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Published: Friday, 1/22/2010

Trial of abortion doc's alleged killer galvanizes debate

HOURS before dawn today, they boarded buses bound for the nation's capital. Every Jan. 22 they make their annual pro-life pilgrimage to Washington to commemorate what they consider a dark day in the nation's history and to pray for change.

In smaller numbers, others gather to celebrate the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade and pledge to keep abortion legal. At one time, the media made a big deal of the yearly public demonstrations opposing and, to a lesser extent, supporting the landmark Supreme Court ruling, but not anymore.

After 37 years of chronicling the same rallies and speeches on the National Mall, with the same crowds of placard-waving protestors, the scheduled event is lucky to garner a mention on the evening news or a paragraph in the paper. In too many newsrooms, the enduring abortion controversy, represented by today's outpouring of pro-life and pro-choice demonstrators, is just more of the same.

Abortion used to be a highly emotional issue with impassioned debate and demand for equal time. Pro-life and pro-choice camps were consistently intense in fighting for their cause. But over the years, the battle fervor seemed to wane and eventually, both sides appeared to settle for entrenchment in the status quo.

Today, the abortion battle is mostly waged in courtrooms. Federal courts have blocked states' attempts to restrict abortions without appropriate safeguards for the life and health of the mother, but the Supreme Court has upheld government restrictions on funding abortion.

Legal challenges to abortion law are the constant in a nation divided over whether, and to what extent, abortion should be allowed. The tug of war to maintain or erode abortion rights has fallen to litigators and lawmakers.

And once a year, absolutists consumed with either overturning or affirming Roe vs. Wade assemble in Washington to lament or laud what the nation's high court decided on Jan. 22, 1973. Then, having made their voices heard from Constitution Avenue to the Washington Monument, they go home.

To be sure, the respective campaigns supporting and opposing abortion continue. But after 37 years, the only ones expecting dramatic change in the status quo are extremists inclined to take matters into their own hands - like Scott Roeder.

The admitted killer of abortion provider George Tiller has apparently gotten what he wanted in his first-degree murder trial in Kansas. When the judge refused to rule out a voluntary manslaughter defense in the abortion shooting, it meant the defendant, who probably fancies himself a modern day John Brown in the abortion context, could have a public platform to try to justify what he did.

This is a man who, police say, got up from his pew at church, walked calmly up to Dr. Tiller, put the barrel of his 22-caliber handgun to the doctor's forehead, and pulled the trigger. What should have been a straightforward murder trial, with the defendant's confession and more than 250 possible witnesses for the prosecution, has suddenly turned into a potential forum on abortion.

The development has galvanized both sides in the abortion debate, provoking outrage among abortion-rights supporters and excitement among some abortion opponents. But in the meantime, hundreds of thousands of Americans marching on Washington to mark an anniversary feel rightly overlooked by the mainstream media.

Yet the norm - even when it's an impressive demonstration year after year - isn't news that will generate widespread coverage. What is different is news such as a trial in which the right to kill has turned into a referendum on abortion, in a story far more compelling than an annual protest of the procedure.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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