin “I don’t advocate Tiller’s murder, but I don’t condemn it.”
Leave aside for the moment the rather obvious problems tenant to simultaneously calling oneself “pro-life” and rejoicing (either publicly or privately) at the vigilante execution of a human being. The far-reaching result of Tiller’s killing (above and beyond the grief and loss his family is undegoing) will be to re-polarize the abortion debate, drastically narrowing the common ground spoken of by the president at his recent commencement address at Notre Dame University.
Absent in almost all rhetoric in the abortion debate is the recognition that people of good faith exist on both opposing sides. The inability to empathize with the other side is what leads to events like Sunday’s slaying of Tiller in his place of worship — the idea that the opposing side consists solely of evil-minded people who want to either murder babies or strip women of their reproductive rights. This works well for the purposes of preaching to the proverbial choir, and little else — unless, of course, you count inciting deranged psychopaths to take their twisted personal sense of justice into their own hands.
The sad fact is, the way forward in the abortion “debate” (there’s not really an actual debate — it’s more an intractable shouting match) doesn’t need to be as acrimonious as it is, nor as polarized as it’s bound to become following Tiller’s killing. The pro-life side’s crusade to overturn Roe vs. Wade is a fool’s errand, since in the first place, if such a thing ever indeed happens, the decision on abortion will devolve to the states (where perhaps two might outlaw the practice to practically zero net effect on the overall number of abortions performed), and in the second place, an overturn of the Supreme Court’s watershed 1973 decision is about as probable as a reinstatement of prohibition.
Politicians introduce and vote for pieces of legislation they think their constituencies will like, not on principles. This is axiomatic, since politicians who do not do this tend to have very brief careers. Once a ban on abortion becomes politically viable, rest assured that there will be representatives eager to take up the cause. But that requires a broad, nation-wide consensus, which, despite recent polls that suggest a growing population of people who label themselves “pro-life,” isn’t anywhere near happening. A demand for abortion still exists, and it would still exist even if Roe was overturned tomorrow. A ban on abortion would not make abortion go away.
Here is where people on both sides of the abortion debate could cooperate, should they ever be motivated to do so. Increasing access to health services, better and more comprehensive sex education, and the establishment of unwed mothers’ support groups can all work to reduce the number of pregnancies that end in abortion. Unfortunately, given the religious right’s intransigence on issues such as sex ed and contraception, progress seems unlikely.
This is a common goal, despite characterizations to the contrary. There are indeed fundamental disagreements between the two camps, but efforts currently directed at printing truculent protest placards and rallying supporters could be better spent toward addressing the commonly-recognized issues that transcend polemics.