Abortion Doctor George Tiller Shot Dead at His Kansas Church

WICHITA, Kansas (AFP) - A controversial provider of late-term abortions was shot to death Sunday as he walked into services at his Kansas church, officials said.

A lightning rod in the bitter culture war over abortion, George Tiller had already been picketed, bombed and shot in the arms.

He was shot to death just after 10 am (1500 GMT) in the lobby of Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas, police and city officials said.

A white man wielding a handgun shot Tiller, 67, and then fled in a powder blue Ford Taurus.

"It's an unfortunate incident to happen on a Sunday morning," Wichita police captain Brent Allred told reporters.

"These things should not occur at a any time."

The FBI and state police were called in to help search for the shooter, whose license plate was registered to a home in a suburb of Kansas City, some 200 miles away on the border with Missouri.

The shooting came just two weeks after President Barack Obama sought "common ground" over the divisive abortion debate in a controversial speech at one of the top Catholic universities in the United States.

The president has attempted to defuse one of the most emotive issues in US public life by arguing that while abortion should remain legal, the government should do all it can to limit unwanted pregnancies.

But Obama has angered the anti-abortion movement by reversing predecessor George W. Bush's restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research and for family-planning groups that carry out or facilitate abortions overseas.

Obama's choice for health secretary, former Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius, has been widely condemned by the anti-abortion movement because of her ties to Tiller.

Tiller, one of the few doctors who still performs late-term abortions in the United States, has been demonized by abortion opponents who regularly protested outside his clinic.

In 1986, someone placed a bomb on the roof of the clinic, seriously damaging the building.

In 1993, Tiller was shot in both arms outside the clinic. Tiller recovered, and his assailant received an 11-year prison term.

Some 2,000 protesters were also arrested outside the clinic during summer-long demonstrations in 1991.

He was acquitted in March on charges that he performed 19 illegal abortions in 2003 in a case which his lawyer described as a witch hunt.

Tiller testified during the trial that he spent years under the protection of federal agents after the FBI discovered an anti-abortion assassination list in 1994 that listed Tiller as the top target.

Tiller also testified that he owns one of only three clinics in the United States that perform late-term abortions, which are performed on fetuses that would be viable outside the mother's womb.

Late-term abortions are legal in Kansas if two independent physicians agree that the mother could suffer irreparable harm by giving birth.

Tiller was acquitted of having an illegal financial relationship with the doctor who provided the second opinion.

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