Churchgoing 'martyr' changes dynamics of abortion debate

Published June 5, 2009 1:59 pm

Tiller's murder » There are Christians who support abortion rights.
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Dr. George Tiller's murder last Sunday morning 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 Rev. 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 the Rev. 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."

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 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.

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.

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