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Doctor struggles to fill role of slain Kansas abortion provider

Dr. Mila Means aims to succeed Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, but so far an antiabortion movement has thwarted her at every turn.

March 05, 2012|By Jenny Deam, Los Angeles Times
  • Dr. Mila Means is trying to pick up where slain abortion provider Dr. George Tiller left off in Wichita, Kan., but so far she has been blocked at every turn.
Dr. Mila Means is trying to pick up where slain abortion provider Dr. George… (Mike Hutmacher, Wichita…)

Reporting from Wichita, Kan. — Out near the city's edge, where fast-food joints and subdivisions seem to spring from farmland overnight, the casualties of an unfinished war sit untouched in a doctor's basement.

Dr. Mila Means, a 55-year-old solo family practitioner with neon red hair and neo-hippie style, doesn't remember how or when she heard that Dr. George Tiller had been gunned down in his church.

She knew him only slightly as their paths crossed in medical circles. Mostly, she knew of him — as the lone abortion provider in a city of nearly 400,000, as a symbol of the country's abortion wars.

After his killing on May 31, 2009, the decision to step into his place did not come as an epiphany but rather over time, with sad reluctance.

In the past, if her patients with unwanted pregnancies asked where to get an abortion, she sent them to Tiller. After his death, women seeking the procedure increasingly turned to her for advice, often with panicked eyes and voices, asking what to do and where to go.

"I didn't have an answer," she said. "I kept thinking one of the OB-GYN doctors would start, but slowly it became apparent no one was going to step up."

Kansas is a land of great distances. Women who wanted abortions drove hundreds of miles to Kansas City, Tulsa, Denver, even Illinois.

If not her, Means thought, who?

In summer 2010, Means began going each weekend to Kansas City, Kan., to learn first trimester abortion procedure. She approached Jeanne Tiller about buying her late husband's equipment. It cost $20,000, which cut deeply into her practice's meager budget. She remembers how creepy it felt to walk through Tiller's boarded up clinic shadowed by his widow's bodyguard.

The decision marked a full circle for Means, who grew up in Wichita with parents who supported abortion rights. In her 20s, though, she joined a fundamentalist church with a rigid antiabortion stance. Her own beliefs were more ambivalent.

She once applied as medical director of a pregnancy crisis center that talked women out of abortion but said she did not get the job because she could not agree that abortion was never justified. She now sees that time in her life as a passing phase before her politics drifted left.

As 2010 ended, Means told her office landlord of her plans. Word leaked and protesters materialized quickly. Posters circulated with her picture on one side scrawled with the words "child abuser"; the other side urged protesters to "reach out" to her at her home and office.

A letter arrived from an antiabortion activist who befriended Scott Roeder, the man convicted of killing Tiller, after he went to prison. That letter, now in federal hands, warned Means to check under her yellow Mini Cooper for explosives before turning the key.

"I anticipated the normal protest, but I didn't anticipate the intensity of those in the movement to keep Wichita abortion-free. They saw Dr. Tiller's murder as a victory," Means said.

Roeder has said killing Tiller was justified to protect unborn babies.

Cheryl Sullenger of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue denied finding triumph in Tiller's death but acknowledged starting the protest against Means. "The people of Wichita don't want abortion in our community," she said.

The pressure on Means was unrelenting. Her business manager quit, patients fled. A feminist group offered her a bulletproof vest. Law enforcement officials briefed her staff on how to spot a bomb.

Her landlord slapped her with a nuisance lawsuit, saying the protests disrupted other tenants. When Means tried to find another office, she said, no one would rent to her. She stayed put, settling the lawsuit with a promise not to perform abortions at that location, all the while quietly working toward creating a nonprofit organization so she could buy her own building.

But 150 miles away in the state capital, other forces were gathering.

In spring 2011, some of the most sweeping antiabortion measures in the nation became Kansas law, including the defunding of Planned Parenthood and the imposition of building specifications and medical equipment requirements — both of which Means said would put abortion providers out of business. Both laws were stayed pending court challenges.

Now, with abortion-related laws being debated in several states, eyes again turn to Kansas. In February, Kansas lawmakers introduced new antiabortion measures that Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has promised to sign, including a bill to stop tax deductions for abortion-related expenses. Other provisions would require that patients hear the fetal heartbeat and shield doctors against lawsuits if they do not inform patients of problems in pregnancies.

"The turnaround in Kansas is pretty amazing in a short period of time," said Elizabeth Nash, states issues manager for the Guttmacher Institute, a New York nonprofit research organization that supports abortion rights. She sees Kansas as the centerpiece of a stripe that runs from North Dakota to Oklahoma where abortion is starting to disappear.

Since Tiller's slaying, there have been other halting attempts to bring abortion providers to Wichita. One doctor even agreed but then backed out, spooked by the climate.

Means continues her family practice and tries not to think about Tiller's abortion equipment gathering dust in the basement. To this day she has not performed a single abortion. She's made peace with the danger of a decision made nearly two years ago.

"Radically insane people, if they want to kill you, they will," she said. It's the lawmakers who now prove to be her most daunting opponent. She says she doesn't dare go forward now. So she waits.

Deam writes for The Times.

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