03.25.09

The Last Abortionist

Kansas doctor George Tiller, who continued to perform late-term abortions despite being picketed and bombed, was shot and killed on May 31 in a Wichita church. Last March, The Daily Beast reported from his trial.

Dr. George Tiller started out to become a dermatologist. How he evolved into one of the most hated figures in the history of the U.S. antiabortion movement was the focus of his attorney's opening argument last March in Wichita, Kansas, where Tiller is on trial for violating the state’s medical guidelines.

The charges are the most recent salvo in a nearly four-decade campaign against Dr. Tiller, who for many years has been the one of the few doctors in America to perform late-term abortions. Tiller, now in his late 60s, has been picketed, bombed, and shot. But he "will not be intimidated into not providing a medical service he has seen women need," defense attorney Dan Monnat told the jury. "He persists."

Tiller "will not be intimidated into not providing a medical service he has seen women need," defense attorney Dan Monnat told the jury.

Kansas law requires that a doctor get a second opinion from an "independent" doctor before performing an abortion if the fetus might be viable outside the womb. The 19 misdemeanor counts against Tiller allege that he has had an illegal financial and legal relationship with Dr. Kristin Neuhaus, who provided these second opinions—and that, far from being independent, she was an employee of Tiller’s clinic, which has several doctors on staff. Each count carries a possible penalty of one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

With this legal tactic, antiabortion crusaders hope to succeed where more direct actions against Dr. Tiller’s practice have failed—including the 1991 "Summer of Mercy" in which Operation Rescue mustered thousands of demonstrators from all over the country to lay siege to the Wichita clinic.

"This trial has national implications," says Rev. Patrick Mahoney of the Washington, D.C.-based Christian Defense Coalition, who traveled here to protest outside the courthouse. "The eyes of the pro-life movement are focused on Wichita."

According to a 1999 book on the abortion wars, Wrath of Angels, by James Risen and Judy L. Thomas, Tiller set aside his plans to become a dermatologist and took over his father’s general practice when Jack Tiller died in a plane crash. Tiller soon discovered that since the 1940s, his father had been clandestinely terminating pregnancies for the women of Wichita, motivated by guilt about a patient he had refused to help who then died in a back-alley abortion. Tiller took over that part of his father’s practice, too, and after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, he developed expertise in performing late-term abortions, in part because of referrals from an unnamed national nonprofit organization that funded abortions.

As the antiabortion movement became more confrontational, and even violent in the 1980s, more and more doctors quit performing abortions altogether, and very few were willing to treat the women who wanted to abort after the first trimester, sometimes because they have received news of severe fetal deformities. Tiller’s clinic became a last resort for women from "all over the world," including a 10-year-old rape victim, Monnat told the jury.

It also became a special target for antiabortion groups, such as Operation Rescue, and its terrorist offshoot, the Army of God.Monnat showed the six-person jury a montage of photographs from Tiller's past: the damage to his clinic from a 1986 bomb placed on the roof; some of the 2,000 people arrested during the 1991 protests outside the clinic; and Tiller being carried away on a stretcher in 1993 after being shot in both arms by an abortion opponent. "I don't know why he's still doing it," says Diane Wahto, a retired teacher from Wichita who volunteered escorting patients past protesters before Tiller hired a private security firm. "He's past retirement age. I think he doesn't want the anti-choice forces to make women suffer." Not everyone on the pro-choice side of the debate in Wichita is eager to defend him, though. At the local Planned Parenthood clinic, a woman who identified herself as its director refused any comment on Tiller before quickly hanging up.

Although Tiller, who is married with four grown children, does not speak to the press, Wichitans have had a good taste of his irascible and defiant personality over the years. After the clinic was bombed, he reportedly hung a banner in the wreckage that read "Hell, No, We Won’t Go." In the ambulance after being shot, he refused IV pain medication because he had earlier beat an addiction to drugs and alcohol to win back his suspended license.

In court last March, Tiller showed little emotion as Dr. Neuhaus, testifying under a grant of immunity, described her work with the clinic. Monnant explained that this arrangement had been approved by the Kansas Board of Healing Arts, which regulates doctors. And he noted that some aspects of the Relationship—such as Neuhaus examining patients in Tiller's clinic—were made necessary by protesters following and harassing patients.

As jurors left for their lunch break, they encountered a line of about 25 protesters outside the Sedgwick County courthouse with red tape inscribed with the word "Life" over their mouths. But Wichitans, accustomed to decades of protests against Tiller, didn't seem to pay much attention.

Joe Stumpe has worked for newspapers in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Kansas for the past 26 years. He lives in Wichita.