Scott Roeder took aim at an abortionist and succeeded in putting a bullet in the pro-life movement. And it couldn't have come at a worse time.
The 51-year-old from Merriam, Kan., had a history, according to the Washington Post, of believing that killing abortionists is morally justifiable (and a history, according to his brother, of mental illness). Once before, he had delighted in staring down another abortionist to make him believe he was going to kill him.
But at the end of May, Roeder, a Lutheran, apparently hunted down Kansas City, Kan., Dr. George Tiller in the foyer of Tiller's Lutheran church during services and shot him dead with a handgun. It was the fourth ideological killing of an abortionist, and the first since 1998.
Tiller was one of a handful of doctors in the country who performed late-term abortions, and he was proud of his practice. His website unapologetically called the unborn "babies."
For that, he had earned special notoriety among pro-life groups, both mainstream and fringe. His clinic was bombed. He was shot in both arms in 1993.
Now his slaying has transformed him into a martyr for the cause of abortion "rights," and has smeared by extension all those dedicated to defense of unborn human life. In no insignificant way, Tiller's assassination -- in a church of all places -- is a blasphemy against the pro-life cause.
New York's late Cardinal John O'Connor once said: "If anyone has an urge to kill someone at an abortion clinic, they should shoot me. ... It's madness. It discredits the right-to-life movement. Murder is murder."
The timing of Tiller's killing is particularly awful. A Gallup poll in May found that for the first time a majority of Americans consider themselves "pro-life." This murder will do little to further draw hearts and minds to the pro-life cause.
Additionally, the assassination is likely to mute important discussion of the abortion views of President Barack Obama's nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, and of other appointees.
It will also be seen as confirmation of a quickly quashed report by the Department of Homeland Security this year that labeled "groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration," as potential threats. The National Organization for Women already has urged the federal government to use Tiller's murder to launch a broad domestic terrorism investigation of the pro-life movement.
Tiller's death may also mean that his clinic remains open longer than it would have otherwise. Legal efforts to shut down the abortionist, who had been under investigation for possible violations of Kansas law regulating late-term abortions, recently had been gaining ground.
Mainstream pro-life groups, who were quick to condemn Roeder's action, are justified in worrying about a chilling effect. After anti-abortion violence in Boston in 1995, the city's top Catholic leader called for a five-month moratorium even on peaceful and prayerful protests at abortion clinics because tensions were running so high.
Pro-lifers cannot be held responsible for every wacko with a gun. But they can determinedly eschew the heated rhetoric that may embolden them. And they can emphasize the broad range of legitimate activity to advance the cause, from prayer rallies to civil disobedience.
Tiller's death was a tragic crime. It's up to us to resuscitate the pro-life movement.