Special Reports

Life experiences shaped Tiller's career

Editor's note: Judy L. Thomas, a reporter for the Kansas City Star, is co-author of "Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War." Some of her interviews with George Tiller occurred while Thomas covered the abortion issue for The Wichita Eagle from 1988 to 1995; others she conducted after moving to the Kansas City Star.

George Tiller planned to become a much lower-profile doctor -- a dermatologist, in fact.

Instead, he became a late-term abortion doctor who enraged many conservatives nationwide. Yet he registered for decades as a Republican.

And he provided adoptions, not just abortions, to some women with unwanted pregnancies. But he gave the babies only to families who supported abortion rights.

It's hard to find neutral opinions about late-term abortions or Tiller, whose funeral was Saturday.

But somewhere between the polar views about him, Tiller lived a life more complex than the harsh glare of his public history might suggest.

Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, an abortion opponent, discovered a different Tiller than she expected when she met him during a tour of his clinic in 1997.

"You expect to see an individual with horns and a tail," she told the Star this week. "Here is a man that looks like any other man. He was a very polite, cordial, soft-spoken individual. He's still a person."

Early days

Tiller was born Aug. 8, 1941, at Wesley Medical Center in Wichita. As a boy, he accompanied his father, physician Jack Dean Tiller, on house calls.

"I remember very vividly how the family doctor was treated," he later said. "Here was someone important, someone who, if not placed on a pedestal, was treated with a great deal of respect. I wanted that."

He graduated from Wichita East High School in 1959 and attended the University of Kansas on a swimming scholarship. He received a zoology degree in 1963 and graduated from the University of Kansas School of Medicine in 1967. After graduating from the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute Flight Surgeon School, he spent more than a year as a U.S. Navy flight surgeon.

Then his life took a series of unlikely turns.

In 1970, his parents, sister and brother-in-law were killed in a plane crash on their way to a convention in British Columbia.

Tiller received a humanitarian discharge from the Navy and returned to Wichita to take care of his ailing grandmother and his deceased sister's 1-year-old son. He decided to close down his father's clinic and begin a career as a dermatologist.

But after he began seeing some of his father's patients, he decided he was needed because there weren't enough doctors in the area to absorb them all. Instead, he made plans to phase out his father's practice over three years.

It was then that he learned his father had performed illegal abortions, a decision prompted by guilt over the death of a woman he had refused to help.

"Dad had suggested that he had done some terminations of pregnancy back in the '50s and '60s," he said. "Then when I got the practice... I began asking these women if my dad had done an abortion for them. And I find that he did more than one or two or a few."

Tiller decided to keep his father's practice open, and in 1973 -- not long after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Roe v. Wade decision that upheld a woman's right to obtain most abortions -- he performed his first procedures at Wesley Medical Center.

While abortion opponents focused on the lives lost, Tiller's concern became the lives of the mothers.

By 1985, he had phased out much of his family practice to focus on abortion.

When Tiller began performing more complicated late-term abortions in the mid-1980s, his clinic drew patients from across the country and abroad.

Before long, he had gained a national reputation for performing elective abortions through the second trimester. He would perform them beyond that if the fetus had a severe abnormality -- past the point at which a fetus is considered capable of surviving outside the womb.

Kansas placed no restrictions on when abortions could be performed until 1992, and then they were minimal compared to many states.

A law passed in 1998 added more restrictions, forbidding abortions of viable fetuses after the 22nd week of pregnancy unless necessary to save the woman's life or prevent severe and irreversible harm to her physical or mental health. Two independent physicians must also agree that a late-term abortion is necessary.

Abortion opponents have long contended that Tiller performed abortions on viable, healthy fetuses beyond what the law allowed.

"There is no reason to abort a baby who can already live outside the womb," said Mary Kay Culp, director of Kansans for Life.

A Nebraska doctor who worked at Tiller's clinic on a rotating basis said late-term abortions were a small part of the practice.

"Probably in consumption of time, yes, but for the number of patients, it was minuscule," said LeRoy Carhart, of the Abortion and Contraception Clinic of Nebraska. Carhart said that he personally saw five or six patients a week who were more than 24 weeks' gestation, and 40 or 50 patients who were under 24 weeks. Most, he said, were under 12 weeks' gestation.

According to Kansas Department of Health and Environment statistics, 323 abortions in the state were reported to have been performed at 22 weeks or later in 2008, most if not all of them at Tiller's clinic. Of those, 192 were determined to be viable and the reason for the abortion was listed as the woman's health.

'Nature makes mistakes'

In June 1991, the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue hit Wichita, leading to 46 days of clinic blockades that resulted in more than 2,600 arrests of 1,700 protesters. The "Summer of Mercy" drew national attention when a federal judge ordered U.S. marshals to keep the clinic open.

In September 1991, after the protests ended, Tiller granted a rare interview, saying he was tired of the rumors circulating about his practice. He said that contrary to the contentions of abortion protesters, he did not perform elective abortions up to birth.

He opened a desk drawer and pulled out a three-ring notebook.

"These are the things we do," he said, pointing to color snapshots of aborted fetuses. "Hydrocephalus, spina bifida, fused legs, open spine, lethal chromosome abnormality. Nature makes mistakes."

Dave Gittrich, state development director of Kansans for Life, said he had seen Tiller's photos of abnormal fetuses.

"They all still look like babies to me," he said. "And I think many of those children could have led healthy, productive lives if they were given a chance."

Tiller said his patients came from all 50 states and abroad. The walls in the clinic lobby were lined with letters from former patients.

One former patient, Miriam Kleiman, went to Tiller's clinic several years ago after making an anguished decision. She was seven months pregnant with her first child --"a planned pregnancy, a longed-for, desired, wanted pregnancy," she said -- when doctors told her the fetus had severe birth defects.

Kleiman, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, said she was told that she would either have to deliver a dead baby or one doomed to die immediately after birth.

Kleiman and her husband now have two healthy sons.

"He literally gave his life for the cause," she said of Tiller. "I can't imagine what we would have done without Dr. Tiller."

Dozens of other women shared similar stories this past week on numerous Internet tribute sites for Tiller.

But Gittrich said the public doesn't hear stories of women who regret their abortions.

"There's a huge amount of women who have now recognized that abortion was the worst thing they ever did, but you have to admit that you had an abortion in order to say anything publicly," he said, and people with negative feelings about abortion don't do that.

Money from abortions

Some critics have accused Tiller of getting rich from abortions.

He testified in a court case against him this year that he charged an average of $6,000 for late-term abortions and said that in 2003 he performed 250 to 300 of those abortions. Prosecutors said more than 35 percent of his gross income was profit.

Indeed, Tiller did well enough to contribute a small fortune in campaign contributions, giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to help defeat politicians who opposed abortion.

But Tiller's friends and allies said he could have made more money in other medical fields, without any of the controversy or danger that came with providing abortions.

"I know he could have probably made five times the money in family practice and probably spent one one-hundredth of what he paid out in legal fees," Carhart said.

Surprise adoptions

In March 1993, David Gunn, was shot to death outside his abortion clinic in Florida.

Five months later, Tiller himself was the target.

Oregon homemaker Shelley Shannon shot Tiller in both arms as he drove out of his clinic, but it only angered Tiller, who returned to work the next morning with bandages on both arms.

A few months after the shooting, Tiller went public with a story that surprised many -- he also had an adoption service.

He said he had arranged dozens of adoptions for women with healthy pregnancies who were too far along for abortions. The service began in the late 1970s.

But Tiller said he had strict criteria for the adoptions.

"You absolutely, unequivocally have to be pro-choice," he said.

'Can't leave the women'

Susan Hill of North Carolina, who operates four abortion clinics, has known Tiller for 25 years. She said she asked him a couple of weeks ago why he didn't retire considering the threats they had received over the years.

"I said to him, 'Why are you still doing this? Get out and enjoy your family. You're such an obvious target,' " she said.

"He just said, 'I have to. I can't leave the women. There's no one else to help them.' "

Culp, with Kansans for Life, said Tiller was fervent but misguided.

"I think he convinced himself it was the right thing to do, that he was saving women," she said.

Tiller's death raises questions about the future of late-term abortions in the U.S.

Carhart, 67, said he and two other doctors who worked at Tiller's clinic are determined to continue performing them.

"The three of us are committed to the fact that we need to have another clinic in Kansas to continue this practice," he said. "I don't know how it will happen, but I will pray that it happens."

Tiller's family said Tuesday that the clinic would be closed indefinitely. They declined interview requests.

In a 1991 interview, Tiller said he would perform abortions for as long as he was able. He insisted that despite the risks he constantly faced, he was not a victim.

"I am a willing participant in this conflict," he said. "I choose to be here."