Abortion in spotlight with Roe v. Wade anniversary, Kansas trial

The trial of a man charged with killing an abortion doctor in Kansas opened Friday on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling on abortion rights. A precedent could be set if the defendant is allowed to argue he believed deadly force was needed to save the lives of unborn children.

By , Staff writer

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    An anti- abortion demonstrator, right, tries to cover a sign of an abortion-rights activist, left, during a demonstration in front of the Supreme Court in Washington Friday.
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The 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 US Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion, coincided Friday with the opening of a trial that could redraft how people who kill abortion providers are prosecuted.

Scott Roeder admits to shooting Wichita, Kan., doctor George Tiller in the foyer of a church on May 31, 2009. Dr. Tiller, one of the few in the country to offer late-term abortions, was a hero to the abortion rights movement; he aggressively fought back against those who sought to shut down his practice, both in court and on the sidewalk of his clinic.

Mr. Roeder may face a lighter sentence than might be expected for the crime he is charged with – first degree murder, which carries with it life in prison. That’s because Sedgwick County Judge Warren Wilbert is allowing Roeder’s defense team to argue that Tiller’s killing be considered voluntary manslaughter, which in Kansas is defined as killing with “an unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force.”

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Murder vs. voluntary manslaughter

Roeder says he killed Tiller to protect unborn children from being aborted at Tiller’s Women's Health Care Services clinic.

Abortion rights activists worry the Tiller trial may set a precedent that convinces potential extremists that violence leading to death may only result in a few years jail time. Voluntary manslaughter carries up to five years in prison.

On Friday, the prosecution wrote the court its concerns about Judge Wilbert’s decision: “Case law is clear, both in Kansas and nationwide, that the circumstances of this murder do not justify an imperfect self-defense instruction. The state urges this court to exclude any irrelevant evidence of abortion, the defendant's views on abortion and the character of Dr. Tiller.”

Prosecutors also commented on the long-range implications of the ruling: "The State encourages this Court to not be the first to enable a defendant to justify premeditated murder because of an emotionally charged political belief … such a ruling has far reaching consequences and would be contrary to Kansas law.”

Roeder’s defense team did not make an opening statement Friday.

Both sides rally in Washington

Activists on both sides of the abortion debate marched in Washington Friday. Antiabortion activists held a rally on the National Mall and a march to the Supreme Court, where supporters of abortion rights also held a rally and vigil.

One ray of hope for the antiabortion movement this year is the upset win of Sen.-elect Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts.

At the Capitol Visitor's Center Friday, the Rev. Bob Schenck of Faith and Action, an organization opposing abortion, said Mr. Brown’s election helps Republicans block the Democrats’ healthcare reform bill which some worry will allow federal funds to be used to pay for abortions.

According to Fox News, Mr. Schenk says he believed that while Brown supports abortion rights, "he does have a conscience. And boy, we're going to work on his conscience."

This year’s Roe v. Wade anniversary illustrates a political reality. According to Newsweek, demonstrators on both sides were mostly from the baby boomer generation.

In fact, the march route to the Supreme Court was shortened this year because “the organizers are getting older, and it’s more difficult for them to walk a long distance,” said Stanley Radzilowski, a Washington, D.C., police officer.

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