Topeka Attorney General Paul Morrison and a state medical regulator said Friday they're open to investigating new questions about how Dr. George Tiller and his clinic handled a late-term abortion in 2003.
The questions arose during a legislative committee hearing when a Topeka woman, Michelle Armesto, testified she had a late-term abortion in May 2003. She said her file from Tiller's clinic in Wichita indicated that the fetus couldn't survive outside the womb, but she and her attorney believe it could have.
State law restricts abortions after the 21st week of pregnancy. They can be performed only if a fetus isn't viable or if two independent doctors conclude a woman is risking death or major, permanent damage to her physical or mental health should the pregnancy continue.
"If there's a chance that case is still viable, we'll look at it - absolutely," Morrison said during an interview. "We're absolutely still open to that."
Physicians like Tiller are licensed and regulated by the State Board of Healing Arts. Larry Buening, the board's executive director, said the board would act if it received a complaint outlining questions similar to the ones raised in the legislative hearings.
"That would be sufficient grounds to create a file and commence an investigation," Buening said.
Friday was the third and final day of hearings the legislative committee is holding on the state's 1998 late-term abortion law. Committee members who oppose abortion said they'll focus on improving enforcement of the existing restrictions, rather than seeking tougher limits on late-term abortions.
The hearings have become an arena for abortion opponents to make their case against Tiller, who is one of the few U.S. physicians performing late-term abortions.
"I feel I was exploited by Dr. Tiller and his office for the $2,500 it cost," Armesto told the committee. Later, during a break, she said, "Basically, they just shove you in, and you're so frozen and so numb that it's done."
Julie Burkhart, lobbyist for a political action committee Tiller formed, said the clinic couldn't comment on Armesto's testimony, citing medical privacy laws.
Dan Monnat and Lee Thompson, Wichita attorneys representing Tiller, didn't return telephone messages seeking comment.
Armesto promised to give a copy of her file from Tiller's clinic to the committee.
"She was a very credible witness," said Rep. Arlen Siegfreid, the committee's chairman and an Olathe Republican. "It appears to me that there's wonderful grounds for an investigation here."
But Rep. Annie Kuether, a Topeka Democrat who supports abortion rights, said she wants to know why Armesto didn't get help from teachers, counselors and others. Armesto said she was 18, a week away from her high school graduation, 24 weeks pregnant and living in Oregon with her parents when she had the abortion.
"I think I heard a very, very sad story," Kuether said. "Society in general has let this young lady down, and I think she's found somebody that she wants to blame, and that would be Dr. Tiller."
Morrison said a key issue is whether a prosecutor would be allowed to file a case based on events in May 2003. At that time, state law allowed two years to file misdemeanor cases, making the deadline May 2005. But prosecutors receive additional time if a crime is concealed and discovered later.
The attorney general said he hadn't examined Armesto's case. Armesto told the committee she didn't know that her fetus wasn't considered viable until she sought and received her medical records from the clinic this summer.
Now 22 and a mother of two young children, she said she examined the sonogram from her first pregnancy and "couldn't find anything wrong with the baby."
Joel Oster, an attorney with the anti-abortion Alliance Defense Fund in Kansas City, Kan., stood beside Armesto as she testified. The group says one of its goals is to "reform American law so that all human life will be respected and protected from conception to death."
Armesto said her parents pressured her into having the abortion. She said her mother drove her to the clinic, and she told the clinic staff the abortion was "murder."
"There was no time to say, 'Hey, I don't want to do this,"' she said.
She said clinic personnel gave her fetus two lethal injections. Two days later, after clinic personnel induced labor, she delivered the stillborn child onto a restroom floor at the clinic. She said she relived the experience when her two children were born and remains haunted by the memories.
Armesto's comments were in sharp contrast to testimony from a Virginia woman, Miriam Kleiman, who had a late-term abortion in July 2000 at Tiller's clinic after learning that her fetus was severely deformed and would die shortly after birth. Burkhart presented a written statement and DVD recording of an interview with Kleiman.
"We were treated with kindness, warmth and respect by everyone we met," Kleiman said in her statement. "We were consulted at each step in the process. I have never met kinder or more caring people."