Elusive Common Ground

All people of faith should mourn the passing of George Tiller, the Kansas physician brutally murdered for simply doing his job as one of the few doctors left in the country who performed medically necessary, late-term — legal — abortions. As much as President Obama talks about the need for common ground in the vexing abortion debate, as much as we want to believe it is possible, Tiller’s murder makes that worthy goal so much harder.

That is because extremism promotes extremism, which in turn escalates rhetoric and forestalls understanding. The murder appears to be the work of one, lone gunman, who nursed not only virulent anti-abortion views but also other extremist attitudes toward government and citizenship. We want to believe that Scott Roeder no more represents the pro-life movement than John F. Hinckley, who tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan, represents all people who struggle with mental disease.

But it’s hard. It’s hard when Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, called Tiller a “mass murderer.” And when the organization’s current president, Troy Newman, wrote that “Tiller’s homicide must be denounced, but so should the killing of over 45 million babies through abortion….”

That equation makes believing in common ground as hard as ever. Rhetoric counts when it comes to abortion — on both sides. Pro-choice advocates must learn to respect that, to many Americans, the fetus is not just an organ to be removed, that abortion isn’t just like an appendectomy or tooth extraction, and that something special, even sacred, is growing in the womb. Strictly framing the debate in terms of a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body, important though that is, misses a larger point.

But pro-life advocates have work of their own. For those who are pro-choice, equating a fetus with a live human being defies social, medical and legal norms, never mind — for Jews, especially — religious teaching. The distance from abortion doctor to “baby killer” to “mass murderer” is then not such a big leap.

George Tiller’s murder should be denounced. Period. Without qualification.

Obama asked for “open hearts, open minds, fair-minded words” in his commencement speech at Notre Dame, and called on each side to stop dehumanizing the other. The cold-blooded murder of a good man at his church on a Sunday sure gets in the way. We’ll continue to try, but it’s hard.

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Elusive Common Ground

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