Abortion foes starting to side with Morrison as he defends late-term law

? Abortion opponents have criticized Paul Morrison ever since the abortion rights Democrat campaigned for attorney general. Now they are allies as he defends a law that could put a high-profile abortion provider in jail.

Morrison filed 19 misdemeanor charges against Dr. George Tiller in June in Sedgwick County District Court. The attorney general alleges the Wichita doctor did not have a second, independent doctor sign off, as the law requires, on some late-term abortions.

Tiller is trying to get the case dismissed. He argues that the law is unconstitutional, partly because it places too much of a burden on a woman’s right to an abortion. A hearing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Friday in Sedgwick County.

Morrison contends the law is constitutional, especially given a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on abortion in April. Joining him in those arguments are Americans United for Life and 20 legislators who strongly oppose abortion.

“It’s surprising whenever you align with someone who’s had pro-abortion views in the past, but it is good to see that he is doing his job and prosecuting Tiller,” Mailee Smith, staff counsel for Americans United, said Wednesday.

Morrison’s office replied Tuesday to the request from Tiller’s attorneys to have the case dismissed. That was a day after Americans United for Life filed “friend of the court” arguments.

‘Financial’ dispute

The dispute centers on a 1998 law that applies after the 21st week of pregnancy and when a fetus can survive outside the womb.

The law says two doctors must conclude a woman could die or faces “substantial and irreversible” harm to “a major bodily function” if the pregnancy continues. The second doctor cannot be “legally or financially affiliated” with the abortion provider.

Morrison alleges that for 19 late-term abortions from July 8, 2003, through Nov. 18, 2003, Tiller consulted with Dr. Ann Kristin Neuhaus, of Nortonville. Morrison contends the two doctors had a financial relationship, though he wouldn’t be more specific.

Tiller’s attorneys have chalked up the charges to a disagreement among lawyers about “unusual technicalities” in the law.

As for Morrison’s argument that the law is constitutional, attorney Lee Thompson said: “We’re writing a reply, which we will file in court (today). We will set out why we think they have not appropriately followed the existing precedents.”

Laws in 17 other states say a second doctor must sign off on some abortions or be present when some are performed, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a Washington-based research group. Most apply when a fetus can survive outside the womb.

Groups on both sides of the debate are watching the case because Tiller is among a few doctors who perform late-term abortions.

“Dr. Tiller is a physician whose services are needed by women all over the country,” said Louise Melling, director of the Reproductive Freedom Project for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Backing Morrison?

While abortion foes back Morrison’s defense of the law, they have repeatedly questioned his commitment to prosecuting Tiller.

Their complaints date to last year’s campaign, when the abortion-rights Democrat unseated Attorney General Phill Kline, an anti-abortion Republican. After losing the November election, Kline attempted to prosecute Tiller, but the 30 misdemeanors he filed in Sedgwick County were dismissed for jurisdictional reasons.

Morrison began his own investigation after taking office in January and faced criticism from legislators who worried he wasn’t going to be aggressive in prosecuting Tiller. Some abortion foes believe Kline’s case was the stronger one.

“My philosophy is to enforce the law, regardless of what my personal beliefs might be,” Morrison said. “This is a classic example.”

Morrison and his anti-abortion critics argue that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled since 1992 that reasonable restrictions on abortion are permitted, especially when a fetus can survive outside the womb.

They also rely on the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in April upholding a federal ban on a procedure critics call partial-birth abortion, without an exception to preserve a woman’s health when her life isn’t in danger. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that the government may “show its profound respect for the life within the woman.”

“The law regarding these types of restrictions continues to evolve,” Morrison said. “It has of late been evolving towards upholding reasonable restrictions.”

Melling agreed the court has shown it is willing to reconsider previous precedents on abortion.

“But it didn’t speak to this question yet,” she said. “It’s premature to say that everything’s changed. Today, Dr. Tiller has the precedents on his side.”

Meanwhile, Morrison has a temporary alliance with people who formerly criticized him in public, including Rep. Lance Kinzer, an Olathe lawyer and an anti-abortion Republican.

“The attorney general has an obligation to defend the law. I think it would only be odd if he were not doing what he’s doing in this case,” Kinzer said. “I would expect that he’ll do a professional job of attempting to defend the law.”