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Pressure rises for abortion provider

Kansas' Tiller faces trial this month on late-term procedures. His foes seek to force a broader grand jury inquiry.

September 17, 2007|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

Antiabortion activists in Kansas are stepping up a campaign to drive one of the nation's last late-term abortion providers out of business.

Dr. George Tiller, who draws patients from across the country to his Wichita clinic, faces trial next month on 19 misdemeanor counts. The charges -- which he vigorously disputes -- accuse him of aborting viable fetuses without first consulting an independent physician as required by state law.

Each count carries a penalty of up to a year in jail. If convicted, Tiller could also lose his medical license.

His opponents aren't waiting for the outcome of the trial.

This month, the antiabortion group Kansans for Life submitted nearly 8,000 signatures to Sedgwick County District Court in Wichita, calling for a grand jury to review Tiller's handling of late-second- and third-trimester abortions. Tiller's lawyers appealed to federal court to block the grand jury, calling it a "vigilante effort," but were rebuffed last week. State law allows citizens to force the seating of a grand jury.

At the Capitol, meanwhile, a committee controlled by antiabortion lawmakers held a two-day hearing this month to lay the groundwork for tougher restrictions on abortion. Among the witnesses: a woman who said Tiller rushed her into an abortion at the end of her second trimester without counseling, informed consent or a second opinion because she had arrived late for her appointment at the clinic. State officials said they might investigate those claims.

"This is the beginning of the end for Tiller," said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, a Wichita-based antiabortion group.

Kansas law requires any physician who performs an abortion at or after 22 weeks' gestation to first determine whether the fetus is viable, meaning it could survive outside the womb. Aborting a viable fetus is permitted only if two doctors certify that continuing the pregnancy could kill the woman or cause her "substantial and irreversible" harm to "a major bodily function." Tiller has reported aborting more than 2,600 viable fetuses since the law took effect in 1998.

His attorneys and supporters say Tiller has done nothing wrong. And some of his patients, expressing deep gratitude for his work, have shared their stories.

At AHeartbreakingChoice .com, several women explain why they traveled to Wichita to abort much-wanted pregnancies, long after they had decorated nurseries and chosen baby names.

"The scan showed that her little brain was severely calcified," one wrote.

"She would have required a minimum of three surgeries to even enable her to take her first breath," another said.

The women write that they were well into the second half of their pregnancies, some into the third trimester, before the fetal defects were diagnosed. "I loved and wanted my baby very much," one wrote. "I loved her so much that I would rather her go back to God than suffer for even one day."

Tiller also accepts some late-term patients with healthy fetuses. Among them, he has said, have been girls as young as 10, rape victims, alcoholics, drug addicts, and women who were suicidal or depressed or who feared their relatives would harm them if they continued the pregnancy. Tiller has said a few of his patients were just a week or two from their due dates.

In December, the state's attorney general at the time, Phill Kline, charged Tiller with aborting viable fetuses even when the pregnant women did not face grave and lasting heath threats.

Kline subpoenaed patient records; he said they showed that Tiller had justified the abortions by diagnosing women with anxiety or a single episode of depression. Because of a jurisdictional dispute, the charges were dropped just days before Kline left office. He had lost his bid for reelection in large part because his opponent, Paul Morrison, painted him as an antiabortion extremist.

When Morrison took office, he declined to refile the charges against Tiller.

But Morrison did launch his own investigation using the limited number of patient medical files available to him. That resulted in the 19 misdemeanor counts pending in District Court. The charges allege that Tiller did not get the required second opinion from an independent doctor on some late-term cases, but rather relied on a physician with financial ties to his practice.

Tiller attorney Dan Monnat said "there was nothing illegal in the relationship" between the two physicians.

Monnat has filed a brief contesting the requirement for a second opinion. The U.S. Supreme Court and federal appeals courts have repeatedly struck down such requirements as infringing on a physician's right to practice medicine.

The courts have also held that laws banning abortion must make exceptions to protect the woman's health, including her mental health.

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