Wichita — 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 is the culmination of repeated harassment, a witch hunt in which foes have been willing to do anything and everything to gain a conviction.
The Wichita doctor faces trial Monday on charges that he repeatedly violated Kansas’ abortion law in a criminal case that could threaten his medical license.
Tiller is charged with 19 misdemeanors alleging he failed to obtain a second, independent opinion for late-term abortions from an independent physician, as required by Kansas law. If convicted, the Wichita doctor could face a year in the county jail or a fine of $2,500 for each misdemeanor 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, 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, 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.
Tiller and his Wichita clinic are a regular target of anti-abortion protests, 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 a protester shot at him in 1993, wounding his arms.
For years, abortion opponents have waited to see Tiller stand trial, contending he 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.
Opponents twice have tried unsuccessfully to get grand juries to indict Tiller. They also watched as another case — brought by a former state prosecutor who opposes abortion and who alleged that Tiller performed illegal abortions and failed to properly report details to state health officials — was tossed out on jurisdictional grounds.
Although that case was different from the present one, the medical records gathered by former Attorney General Phill Kline, a Republican, formed the basis of both.
The case has survived numerous legal challenges, mainly over how 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,” Ostrowski said.