WASHINGTON — Abortion opponents on Monday condemned the fatal shooting of a prominent Kansas abortion provider and warned against attempts to "demonize" their movement because of one "unbalanced" person.
"We are pro-life," the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, the director of the Christian Defense Coalition, a religious freedom and social justice group, said at a news conference. "We stand against violence. That is why every pro-life leader of any reputable organization has unequivocally condemned this act, especially in the lobby of a church."
Dr. George Tiller was gunned down inside his Wichita Lutheran church while he was serving as an usher during the Sunday service. His women's health clinic long has been a flash point — literally — in the long-running battle over abortion rights because it was one of the few that performed late-term abortions.
"This is a great evil . . . for we know that vigilantism is an act outside (God's) moral will," the Rev. Rob Schenck, the president of the National Clergy Council, said in a prayer before the news conference outside the U.S. Supreme Court building.
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Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee and an abortion opponent, expressed similar sentiments Monday in a statement that conveyed sympathy for the Tiller family.
"This murder also damages the positive message of life, for the unborn, and for those living," Palin said. "Ask yourself, 'What will those who have not yet decided personally where they stand on this issue take away from today's event in Kansas?' "
One outspoken abortion opponent took a much tougher line. Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry told a National Press Club audience that Tiller was a "mass murderer" who "reaped what he sowed."
Abortion opponents also worried that Tiller's shooting could affect their ability to influence the upcoming confirmation hearings of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court.
With the court's massive Greek columns and bronze doors as a backdrop, they cautioned their critics not to use the killing for "political gain."
Mahoney said that painting the entire anti-abortion movement as violent could intimidate its supporters on the Judiciary Committee and others from speaking out.
He said that the groups that were standing with him so far hadn't taken positions on Sotomayor's nomination. Besides Schenck's and his organizations, the groups included Bound4Life, a grass-roots prayer group; and Faith & Action, a Christian government outreach effort.
Sotomayor's views on abortion, however, are opaque, because she's never dealt with the issue of a constitutional right to abortion in 17 years on the federal bench.
However, Mahoney said that President Barack Obama's campaign pledge to appoint an abortion rights advocate to the court would appear to answer any doubts. He also said that a recent Gallup Poll found for the first time that 51 percent of respondents referred to themselves as "pro-life."
Abortion long has been a hot-button issue in politics, and it's been a dividing line in most recent Supreme Court nominations.
Tiller was a rallying symbol for both sides. The 67-year-old physician's clinic was bombed in 1985, and he was shot in both arms in 1993. He was acquitted of criminal charges in March related to performing late-term abortions.
Abortion rights supporters praised his work.
"He provided critical reproductive health care services, including abortion services to women facing some of the most difficult medical circumstances," Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement.
(Erika Bolstad contributed to this article.)
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