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Kansas doctor faces criminal charges over late-term abortions

One of the few doctors who still performs late-term abortions in the United States, George Tiller has been picketed, bombed and shot in the arms.

world Updated: Mar 22, 2009 07:22 IST

One of the few doctors who still performs late-term abortions in the United States, George Tiller has been picketed, bombed and shot in the arms.

On Monday, he heads to Kansas court to face criminal charges in a case which activists on both side of the decades-long battle over abortion rights say is intended to send a chill through the medical community.

"This case is of critical importance to people in the pro-life movement," said Cheryl Sullenger of prominent anti-abortion group Operation Rescue.

"Women from all over the world come to Wichita for late-term abortions that are illegal or unavailable where they live. We've believed for years that Tiller plays fast and loose with the law."

Diane Wahto, an abortion rights supporter who lives in Wichita, agreed with Sullenger on one point -- Tiller's clinic provides a service most won't.

"His office walls are plastered with letters from women and their families from all over the world thanking him for the care they got here," Wahto told AFP.

"The antis have taken what he's done and made it into something evil when in reality, it's something that women need done for their health."

The case comes at a time when abortion rights activists are celebrating the election of a pro-choice president after eight years of anti-abortion policy from of former president George W Bush's administration.

In response, abortion foes have stepped up their efforts to shut down clinics and restrict access to abortion at the local and state level.

North Dakota's legislature is currently considering a bill that would grant full legal rights of personhood at conception and classify abortion as murder.

Twelve states are currently considering legislation which would require women to view ultrasounds of their fetuses immediately before obtaining an abortion.

Indiana is considering new restrictions on the licensing of abortion providers and West Virginia is considering a ban on using state funds to provide abortions for low-income women.

Like many challenges to abortion providers, the Tiller case does not hinge on the legality of late-term abortions, which are permitted under Kansas law when a woman's health is seriously jeopardized.

Instead, Tiller is accused of having an illegal financial relationship with a second doctor who authorized the late-term abortions he performed.

The 19 misdemeanor counts each carry a possible penalty of one year in prison and a 2,500 dollar fine. The other doctor is not charged in the case.

Prosecutors declined to comment on the case Friday, as did Tiller's lawyer, Dan Monnat who has said he expects Tiller to be acquitted but will appeal if the doctor is convicted.

Tiller, who is in his late 60s, has been demonized by abortion opponents who regularly protest outside his clinic, located just off a busy highway that runs through Wichita.

In 1986, someone placed a bomb on the roof of the clinic, seriously damaging the building. In 1993, Tiller was shot in both arms outside the clinic. Tiller recovered, and his assailant received an 11-year prison term.

About a dozen abortion opponents prayed and protested outside the courthouse during jury selection last week, and a truck plastered with a graphic photograph of an aborted fetus was parked near the entrance.

Operation Rescue - which has battled Tiller's clinic for years and boasts on its website of closing over a dozen clinics nationwide - hopes the trial will finally shut it down.

"If the clinic is closed, that's going to send a message all across the country that abortionists are not above the law and they will be held accountable," Sullenger said.

Wahto accused anti-abortion protesters at the courthouse of trying to influence jurors and said Operation Rescue was exploiting the case to spur donations.

"This is nothing more than a witchhunt," Wahto said, adding that a conviction would not likely not close the clinic owned by Tiller because several other physicians perform abortions there.

"He's the lightning rod because he owns the clinic," Wahto said.

"He's the person that people like (Operation Rescue president) Troy Newman use to rouse their troops to a frenzy, which is unfortunate because it makes his life pretty precarious."