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Late-term abortion doctors fill in for Tiller

The murdered abortion provider was one of the few nationwide willing to perform abortions in the third trimester. A few others quietly step forward.

March 16, 2010|By Robin Abcarian and Michael Haederle

Reporting from Los Angeles and Albuquerque — Last year, after Kansas abortion provider George Tiller was killed in church, his supporters worried about what would happen to the hundreds of women who sought late-term abortions each year at Tiller's clinic, which was closed after his death.

Some physicians are quietly stepping forward.

Curtis Boyd, an Albuquerque doctor, recently announced on his website that, in response to Tiller's death, he had begun performing third-trimester abortions. Boyd, 72, also announced that he had hired two California physicians, Susan Robinson and Shelley Sella, who used to work with Tiller on a rotating basis.

"Dr. Tiller was one of the few doctors in the United States who provided late-term abortions to women with severe fetal abnormalities or maternal health indications," said a statement on Dr. Boyd's website. "Appointments for late abortions are now available."

Boyd, Robinson and Sella declined interview requests. All have been targets of vitriolic attacks on antiabortion websites.

After Tiller was murdered by Scott Roeder, who faces sentencing April 1, the National Abortion Federation began asking members who already provide second-trimester abortions to consider extending their practices to include third-trimester abortions.

NAF president Vicki Saporta would not say how many agreed. "If I give you a number and you print it, the people who want to do these people harm will get all over the Internet and try to figure out who these people might be and how to target them," Saporta said.

The Rev. Stephen Imbarrato, president of Project Defending Life in Albuquerque, said he received a call last week from Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, the Wichita antiabortion group that dedicated itself to putting Tiller out of business.

"He wanted to discuss with me, at some point in time, what we're doing in terms of prayer vigils and bringing attention to Curtis Boyd," Imbarrato said.

A small fraction of the 1.2 million women who have abortions each year seek them after the first trimester, and only a tiny fraction seek abortions in the third trimester.

In its 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, the Supreme Court said states cannot limit a woman's right to abortion before fetal viability, which is now generally considered to be in the 23rd or 24th week of pregnancy -- during the second trimester. After viability, states can impose regulations, but they must allow abortions to preserve a woman's life or health, including her mental health.

Boyd is an ordained Baptist minister who later became a Unitarian. In a 2008 speech, he explained why he is an abortion doctor:

"In my generation, many of the doctors of conscience who chose to provide abortions were moved by the horrors of botched illegal abortions. But that was not what drove me to risk my career and sometimes my life. I was moved by the certain knowledge that women's lives could be ruined when they could not abort a pregnancy."

Boyd's clinic, Southwest Women's Options, is on a busy street near downtown Albuquerque.

The property is unfenced, unlike Tiller's Wichita clinic, which eventually took on the appearance of a bunker after violent incidents by antiabortion extremists, including a firebombing and attempted murder.

Saporta said that the NAF helped its members with security and cooperated with law enforcement. "We make sure they treat criminal activity as criminal activity, not as free speech when laws are being violated and people are being threatened."

Officer Rob Gibbs, a spokesman for the Albuquerque Police Department, said he was not aware of any consultations with the department regarding security for Boyd's clinic.

Disruptive antiabortion protests, Gibbs said, are out of character for Albuquerque, a relatively liberal community. "There's more antiwar demonstrators than there are antiabortion demonstrators," he said.

On Dec. 6, 2007, Boyd's former office, half a mile from its current location, suffered extensive smoke damage after it was set on fire. That office had been picketed on occasion. Two men pleaded guilty in federal court to charges of conspiracy to commit arson. The attorney for one described the fire as an "emotional crime" resulting from a decision by the man's ex-girlfriend to terminate her pregnancy.

Joan Sanford of the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice said she had alerted her members to the change in Boyd's practice. In a recent newsletter, she asked members to open their homes to Boyd's out-of-town patients.

"I have been impressed with his compassion for women and for families," Sanford said. "We all know what the risks are for any provider."


Haederle writes for The Times.

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