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Eager for abortion provider's case to move forward

For years, Kansas has watched the drama involving activists, prosecutors and George Tiller, who has been charged with 19 misdemeanor counts stemming from late-term procedures. His trial starts Monday.

March 15, 2009|Robin Abcarian

For activists on both sides of the debate over legalized abortion, the criminal trial of Dr. George Tiller, which begins Monday in a Wichita courtroom, is an oddly unfulfilling culmination of a struggle that has wrenched Kansas for years.

Tiller, 67, is one of a handful of doctors in the country who terminate late-term pregnancies and has virtually become public enemy No. 1 to those who oppose abortion. For years, prosecutors and activists have tried to bring him down, and for years, Tiller has survived legal and physical challenges.

In 1986, his clinic was bombed. In 1991, it was blockaded for six weeks. In 1993, he was shot in both arms by an abortion opponent. He has been investigated twice by grand juries that have found no cause to charge him with crimes.

Relentlessly pursued by then-Kansas Atty. Gen. Phill Kline, a Republican, Tiller was charged in 2006 with illegally performing late-term abortions. The charges were dropped because of a technicality about jurisdiction.

But Kline was a lame duck by the time he filed the charges against Tiller. A month earlier, Kansas voters, tired of what they perceived as Kline's intrusiveness -- which included a successful years-long fight to obtain some of Tiller's patient records -- turned him out of office in favor of Democrat Paul Morrison, who supports abortion rights. The campaign against Kline included direct mail attacks characterizing him as "the Snoop Dog."

The following year, to the delight of abortion foes, Morrison charged Tiller with 19 misdemeanor counts of violating a technical aspect of the 1998 Kansas law that regulates late-term abortions.

The law states that any physician who performs an abortion at or after 22 weeks' gestation must determine whether the fetus is viable -- that is, whether it could survive outside the womb. If the fetus is determined to be viable, then two doctors must certify that continuing the pregnancy might kill the mother or cause "substantial and irreversible" harm to a "major bodily function." The two doctors must have no financial or legal relationship, the law states.

Though neither side will discuss the evidence, the state is expected to contend that Tiller's relationship with Ann Kristin Neuhaus, the second doctor who signed off on the 19 abortions in question, violated the physician independence provision. Each count carries a maximum penalty of up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine.

Morrison, who pledged to make decisions on the law, not politics, based the charges on his review of the records Kline had fought to obtain.

If Kansans were surprised by Morrison filing charges against Tiller in 2007, they were even more surprised later that year when the attorney general was accused of sexual harassment by a female subordinate with whom he had had a two-year extramarital affair.

He resigned in 2008.

The scandal was a blow to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat who had recruited Morrison to run against Kline. (She is now President Obama's nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services.)

Sebelius' appointee to replace Morrison as attorney general, Democrat Steve Six, inherited the Tiller prosecution.

"The attorney general's office is not very excited about this case," said Joseph Aistrup, a political science professor at Kansas State University. "If Tiller is convicted and it does lead to his clinic being shut down, the ironic twist is almost overwhelming. It would be a pro-choice attorney general that shut him down."

"I am at least happy that this case is going forward," said Mary Kay Culp, executive director of the antiabortion group Kansans for Life.

"It's sort of a weak ending to a very intense drama," said Peter Brownlie, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri.

That group is embroiled in a legal case orchestrated by Kline, who after losing his bid for a second term as attorney general was appointed to the district attorney post in Johnson County, where Brownlie's organization is based.

"We're not worried about the outcome, because we follow the law, always have," Brownlie said. "We will prevail if we ever get to trial."

But Kline was defeated in the Republican primary last year when he ran to remain Johnson County district attorney. He is now the subject of an ethics investigation involving the handling of some of the Planned Parenthood patient records in his care.

Ashley Anstaett, spokeswoman for Atty. Gen. Six, said that she could not discuss the state's case against Tiller. In an e-mail, Tiller's attorney, Dan Monnat, said: "Kansas pretrial publicity rules discourage specific comment on trial evidence. But we can say this: Dr. Tiller is innocent. We expect the prosecution's evidence and any defense evidence to make that very, very clear."

Troy Newman, president of the antiabortion activist group Operation Rescue, is an evangelical minister and former Californian who said he moved to Kansas six years ago with the goal of putting Tiller out of business. Newman said his group had provided some information that helped lead to the charges against Tiller.

"Part of what we do is investigations," Newman said. "We find stuff out and I feed the information to the prosecutors." Among his discoveries, he said, is that Tiller lent Neuhaus a car.

Aistrup, the political scientist, was skeptical that Operation Rescue had played a part in Tiller's prosecution.

"In some respects," he said, "most of us in Kansas would prefer that Tiller go away -- not because of opposition or support for what he does, but the publicity has been so negative over the course of time."

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robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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