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Kansas abortion provider unexpectedly testifies at his trial

Dr. George Tiller cites his family's support as the reason why he still performs late-term procedures despite years of harassment by protesters. ' 'Quit' is not something I like to do,' he tells the jury.

March 26, 2009|Robin Abcarian

WICHITA, KAN. — Dr. George Tiller, the Kansas doctor who has become a national symbol of the struggle over legalized abortion, unexpectedly testified in his defense Wednesday during the criminal trial that abortion opponents are following with passionate interest.

Tiller, one of the few doctors in the country who perform abortions in the last trimester of pregnancy, has been targeted for years by abortion foes who would like to see him in prison and his clinic shut down. Many of his patients, however, consider him heroic.

Tiller became emotional as he told the jury why he continues to practice, even though he and his staff have been harassed for years by anti-abortion protesters, one of whom shot him in both arms as he left work in 1993.

" 'Quit' is not something I like to do," Tiller said. He has not closed shop, he said, because his patients need him and he has the "strong support" of his family -- including his wife of 45 years, three daughters (two of whom are physicians), a son and 10 grandchildren.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, June 11, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Abortion doctor slain: An article in Section A on March 26 about the Kansas criminal trial of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller said a Pennsylvania abortion doctor, Barnett Slepian, was shot to death by an abortion foe in 1994. Slepian was killed in 1998.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, June 13, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Abortion provider's trial: A March 26 article in Section A about the Kansas criminal trial of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller said a Pennsylvania abortion provider, Barnett Slepian, was shot to death by an abortion foe in 1994. Slepian was from New York, not Pennsylvania, and was killed in 1998. A correction published Thursday that corrected the year of Slepian's killing repeated incorrectly that he was from Pennsylvania.

He said that one family conversation crystallized in his mind the importance of his work.

"My daughters came into my study," he said. "I was reading. And they said, 'Daddy, if not now, when? If not you, who? Who is going to stand up for women with unexpected and badly damaged babies?' I had the support of my family, and we were able to proceed ahead."

Tiller is being tried on 19 misdemeanor counts of breaking a Kansas law that requires a second opinion for a late-term abortion from a consulting physician with whom the doctor performing the procedure has no legal or financial ties. The consulting physician must determine that the pregnant woman would suffer permanent and irreversible harm if she had the baby.

If convicted, Tiller faces up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine for each count.

Prosecutors say Tiller's arrangement with Dr. Ann Kristin Neuhaus, who signed off on 19 procedures that are the basis of the charges, violated that law. Neuhaus, who consulted for Tiller from 1999 to 2006, was given immunity for her testimony.

Tiller's attorneys have claimed the 1999 law, which requires that the second doctor not only be independent but licensed to practice in Kansas, is vague because it does not define financial or legal affiliation. Tiller testified he was told by the director of the Kansas board that licenses and disciplines doctors that if he recruited Neuhaus to see patients at his clinic, he would be complying with the law.

Before resting its case Tuesday, the prosecution argued that Tiller had treated Neuhaus as an employee because she examined patients at his clinic in a room he provided. A financial relationship also existed, the prosecutor said, because her work for Tiller was her only source of income at the time.

Also, when Neuhaus was unable to make the 2 1/2-hour drive to Wichita from her home in Lawrence, she would consult with Tiller's patients by telephone. The clinic would then hold her fee -- $250 to $300 paid in cash by the mostly out-of-state patients -- until her next visit. That, said the prosecutor, is evidence of a financial relationship.

Tiller's attorneys have denied the pair were anything other than primary doctor and consultant, akin to a cardiologist who might visit an internist's patient at a hospital. Neuhaus saw patients at Tiller's clinic for safety reasons, she and others testified, because of the intimidating, sometimes violent nature of the protesters who are fixtures there. Tiller's clinic, his administrative director testified, is virtually a fortress with fences, security cameras and armed guards. It was bombed by a protester in 1986.

On the stand, Tiller, 67, spoke in a low voice. He has a ruddy face and wears rimless glasses. With a brush cut that is slightly tinged by gray, he looks like he could be a retired military man. His hand shook with a slight tremor as he paged through the exhibit book.

After Pennsylvania abortion provider Barnett Slepian was murdered in his home by an abortion foe in 1994, Tiller said the FBI told him he was the "No. 1 person" on an anti-abortion assassination list.

Under questioning from Assistant Atty. Gen. Barry Disney, Tiller said that he charges $6,000 for abortions of fetuses that are "viable," or able to live outside the womb. He performs 250 to 300 such abortions a year, he said, and about 30% of his gross income is profit.

The defense also called Tiller's former attorney, Rachael Pirner, who testified that she struggled to help Tiller obey the Kansas law he is accused of breaking.

"It's pretty difficult . . . to advise your client how to comply [with the law] when you yourself can't figure out what the law means."

Security in the Sedgwick County Courthouse is high. At least three sheriff's deputies, armed with guns and Tasers, are in the courtroom at all times, rotating positions, watching the spectators, most of whom are affiliated with the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue.

One of them, Cheryl Sullenger, senior policy advisor for the group, was convicted in 1988 for conspiring to bomb a San Diego abortion clinic and served two years in prison.

Periodically, the spectators cannot contain their reactions.

In an exchange with Disney, Tiller said, "When Dr. Neuhaus was working for me . . ." He caught himself, looked down, then said, "Correction: When she was providing consultations for the patients . . ."

A low buzz of derision could be heard in the courtroom. Moments later, as people filed out of the courtroom into the hallway, Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue said, "Did you hear that? He said she worked for him!"


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