The "Shrewd and Resourceful" Partial-Birth Abortion Provider George Tiller, Provider of "Sensitive Care"
Sunday's mammoth above-the-fold front-page story was a slanted history of the abortion wars in Wichita, Kansas -wars that ended two months ago with the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller, notorious for openly providing partial-birth abortions, and the closing of his clinic.
Reporter David Barstow won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for what the Prize Committee called
...his tenacious reporting that revealed how some retired generals, working as radio and television analysts, had been co-opted by the Pentagon to make its case for the war in Iraq, and how many of them also had undisclosed ties to companies that benefited from policies they defended.
One clue: Barstow never used the term "partial-birth abortion" to describe a procedure in which a living fetus is pulled feet first out of the womb and the base of the skull punctured with a surgical instrument. Not even an abortion opponent is quoted calling the procedure partial-birth abortion. Barstow used the less controversial and less accurate phrase "late-term abortion" instead.
Barstow clearly admired Tiller's resourcefulness.
It did not take long for anti-abortionleaders to realize thatGeorge R. Tillerwas more formidable than other doctors they had tried to shut down.
Shrewd and resourceful, Dr. Tiller made himself the nation's pre-eminent abortion practitioner, advertising widely and drawing women to Wichita from all over with his willingness to perform late-term abortions, hundreds each year. As anti-abortion activists discovered, he gave as good as he got, wearing their contempt as a badge of honor. A "warrior," they called him with grudging respect.
And so for more than 30 years the anti-abortion movement threw everything into driving Dr. Tiller out of business, certain that his defeat would deal a devastating blow to the "abortion industry" that has terminated roughly 50 million pregnancies since Roe v. Wade in 1973.
They blockaded his clinic; campaigned to have him prosecuted; boycotted his suppliers; tailed him with hidden cameras; branded him "Tiller the baby killer"; hit him with lawsuits, legislation and regulatory complaints; and protested relentlessly, even at his church. Some sent flowers pleading for him to quit. Some sent death threats. One bombed his clinic. Another tried to kill him in 1993, firing five shots, wounding both arms.
In short, they made George Tiller's clinic the nation's most visible abortion battleground, a magnet for activists from all corners of the country.
Dr. Tiller would not budge.
Instead he dug in, pouring his considerable profits into expanding his clinic and installing security cameras, bulletproof glass, metal detectors, fencing and floodlights. He hired armed guards, bought a bulletproof vest and drove an armored S.U.V. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on some of the state's best lawyers and recruited an intensely loyal staff that dubbed itself Team Tiller. He lobbied politicians with large donations and photographs of severely deformed fetuses.
Then abortion foe Scott Roeder shot and killed Tiller while Tiller was serving as an usher at church.
Abortion opponents are bracing for a drop in support, especially from those in the murky middle ground of the debate. Worse yet, after years of persuading supporters to work within the law, they say they have already lost credibility among the most ardent abortion opponents who cannot help pointing out that one gunman achieved what all their protests and prayers could not.
"The credit is going to go to him," Mark S. Gietzen, chairman of the Kansas Coalition for Life, said of Mr. Roeder. "There are people who are agreeing with him."
Advocates of abortion rights, meanwhile, are reeling from the loss of one of their most experienced and savviest leaders. One of only three doctors in the United States who openly and regularly performed late-term abortions, Dr. Tiller mentored abortion providers across the country. Some of the nation's most influential women's groups celebrated him as an American hero.
After implying Tiller was being unfairly targeted with "an endless supply of fresh accusations," Barstow passed along some positive notices from women with sympathetic stories who went to Tiller for abortions:
Jacki G., 29, went to Dr. Tiller for an abortion in 1996 after she was raped. She can still remember her trepidation when she and her mother pulled up to the clinic a few weeks into her pregnancy.
In middle school in Wichita, she said, children chanted "Tiller, Tiller, the baby killer." She recalled the gory Truth Trucks driving around town and the 1991 "Summer of Mercy" protests, when hundreds were arrested for blockading Dr. Tiller's clinic.
"It makes an impression," she said.
Not only did she fear the protesters, she also worried about whether Dr. Tiller would be gruff and cold, "only in it for the money," as his critics alleged. It was almost a shock, she said, to instead meet a slightly nerdy doctor who gently explained every step and kept asking, "Are you doing O.K.?"
Finally, deep into the story, Barstow spelled out why Tiller attracted such fierce opposition:
But the other 2,800 abortions involved viable fetuses. Some had serious but survivable abnormalities, likeDown syndrome. Many were perfectly healthy.
Like many states, Kansas has long placed limits on late-term abortions of viable fetuses. They can be done only to save the woman's life or because continuing the pregnancy would cause her a "substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function," a phrase that Kansas legal authorities, citingUnited States Supreme Courtcases, have said encompasses the woman's physical andmental health. The state also requires the approval of a second Kansas physician "not legally or financially affiliated" with the doctor performing the abortion.
Still Barstow emphasized Tiller's care and took the word of his staffers as unimpeachable:
When late-term abortions were done, Dr. Tiller typically injected a lethal drug into the fetus's heart, then induced labor after the heart stopped. The entire process typically took several days, and many patients have written tributes about the sensitive care they received.
The casualties of the abortion procedures had no comment.
Abortion opponents focused on a different aspect of the procedure: the fees. Describing Dr. Tiller's "decadent, lavish lifestyle," an Operation Rescue Web site included a photograph of his 8,500-square-foot home.
Based on Dr. Tiller's sworn testimony, his clinic grossed at least $1.5 million in 2003 from late-term abortions, a small fraction of the total number of abortions his clinic performed. On average, he charged $6,000 for a late-term abortion, and by his calculation the clinic's profit margin was 38 percent.
Barstow briefly raised concerns from Paul McHugh, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, only to explain them away:
Nonetheless, Dr. McHugh's interview raised the question of whether Dr. Tiller had used readily treatable mental health maladies as a pretext to justify late-term abortions.
According to Dr. McHugh, the files he saw contained diagnoses likeadjustment disorder, anxietyanddepressionthat to his eyes were not "substantial and irreversible." He also claimed that some women offered "trivial" reasons for wanting an abortion, like a desire to play sports. "I can only tell you," he said in his taped interview, "that from these records, anybody could have gotten an abortion if they wanted one."
Yet Dr. McHugh's description of the files left out crucial bits of context. He failed to mention, for example, that one patient was a 10-year-old girl, 28 weeks pregnant, who had been raped by an adult relative. Asked about this omission by The New York Times, Dr. McHugh said that while the girl's case was "terrible," it did not change his assessment: "She did not have something irreversible that abortion could correct." (Dr. Tiller's lawyers, who have called Dr. McHugh's description of the patient files "deeply misleading," declined to discuss their contents.)
Barstow seemed genuinely perturbed that no Kansas politician wanted to pay tribute to the proud partial-birth abortionist Tiller. While Barstow passed alongquotes fromsome who werejubilantabout Tiller's murder, he failed to remind readersthat virtually all the national pro-life groups strongly condemned the shooting.
Not a single Kansas politician of statewide prominence showed up the next morning for Dr. Tiller's funeral, which drew 1,200 mourners. Nor were any at Reformation Lutheran the next day, the first Sunday service after his death.