WICHITA, Kan. – For abortion opponents, the trial of one of the nation’s few late-term abortion providers has been a long time coming, a chance for a little bit of justice after years of seeing their efforts thwarted.
To abortion-rights supporters, Dr. George Tiller’s trial set to begin Monday is the culmination of repeated harassment, a witch hunt in which his foes have been willing to do anything and everything to gain a conviction.
Tiller and his Wichita clinic have been regular targets of anti-abortion demonstrations, including the 45-day “Summer of Mercy” event staged by Operation Rescue in 1991. His clinic was damaged by a pipe bomb in 1986, and in 1993 a protester shot him in both arms.
Abortion opponents contend Tiller illegally aborts fetuses that could survive outside the womb. Kansas law allows late-term abortions if two doctors agree that it is necessary to save a women’s life or prevent “substantial and irreversible” harm to “a major bodily function,” a phrase that’s been interpreted to include mental health.
Tiller is charged with 19 misdemeanors alleging he failed to obtain the required second opinion from an independent physician that a late-term abortion is necessary. If convicted, the Wichita physician could face a year in the county jail or a fine of $2,500 for each charge.
Sedgwick County District Judge Clark Owens has set aside three days, beginning Monday, for jury selection. Opening arguments and trial testimony are set to begin March 23.
Defense attorney Dan Monnat said he could not comment on specific trial evidence. “But we can say this: Dr. Tiller is innocent,” Monnat added. “We expect the prosecution’s evidence and any defense evidence to make that very, very clear.”
Prosecutors contend Tiller had a financial relationship with the doctor he relied upon for his second opinion that an abortion is necessary, in violation of Kansas law. They expect to present their case in one day, and could call that physician, Dr. Ann Kristin Neuhaus of Nortonville, Kan., who has been granted immunity from prosecution.
“We are treating this case just like any other criminal case,” said Ashley Anstaett, spokeswoman for Attorney General Steve Six, a Democrat who supports abortion rights.
Abortion opponents and abortion-rights activists plan to be out in full force for the trial.
Trucks emblazoned with graphic images of aborted fetuses are set to arrive at the courthouse an hour before jury selection starts. Operation Rescue President Troy Newman said the activists are not trying to influence jurors. Instead, he said, “We are hoping God will influence them.”
Abortion-rights supporters plan to counter with their own demonstrations.
“This is just a continuation of the dog-and-pony show in trying to shut down (Tiller’s) Women’s Health Care Services (clinic) and trying to make women’s reproductive health care inaccessible,” said Julie Burkhart, a lobbyist with ProKanDo, a political action committee Tiller formed in 2002.
Opponents twice tried unsuccessfully to get grand juries to indict Tiller. Kansas is one of only six states that allow citizens to petition to create a grand jury.
They also watched as another case – brought by a former state prosecutor – was tossed out on jurisdictional grounds. Although that case was different from the current one, the medical records gathered by former Attorney General Phill Kline, a Republican, formed the basis of both prosecutions.
The current case has survived numerous legal challenges, mainly over the way in which Kline handled his investigation, which Tiller’s attorneys contended was unconstitutionally selective and relied on evidence gathered illegally.
Even as Tiller’s trial begins, abortion foes are pushing two bills in the Legislature.
One would require the State Board of Healing Arts, which regulates Kansas doctors, to revoke a medical license for just one misdemeanor conviction of the late-term abortion law, unless two-thirds of the board decides otherwise. Under current law, the board may revoke a license after just one conviction, but it does not have to.
While Burkhart said the bill “was written specifically” for Tiller, Kathy Ostrowski, state legislative director of Kansans for Life, said it would not affect this case because the charges were filed under the current law.
“As it stands today, the board can use even one misdemeanor conviction to investigate revocation of his license,” she said.