A decision is expected this week on whether the Kansas clinic of Dr. George Tiller, who was killed in his church in Wichita on May 31, will reopen. Tiller had long been targeted because he performed late abortions — those in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.
Few doctors perform the procedures, and some abortion rights advocates worry what will happen if Tiller's clinic does not reopen.
A well-known Nebraska doctor who worked with Tiller, LeRoy Carhart, quickly reacted after the killing, saying he'd like the Wichita clinic to begin seeing patients again.
"My prayers are that it will. My hopes are that it will," Carhart says.
Tiller's family released a statement saying no final decision has been made about the long-term plans for the practice. Carhart, who has worked at Tiller's clinic for the past four years, says it's a tough time.
"This is a job that we took, and we were well-aware of the risks when we started, as was Dr. Tiller," Carhart says. "It's a service that's so needed that it's worth the risks."
Concern For Patients
There are few places for women to go if they are seeking abortions later in pregnancy. Carhart says there are perhaps 10 providers across the country, including a few hospitals that do not advertise their services.
Pratima Gupta, an obstetrician-gynecologist in California, says there is concern about what will happen to Tiller's patients.
"You know, Dr. Tiller had patients that were scheduled for Monday morning. What happened to those patients for the rest of the week, the rest of the month? Those patients are the ones who need us," Gupta says.
Late abortions are rare. The Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive health research organization, says they amount to less than 1 percent of abortions performed in the United States. Elizabeth Nash of Guttmacher says most states have restrictions on the procedures.
"Thirty-seven states have enacted laws that limit access to abortion after a certain point in gestation, usually around 24 weeks, which is at the end of the second trimester. And then [those states] only allow abortions after that in cases to save her life or if her physical health is endangered," Nash says.
Many doctors do not perform late abortions. Most are not trained to do them; others don't want to be trained. Doctors who do perform the procedures are often older, and they end up in the spotlight like Tiller, facing extreme pressure from abortion protesters.
Wichita has long been the flashpoint in the battle over abortion.
"This is the nation's largest late-term abortion clinic," says Troy Newman, whose Operation Rescue group moved to Wichita seven years ago.
Newman says he uses legal methods to shut down clinics. He persuaded a former Kansas attorney general to file charges against Tiller for allegedly performing illegal abortions. Tiller was acquitted, but a state licensing board was still investigating him.
"It's been tough on a lot of people that have worked tirelessly to see Mr. Tiller brought to justice the proper way. This isn't justice. This is vigilantism. This is a cowardly act," Newman says.
Newman says Scott Roeder, 51, the man charged with Tiller's murder, is not a member of his group. He says Operation Rescue's senior policy adviser, Cheryl Sullenger, did speak with Roeder and many others about Tiller's recent trial.
"It looks as though [Roeder] was one of those people that called our information line to ask what time court started. But other than that — and a posting on our Web site several years ago — we virtually had no contact with this person," Newman says.
Sullenger pleaded guilty in the 1980s to conspiring to bomb a clinic in San Diego, but Newman says Sullenger renounced her actions.
Flip Benham of Operation Save America has been protesting at clinics for decades, trying to shut down Tiller's clinic and others. Benham says it wasn't the protests but laws taking activists off the streets that led to the killing of doctors.
"What happens [is] you've placed a lid on a boiling pot. It's going to blow somewhere and unfortunately it has, you know, four times in this country," says Benham.
Since 1993, four doctors have been killed — two at clinics, one at his home and Tiller at his church.