WICHITA, Kan. — George Tiller, one of only a few doctors in the nation who performed abortions late in pregnancy, was shot to death Sunday morning in the foyer of his longtime church as he handed out the church bulletin.
Late Sunday, authorities in Kansas said they had taken into custody a 51-year-old man in suburban Kansas City, about three hours northeast of Wichita. They said they expected to charge the man with murder today.
Johnson County sheriff's spokesman Tom Erickson identified the suspect as Scott Roeder.
The slaying of the 67-year-old doctor is "an unspeakable tragedy," his widow, four children and 10 grandchildren said in statement. "This is particularly heart-wrenching because George was shot down in his house of worship, a place of peace."
Late Sunday afternoon, President Barack Obama, who supports abortion rights, issued a statement expressing shock and outrage over Tiller's killing. "However profound our differences as Americans over difficult issues such as abortion, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence," the president said.
There were several witnesses to the killing, Wichita police said. Law enforcement officials would not say what, if anything, had been said inside the foyer. Officials offered little insight into the motive, saying that they believed it was "the act of an isolated individual" but that they also were looking into "his history, his family, his associates."
Tiller began providing abortion services in 1973. He acknowledged that abortion was as socially divisive as slavery or prohibition but said the issue was about giving women a choice when dealing with technology that can diagnose severe fetal abnormalities before a baby is born.
In more than three decades of providing abortions, Tiller, 67, had become a focal point for those opposed to abortion. In addition to regular protests outside his nondescript Wichita clinic, his house and his church, Tiller's clinic was bombed; later, in 1993, an abortion opponent shot him in both arms.
On Sunday morning, moments after services had begun at Reformation Lutheran Church, Tiller, acting as an usher, was shot once with a handgun, authorities said. The gunman pointed the weapon at two people who tried to stop him, then fled. Tiller's wife, Jeanne, a member of the church choir, was inside the sanctuary at the time of the shooting.
Another usher told the congregation to remain seated, then escorted Tiller's wife out. "When she got to the back doors, we heard her scream, and so we knew something bad had happened," said Adam Watkins, 20.
Across the country, advocates of abortion rights decried the killing, saying it would send a renewed, frightening signal to others who provide abortions or work in clinics, and to women who may consider abortions.
Some also described Tiller as one of only about three doctors in the country who had, under certain circumstances, provided abortions to women in their third trimester of pregnancy, and said his death would mean women, particularly in the nation's middle, would have few if any options in such cases.
"This is a tremendous loss on so many levels," said Peter Brownlie, president of Planned Parenthood of Kansas & Mid-Missouri, who had known Tiller for years.
Opponents of abortion, including those who have been most vociferous in their protests of Tiller and his methods, also expressed outrage at the shooting and said they feared their groups might wrongly be judged by the act.
Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, said he had always sought out "peaceful, nonviolent" measures to challenge Tiller, including efforts in recent years to have Tiller prosecuted. "We are pro life," Newman said, "and this act was antithetical to what we believe."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.