US president Barack Obama said today he was shocked and outraged at the murder of a top doctor who performed late-term abortions.
Dr George Tiller, the object of decades of protests and attacks, was shot dead in front of his wife in a Kansas church where he was serving as an usher.
A 51-year-old man was arrested 170 miles away in Kansas City three hours after the shooting yesterday, Wichita Deputy Police Chief Tom Stolz said.
Johnson County sheriff’s spokesman Tom Erickson identified the suspect as Scott Roeder.
There was no immediate word of the killer’s motive, but the doctor’s violent death was the latest in a string of shootings and bombings over 20 years directed against abortion clinics, doctors and staff.
In a statement issued by The White House today, Mr Obama said: “However profound our differences as Americans over difficult issues such as abortion, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence.”
Long a focus of national anti-abortion groups, including a summer-long protest in 1991, Dr Tiller, 67, was shot in the foyer of Reformation Lutheran Church.
His lawyer, Dan Monnat, said Dr Tiller’s wife Jeanne was in the choir at the time.
The killing was “an unspeakable tragedy”, his widow, four children and 10 grandchildren said in a statement.
“This is particularly heart-wrenching because George was shot down in his house of worship, a place of peace,” it said.
The family said its loss “is also a loss for the city of Wichita and women across America. George dedicated his life to providing women with high-quality health care despite frequent threats and violence”.
Mr Stolz said all indications were that the gunman acted alone, although authorities were investigating whether he had any connection to anti-abortion groups.
Dr Tiller’s Women’s Health Care Services clinic is one of just three in the nation where abortions are performed after the 21st week of pregnancy. The clinic was heavily fortified and Dr Tiller often travelled with a bodyguard, but Mr Stolz said there was no indication of security at the church yesterday.
Anti-abortion groups condemned the shooting and stressed that they supported only non-violent protest. The movement’s leaders fear the killing could create a backlash just as they are scrutinising US Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, whose views on abortion rights are not publicly known.
“We are shocked at this morning’s disturbing news that Mr Tiller was gunned down,” Troy Newman, Operation Rescue’s president, said yesterday.
“Operation Rescue has worked for years through peaceful, legal means, and through the proper channels to see him brought to justice. We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place this morning.”
Adam Watkins, 20, said he was sitting in the middle of the church congregation when he heard a small pop at the start of the service.
“We just thought a child had come in with a balloon and it had popped, had gone up and hit the ceiling and popped,” he said.
Another usher came in and told the congregation to remain seated, then escorted Dr Tiller’s wife out. “When she got to the back doors, we heard her scream, and so we knew something bad had happened,” Mr Watkins said.
Dr Tiller had in the past endured threats and violence. A protester shot him in both arms in 1993, and his clinic was bombed in 1985.
More recently, he had asked government prosecutors to step up investigations of vandalism and other threats against the clinic out of fear that the incidents were increasing and that his safety was in jeopardy.
Mr Stolz, however, said police knew of no threats connected to the shooting.
In 1991, the Summer of Mercy protests organised by Operation Rescue drew thousands of anti-abortion activists to Wichita for demonstrations marked by civil disobedience and mass arrests.
Dr Tiller began providing abortion services in 1973. He acknowledged abortion was as socially divisive as slavery or prohibition but said the issue was about giving women a choice when dealing with technology that could diagnose severe foetal abnormalities before a baby was born.
Nancy Keenan, president of abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America, said: “Dr Tiller’s murder will send a chill down the spines of the brave and courageous providers and other professionals who are part of reproductive-health centres that serve women across this country.”