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Dr. George Tiller's assassination is no reason to suppress speech

Activists on either side of the abortion debate should not try to exploit his killing to score political points.

June 02, 2009

The assassination of Dr. George Tiller, long targeted by extremists because he performed late-term abortions, is a reminder that fringe adherents of the "pro-life" movement are willing to desecrate the very value they claim to champion. But it distorts reality to insinuate that millions of Americans who oppose abortion condone such tactics. Tiller's killing shouldn't be exploited by activists on either side to score political points.

Tiller, who was shot as he attended a Sunday church service in Wichita, Kan., is the fifth abortion doctor to be killed. In 1993, he was shot in both arms by an abortion protester. Violence and intimidation at abortion clinics have been so widespread that Congress in 1994 enacted the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which makes it a federal crime "to injure, intimidate or interfere with persons seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services."

Sadly, Tiller's assailant is not one of a kind, but neither is he typical of the antiabortion movement. Prominent pro-life organizations long have condemned violence against abortion providers while working to restrict the late-term abortions for which Tiller was known. His killing was forthrightly condemned by the National Right to Life Committee, Americans United for Life and Kansas' four Catholic bishops. (A tasteless exception was the reaction of Randall Terry, the former head of Operation Rescue, who said that Tiller "reaped what he sowed.")

Despite these statements, some pro-choice activists are suggesting, overtly or subtly, that the responsibility for Tiller's death is shared by the broader pro-life movement. The president of NARAL Pro-Choice America said: "We also call on opponents of a woman's right to choose to condemn this action completely and absolutely." The implication is that the mainstream pro-life movement has to be nudged into opposing violence. People for the American Way said that "it's impossible to separate today's tragedy from the violent language that has been directed for years at doctors like George Tiller. Those who have inflamed emotions and dehumanized their opponents should take pause before they continue such dangerous rhetoric."

Some "arguments" are thinly veiled incitements to violence against individuals and should be punished for the crimes they are. But the basic premise of the antiabortion movement -- that a fetus is a person -- is by definition a "dehumanization" of abortion providers, even if it's expressed in decorous language. The militancy of some pro-life groups constitutes an alarming assault on a constitutionally protected right, but the answer is not to limit expression. It's unfair to ask antiabortion activists to muffle their message because it might inspire an unbalanced individual to commit an atrocity.

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