Wichita The man who gunned down one of the few doctors in the U.S. to perform late-term abortions could be sent to prison today for the rest of his life, but he may have gotten what he wanted all along: It is now markedly harder in Kansas to get an abortion.
Dr. George Tiller’s clinic is closed, leaving the state with no facility where women can have the procedure after the 21st week of pregnancy. An early vow by one of Tiller’s contemporaries to fill the gap hasn’t materialized, and state lawmakers are moving to enact tough new rules to dissuade other physicians from taking Tiller’s place.
“The national anti-abortion movement has a tremendous victory here,” said Dr. Warren Hern, a longtime friend of Tiller who performs late-term abortions in Colorado. “They accomplished exactly what they wanted and they continue to accomplish it.”
But even as Scott Roeder faces a mandatory life sentence for killing Tiller, many ponder the conflicting legacies of his actions. Outside Kansas, abortion rights supporters say there’s been a surge in late-term abortion practices by doctors emboldened to pick up where Tiller left off.
“What he really did was murder a doctor in church, and the effect on abortion is negligible,” said Dr. LeRoy Carhart, a Nebraska doctor who worked part time for Tiller.
Carhart said Wednesday he had not given up on opening a practice in Kansas where women can have a late-term procedure, even though he admitted his plans were in a state of flux given the rules passed late Tuesday night by the Kansas Legislature.
Effects of Roeder’s action
Some people on the other side of the abortion debate aren’t taking comfort in the fate of Roeder, 52, of Kansas City, Mo., who was convicted in January of first-degree murder for fatally shooting Tiller last May as the doctor served as an usher in his Wichita church. The only question remaining Thursday is whether Roeder’s imprisonment will include a mandatory minimum of 25 or 50 years behind bars.
“Mr. Roeder was a setback to the pro-life movement — and to give him any sort of credit for reducing or stopping abortion is well beyond reason,” said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue.
Roeder’s militant sympathizers disagree.
“He went ahead and laid down his life to save unborn children and to me that is the definition of a hero — he gave up his life to save someone else,” said the Rev. Don Spitz, of Chesapeake, Va., who runs the Army of God Web site supporting violence against abortion providers.
In Kansas, Tiller’s killing has practically erased late-term procedures and forced women to Albuquerque, N.M., and Boulder, Colo., among other places, to have them.
Just three clinics in the state — all located in or near the Kansas City metro area — offer limited abortion services for women up to their 21st week of pregnancy.
“People were coming from all over the world to have abortions in Kansas,” said Kari Ann Rinker, a lobbyist for the National Organization for Women’s Kansas chapter. “Now they don’t come here because Dr. Tiller has been killed.”
Beyond the state, however, abortion rights advocates say doctors are increasingly offering the procedure to ensure women have access.
“Dr. Tiller’s death was a devastating loss to the provider community and his family, but he was so admired and respected that his death has inspired medical students and providers to recommit themselves to providing women with the abortion care that they need,” said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation.
Committed to women
Among them is Megan Evans, a third-year medical student at George Washington University who said she hopes to include abortion services as part of a larger obstetrics and gynecology practice.
“After he was killed, for me it assured me this was the right field to go into,” she said.
In the wake of Tiller’s murder, Dr. Curtis Boyd of Albuquerque decided to provide third-trimester abortions on a case-by-case basis and hired two physicians who had worked at Tiller’s clinic.
Wichita-based Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group that followed Boyd’s announcement by declaring it would open a satellite operation in Albuquerque, contends its movement has been winning for the past 15 years as abortion clinics close as a result of legislative efforts coupled with political and social pressures.
Saporta contends there are now more doctors across the nation providing late abortions than there were before Tiller was killed, but she refuses to say how many or identify them for fear of making them instant targets.
Kansas law permits an abortion on a viable fetus after the 21st week of pregnancy to save a mother’s life or to prevent “substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.”
State lawmakers who oppose abortion want to further restrict the law. They passed a bill that would require doctors’ reports to the state include the exact medical diagnosis justifying a late-term abortion. It also would allow a doctor to be sued if the mother or her family had evidence that a late-term abortion violated Kansas law. But the Republican-controlled Legislature doesn’t yet have the two-thirds majorities it needs to override a potential veto by Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson, an abortion rights supporter.
“There’s no reason not to do the right thing just because Tiller’s clinic is closed,” said Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life. “The possibility exists that someone else could come into this state and run his business in the same way.”
The state Department of Health and Environment reported last week that the number of late-term abortions of viable fetuses dropped dramatically last year, from 192 in 2008 to 67 in 2009. The total number of abortions declined 11 percent, from about 10,600 in 2008 to about 9,500 in 2009.
Abortion opponents argue that decline can be linked to an increase in crisis pregnancy centers and a new law requiring doctors to give women the option of seeing an ultrasound of their fetus before an abortion.
But Rinker, the NOW lobbyist, said Roeder accomplished what the state’s conservative lawmakers could not.
“We need more abortion clinics,” she said. “We need more physicians who aren’t afraid to practice abortion procedures because of fear of legal repercussions.”