Saving a Last Resort

Katherine Spillar

With anti-abortion forces bearing down on him, Dr. George Tiller fights for his patients’ privacy -- and their lives.

Mary
was more than 22 weeks pregnant in 2003 when she was told the baby she was
carrying had a rare and severe fetal abnormality that would cause it to live in
a vegetative state, if it survived at all. In disbelief, she consulted with
several additional doctors and specialists hoping there had been a mistake;
this was a long-hoped-for pregnancy. But in the final analysis, with the
support of her partner, she decided she would terminate.

For women
like Mary (not her real name) who are diagnosed with severe fetal anomalies
late in their pregnancies, or whose late-term pregnancies threaten their
health, there are few doctors and clinics willing to perform later-term
abortions. In order to get the medical care she needed, Mary had to travel from
her home in the Midwest to Wichita,
Kan., where she was seen by Dr.
George Tiller of Women’s Health Care Services.

Having
received "compassionate" care at the clinic, Mary was distressed to learn
earlier this year that a Wichita grand jury,
investigating whether Tiller had violated Kansas abortion laws, had subpoenaed the
private medical records of approximately 2,000 patients who had visited Women’s
Health Care Services over the previous four and a half years. The grand jury
had been convened as a result of a petition drive by Kansans for Life and the
extremist anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, who gathered more than the
roughly 4,000 signatures required under an 1887 state law that allows citizens to empanel grand juries.

The
Center for Reproductive Rights, a nonprofit legal advocacy group, now
represents the 2,000-some women patients in their efforts to halt the grand
jury’s access to their medical records. "This is nothing more than a fishing
expedition spurred on by anti-choice zealots," says Bonnie Scott Jones, the
Center’s lead attorney on the case. "It has nothing to do with any legitimate
investigation of possible crimes-it is simply a gross and cruel intrusion on
extremely private moments in the lives of these women and their families."

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Mary and
several other former patients have submitted official affidavits in support of
the Center’s lawsuit to quash the subpoena, fearing that their personal
records, once placed in the hands of a grand jury, could also find their way to
the general public. And they have good reason for concern: During a prior grand
jury investigation of Tiller, evidence was disclosed by a member of the grand jury
to Operation Rescue. Having already endured "highly aggressive" harassment by
anti-abortion protesters when she visited Tiller’s clinic, Mary worries about
the safety of herself and her family if her identity becomes known. "I am being
forced to open these wounds in a new and fresh way, to relive it like this,"
she explains in her affidavit.

Operation
Rescue is also trying to insert itself into the current grand jury
investigation: When the organization’s president, Troy Newman, testified before
the grand jury, he offered photographs of patients taken with a high-powered
lens as they entered Tiller’s clinic. He says he urged the grand jury to
subpoena and examine Tiller’s patient records from a four year period, between
2004 and 2007. Shortly after his testimony, the grand jury issued its subpoena
of the patient records.

"This
latest grand jury is part of a new strategy of anti-abortion ideologues to use
the court system as a tool of harassment and abuse of Dr. Tiller and other Kansas abortion
providers," says Laura Shaneyfelt, of Monnat & Spurrier, one of Tiller’s
lawyers. She points out that previous attempts to prosecute him for violations
of Kansas abortion law have been resolved in his favor-but his opponents appear
willing to stop at almost nothing to drive Tiller out of practice, in court or
out of it.

In 1985,
Tiller’s clinic was bombed, causing $100,000 in damages. In 1991, it was the
target of Operation Rescue’s "Summer of Mercy" siege for more than six weeks; U.S. Marshals
were eventually ordered in by the district court judge when local police failed
to keep the clinic open. In 1993, Tiller survived an assassination attempt by
an Army of God follower who had participated in Operation Rescue’s 1991
blockades, suffering gunshot wounds in both arms. His clinic has also been
vandalized and his staff tracked to their homes, their garbage rifled through.

So
intense is the focus on Tiller that Newman moved to Wichita
from Southern California in 2002 with the
declared intention of closing down the clinic. Former Kansas Attorney General
Phill Kline, an ardent opponent of abortion, has been on a similar mission. For
more than two years, Tiller was relentlessly investigated by Kline, who
ultimately filed 30 criminal counts alleging Tiller illegally performed later
abortions. All the charges were eventually dismissed by a state court judge-and
now Kline has been criticized for
allegedly withholding exculpatory evidence when he filed his charges.

Kline was
defeated in his re-election bid, but his successor
charged Tiller with 19 new misdemeanors, claiming that he failed to follow Kansas law when securing
the second opinion required for later-term abortions. Each charge carries a
maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $2,500 fine, and could cost Dr.
Tiller his medical license.

Tiller’s
attorneys maintain he is innocent, and also that the Kansas State Board of
Healing Arts (the state’s medical oversight body) knew and had approved of his
practices in regard to second-opinion physicians.

Moreover,
his attorneys believe that the statute requiring a second Kansas physician’s approval of an abortion
violates the federal and state constitution since it infringes on a physician’s
right to practice medicine and places an unreasonable burden on a woman’s right
to access a lawful abortion. "Every challenge to a state law mandating a second
approving physician has been held unconstitutional," says Shaneyfelt.

Although
Dr. Tiller remains the primary target of anti-abortion extremists in Kansas, Operation Rescue, along with other anti-choice
groups, also gathered enough signatures to empanel a grand jury to investigate
the Planned Parenthood clinic in Overland Park,
a suburb of Kansas City.
Following a court fight over patient records similar to that in the Tiller
investigation, that grand jury disbanded in early March, concluding there was
no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

However,
the relentless Phill Kline, now the appointed district attorney for Johnson
County (which includes Overland Park), has recently charged the Planned
Parenthood clinic with 23 felonies and 84 misdemeanors, alleging the clinic
falsified records and performed illegal late-term abortions. Planned Parenthood
is vigorously contesting these charges.

Meanwhile,
the Kansas State Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments about the records
subpoenas from Tiller’s office in April; it’s unclear when it will make a
ruling. If the anti-abortion forces succeed in their mission to close down
Tiller, the impact will be far from local. It will reverberate around the
country, as women like Mary will lose one of the last places they can turn to
for help.

Related Posts

This article first appeared in the Spring issue of Ms. magazine, available on newsstands and by subscription from www.msmagazine.com.

News Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquiries from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.

Culture & Conversation Family

‘Abortion and Parenting Needs Can Coexist’: A Q&A With Parker Dockray

Carole Joffe

"Why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place?"

In May 2015, the longstanding and well-regarded pregnancy support talkline Backline launched a new venture. The Oakland-based organization opened All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center, a Bloomington, Indiana, drop-in center that offers adoption information, abortion referrals, and parenting support. Its mission: to break down silos and show that it is possible to support all options and all families under one roof—even in red-state Indiana, where Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence signed one of the country’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws.

To be sure, All-Options is hardly the first organization to point out the overlap between women terminating pregnancies and those continuing them. For years, the reproductive justice movement has insisted that the defense of abortion must be linked to a larger human rights framework that assures that all women have the right to have children and supportive conditions in which to parent them. More than 20 years ago, Rachel Atkins, then the director of the Vermont Women’s Center, famously described for a New York Times reporter the women in the center’s waiting room: “The country really suffers from thinking that there are two different kinds of women—women who have abortions and women who have babies. They’re the same women at different times.”

While this concept of linking the needs of all pregnant women—not just those seeking an abortion—is not new, there are actually remarkably few agencies that have put this insight into practice. So, more than a year after All-Options’ opening, Rewire checked in with Backline Executive Director Parker Dockray about the All-Options philosophy, the center’s local impact, and what others might consider if they are interested in creating similar programs.

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Rewire: What led you and Shelly Dodson (All-Options’ on-site director and an Indiana native) to create this organization?

PD: In both politics and practice, abortion is so often isolated and separated from other reproductive experiences. It’s incredibly hard to find organizations that provide parenting or pregnancy loss support, for example, and are also comfortable and competent in supporting people around abortion.

On the flip side, many abortion or family planning organizations don’t provide much support for women who want to continue a pregnancy or parents who are struggling to make ends meet. And yet we know that 60 percent of women having an abortion already have at least one child; in our daily lives, these issues are fundamentally connected. So why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place? That’s what All-Options is about.

We see the All-Options model as a game-changer not only for clients, but also for volunteers and community supporters. All-Options allows us to transcend the stale pro-choice/pro-life debate and invites people to be curious and compassionate about how abortion and parenting needs can coexist .… Our hope is that All-Options can be a catalyst for reproductive justice and help to build a movement that truly supports people in all their options and experiences.

Rewire: What has been the experience of your first year of operations?

PD: We’ve been blown away with the response from clients, volunteers, donors, and partner organizations …. In the past year, we’ve seen close to 600 people for 2,400 total visits. Most people initially come to All-Options—and keep coming back—for diapers and other parenting support. But we’ve also provided hundreds of free pregnancy tests, thousands of condoms, and more than $20,000 in abortion funding.

Our Hoosier Abortion Fund is the only community-based, statewide fund in Indiana and the first to join the National Network of Abortion Funds. So far, we’ve been able to support 60 people in accessing abortion care in Indiana or neighboring states by contributing to their medical care or transportation expenses.

Rewire: Explain some more about the centrality of diaper giveaways in your program.

PD: Diaper need is one of the most prevalent yet invisible forms of poverty. Even though we knew that in theory, seeing so many families who are struggling to provide adequate diapers for their children has been heartbreaking. Many people are surprised to learn that federal programs like [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC] and food stamps can’t be used to pay for diapers. And most places that distribute diapers, including crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), only give out five to ten diapers per week.

All-Options follows the recommendation of the National Diaper Bank Network in giving families a full pack of diapers each week. We’ve given out more than 4,000 packs (150,000 diapers) this year—and we still have 80 families on our waiting list! Trying to address this overwhelming need in a sustainable way is one of our biggest challenges.

Rewire: What kind of reception has All-Options had in the community? Have there been negative encounters with anti-choice groups?

PD: Diapers and abortion funding are the two pillars of our work. But diapers have been a critical entry point for us. We’ve gotten support and donations from local restaurants, elected officials, and sororities at Indiana University. We’ve been covered in the local press. Even the local CPC refers people to us for diapers! So it’s been an important way to build trust and visibility in the community because we are meeting a concrete need for local families.

While All-Options hasn’t necessarily become allies with places that are actively anti-abortion, we do get lots of referrals from places I might describe as “abortion-agnostic”—food banks, domestic violence agencies, or homeless shelters that do not have a position on abortion per se, but they want their clients to get nonjudgmental support for all their options and needs.

As we gain visibility and expand to new places, we know we may see more opposition. A few of our clients have expressed disapproval about our support of abortion, but more often they are surprised and curious. It’s just so unusual to find a place that offers you free diapers, baby clothes, condoms, and abortion referrals.

Rewire: What advice would you give to others who are interested in opening such an “all-options” venture in a conservative state?

PD: We are in a planning process right now to figure out how to best replicate and expand the centers starting in 2017. We know we want to open another center or two (or three), but a big part of our plan will be providing a toolkit and other resources to help people use the all-options approach.

The best advice we have is to start where you are. Who else is already doing this work locally, and how can you work together? If you are an abortion fund or clinic, how can you also support the parenting needs of the women you serve? Is there a diaper bank in your area that you could refer to or partner with? Could you give out new baby packages for people who are continuing a pregnancy or have a WIC eligibility worker on-site once a month? If you are involved with a childbirth or parenting organization, can you build a relationship with your local abortion fund?

How can you make it known that you are a safe space to discuss all options and experiences? How can you and your organization show up in your community for diaper need and abortion coverage and a living wage?

Help people connect the dots. That’s how we start to change the conversation and create support.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify the spelling of Shelly Dodson’s name.

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