KANSAS CITY (Reuters) - An anti-abortion activist who murdered one of America’s few late-term abortion providers was sentenced to life in prison on Thursday in a case that galvanized both sides of the bitter U.S. debate over abortion.
Sedgwick County District Judge Warren Wilbert said 52-year-old Scott Roeder would serve a minimum mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole for at least 50 years.
Roeder was convicted in January of first-degree murder and aggravated assault after shooting dead Wichita-based abortion provider George Tiller last May. Roeder shot Tiller in the face as the doctor attended Sunday church services.
Tiller was one of a few U.S. doctors who performed late-term abortions, and Roeder admitted stalking him for months.
In the years before he was murdered, Tiller had been wounded by a gunshot, assaulted, and anti-abortion activists protested outside his home.
At the sentencing, Tiller family lawyer Lee Thompson called the murder an act of “domestic terrorism,” and said the doctor’s belief in women’s rights had led him to continue his practice despite the constant threat of violence.
“He respected and trusted the right of women to make their own decisions,” said Thompson. “He was committed to it. He gave his life to the rights of women.”
Roeder saw himself as a foot soldier in a war against abortion and said he felt compelled to kill Tiller.
“It is no secret George Tiller killed unborn children for a living. I stopped him so he could not kill again,” Roeder said in a statement he read to the court. “It was the most agonizing and most stressful decision I’ve ever had to make.”
Tiller’s killing has been a rallying point for both abortion opponents and abortion rights supporters.
Both sides want to boost their position before November’s congressional elections after a bruising battle over healthcare reform in Washington.
Anti-abortion Democrats voted for the legislation only after President Barack Obama agreed to sign an executive order reinforcing an existing ban on federal funding for abortions.
“(Abortion) is going to be a major issue in the elections,” said David O‘Steen, director of an anti-abortion group called the National Right to Life Committee.
New abortion-related laws are pending in several states including in Kansas and Nebraska, where lawmakers voted on Tuesday to limit late-term abortions, which are generally considered procedures occurring after 20 weeks of gestation.
“These events reveal just how deep-seated the debate over abortion is in American politics,” said John Green, senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Abortion rights in the United States have been set back by Tiller’s murder and legal proposals at the state and federal levels, said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
“The last year has been a harrowing one for those who support abortion rights,” she said. “This will continue to be a major political issue.”
Supporters of Roeder had hoped for leniency at his sentencing. “I believe the American people are finally waking up that when a woman has an abortion she is killing her unborn child,” said anti-abortion activist Donald Spitz.
It is just that kind of rhetoric that encourages the type of violence that killed Tiller, said Suzanne Poppema board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health.
“The very language the anti-abortion movement uses encourages violence,” said Poppema, a family doctor. “Anti-abortion activists must own the consequences of calling abortion doctors murderers ... and of talking about the ‘war’ they’re allegedly fighting.”
Reporting by Carey Gillam; editing by Chris Wilson