Marking the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a small group gathered Tuesday morning at George Tiller’s clinic and called the doctor a courageous man for giving women a choice.

An Operation Rescue truck sat parked in the background, featuring pictures of aborted fetuses. That group has been pushing for criminal charges against Tiller.

Wichita Stands with Dr. Tiller, described by spokeswoman Diane Wahto as a coalition of abortion-rights groups, lauded Tiller for his service to women despite facing what they termed harassment, intimidation and violence from abortion opponents.

The group held a short news conference, Wahto said, to remind others that challenges to Roe v. Wade “will never stop women from seeking control over their own bodies.”

On Monday, Troy Newman, the leader of Operation Rescue, held a news conference accusing prosecutors of not enforcing laws governing late-term abortions.

Tuesday, Wichita lawyer Dan Monnat, who has represented Tiller in grand jury investigations into his practice at Women’s Health Care Services, said Roe v. Wade “might just be pages in a dusty law book” if not for people such as Tiller.

Doctors such as Tiller, Monnat said, use the “power of Roe v. Wade to help women with excruciating decisions.”

Lee Thompson, another Tiller lawyer, pointed to a line between the driveway to Tiller’s clinic on East Kellogg Avenue and a public street.

“This is the front line for the battle of abortion in America,” he said.

Operation Rescue planned a candlelight vigil and prayer service at Tiller’s clinic to mark the anniversary.

All content © 2008 THE WICHITA EAGLE and may not be republished without permission.

The Wichita Eagle

Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle staff reports

The two sides in the nation’s debate on abortion will mark today’s 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade with their usual rallies and speeches.

But this year, there are signs that not all is the same on the national or local level.

The newly configured U.S. Supreme Court rejected a legal challenge in April to the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, allowing the law to go into effect for the first time since it was signed by President Bush in 2003. Some abortion-rights supporters fear the landmark ruling is the first step toward overturning the 1973 law that established a constitutional right to abortion.

In Kansas, grand juries seated through citizen petitions are investigating Planned Parenthood of Overland Park and abortion doctor George Tiller of Wichita.

And a new national study from the Guttmacher Institute shows abortions have dropped to their lowest level since 1974.

Abortion opponents are pleased with what they see.

“It’s been a long fight and a very hard-fought fight on both sides,” said Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life. “So I am encouraged, but I’m always cautious” about predicting what the future holds.

ProKanDo director Julie Burkhart, whose group supports abortion rights, finds the high court ruling and the grand jury investigations disheartening.

“Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land and has been for 35 years,” Burkhart said, “but we have seen a constant chipping away” by abortion opponents.

The partial-birth abortion ban sets the stage for Roe v. Wade to be overturned, she said, or at least stripped of many of its protections. The ban lacks an exception to protect a woman’s health, according to its interpretation by Roe v. Wade supporters.

Status of abortion rights 

Burkhart and the Kansas organizer for the National Organization for Women say the chipping away of reproductive rights is obvious in Sedgwick and Johnson counties, where grand juries are in session.

NOW organizer Marla Patrick of Lindsborg said abortion opponents have taken an “antiquated” Kansas law that allows citizens to seat grand juries and used it to harass Tiller and Planned Parenthood.

Abortion opponents have put a lot of roadblocks in Kansas and elsewhere, Patrick said, but she does not think they will ever succeed in criminalizing abortion.

However, Troy Newman, leader of Operation Rescue, believes that the picture of abortion is much different today than it was in the early 1990s.

“Honestly, the pro-life movement has never been sitting in a better position to win this battle,” Newman said.

The grand jury now meeting in Wichita has helped keep pressure on Tiller when prosecutors and lawmakers did not, he said.

“A grand jury, hopefully, would provide an independent investigation, because the prosecutors in this state are not prosecuting the law, on its face,” Newman said.

Dan Monnat, a Wichita lawyer who represents Tiller, said that local and state prosecutors have found little wrong with the doctor’s practices, as has the state Board of Healing Arts.

“Unfortunately, there are a small number of extremely loud people who have organized a no-holds-barred campaign designed to take these rights away from women,” Monnat said.

The abortion controversy remains at center stage in Wichita because Tiller is one of the few in the country who performs late abortions, he said.

A new tactic 

Monday, on the eve of the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Operation Rescue announced that it was starting a new tactic.

Newman, and Cheryl Sullinger, also of Operation Rescue, have been taking pictures of some of the women, who they think look like they’re in their late stages of pregnancy, entering Tiller’s clinic.

Monday, Operation Rescue posted pictures of women on its Web site. Their faces were obscured.

Newman said these are patients of Tiller seeking to abort their pregnancies.

“It’s an abortion clinic,” he said. “They perform abortions.”

Not every woman who goes to into the Women’s Health Services clinic goes there for an abortion, Monnat said. And posting their photographs publicly puts them in danger.

“You and I may not be able to recognize the women, but they now have to shoulder the burden of worrying about whether a relative, a pastor, a teacher, an abusive partner or a work colleague may recognize them as they entered doctor Tiller’s clinic on a specified date,” Monnat said.

“These women, if indeed they are even patients, did absolutely nothing wrong and did nothing to justify being subjected to public scrutiny,” Monnat said. “They simply, at most, sought health care, to which they are entitled under the laws of the United States.”

The demonstrations continue today.

A group of Tiller’s supporters plan a public demonstration from 7 to 10 a.m. today in front of Tiller’s clinic, 5107 E. Kellogg.

Operation Rescue will hold a candlelight vigil and prayer service at 6 p.m. today outside the clinic.

All content © 2008 THE WICHITA EAGLE and may not be republished without permission.

A citizen-petitioned grand jury investigating Wichita abortion provider George Tiller has heard from abortion opponents who want to close Tiller’s clinic, according to a spokeswoman for an anti-abortion group.

Jurors this week heard from David Gittrich, state development director for Kansas for Life, and Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue. Grand jury testimony is secret, and the two anti-abortion activists have sworn an oath not to discuss their testimonies.

Operation Rescue spokeswoman Cheryl Sullenger said Gittrich testified Monday and Newman testified Wednesday. She showed the Associated Press the contents of binders the group was preparing for each grand juror before Newman’s testimony and said later the grand jury allowed the binders in.

The binders — which included dated, blurred photographs of women purportedly in their late pregnancies — were designed to prompt the grand jury to subpoena their medical records, Sullenger said. The medical records obtained earlier by former Attorney General Phill Kline were of 2003 abortions, and the group wants the grand jury to look at late-term abortions still being performed at the clinic.

“We are not going to have prosecution of late-term abortion without them subpoenaing medical records,” Sullenger said.

Tiller’s defense attorneys, Lee Thompson and Dan Monnat, issued a statement Friday denouncing the grand jury investigation as a “grandstand for anti-choice zealots” when told by the AP of the testimony and binders.

“It’s hard to think of anything more telling of the true nature of this grand jury proceeding than having the self-appointed leader of Operation Rescue testify. What is supposed to be a legal proceeding has now devolved into a bonfire for religious and political zealots by which to preach against women’s right to abortion,” the attorneys said in a joint statement.

Tiller’s attorneys contend the grand jury has been “poisoned” by Newman’s rhetoric and anything it does now lacks credibility and any semblance of a fair and impartial deliberation.

Gittrich declined to discuss his grand jury testimony other than to tell the AP he provided jurors with his own documentation. “All I can say is they seemed a pretty conscientious group of people seeking the truth,” he said.

Among the contents of the binders Newman gave the grand jury were copies of the thwarted criminal complaint filed by Kline against Tiller, as well as information from Paul McHugh, the former director of the psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Kline hired McHugh to review patient records before that case was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.

The binders also included copies of the citizen petition that formed the grand jury, showing a request for an independent prosecutor to lead the investigation. Abortion opponents had demanded a special prosecutor because of what they claim is Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston’s failure to investigate Tiller’s abortion practices.

Also in the binder were photos of women apparently in the late terms of their pregnancies. The photos were taken by telephoto lens as the women went into the clinic. The photos were dated from Sept. 4 to Nov. 13 of last year. The women’s faces were blurred in the photos to protect their identities.

“We can feel sorry for these women because of their situations, but it is not legal,” Sullenger said. The group plans a news conference Monday to publicly release the photographs.

“That Operation Rescue would make public photos of women seeking health care, shows its utter disregard for the privacy rights of women and demonstrates that it will stoop to any level to forward its political agenda,” Tiller’s defense attorneys said.

Kansas law restricts abortions performed after the 21st week of pregnancy, when a fetus can survive outside the womb. In those cases, two doctors must conclude that a woman faces death or “substantial and irreversible” harm to a major bodily function.

Sullenger conceded the photographs given to the grand jury do not prove the late-term abortions performed on those women were illegal.

“What we are doing is drawing a circumstantial-evidence case,” Sullenger said.

All content © 2008 THE WICHITA EAGLE and may not be republished without permission.

Associated Press

Before a Sedgwick County judge swore in a grand jury Tuesday, both sides of the investigation into a Wichita abortion clinic cried foul.

Retired Judge Paul Buchanan declined to hear attempts by both sides to impede the process of empaneling a 15-member grand jury on a petition from abortion opponents to investigate the Women’s Health Care Services.

Kansans for Life and Operation Rescue are upset that the prosecutor in charge of guiding the grand jury works for Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston, a Democrat.

On Tuesday, they asked Buchanan to dismiss Foulston’s office and appoint special counsel.

Ann Swegle, a deputy district attorney under Foulston, is the prosecutor of record for the grand jury, according to the instructions given to the panel Tuesday.

Although grand jury investigations are closed, some of the filings, such as the instructions, are public.

Meanwhile, the attorneys for abortion provider George Tiller have filed repeated motions — from calling the grand jury “a witch hunt” to trying to prevent it from being empaneled.

Tiller is a doctor who performs late-term abortions. The anti-abortion groups want the grand jury to charge Tiller with violating state abortion laws.

Buchanan declined to hear arguments on the motions by either side, after Swegle pointed out that the law provides for no outside parties to make pleadings during a grand jury hearing.

Buchanan explained to jurors Tuesday that they, not the government, were in charge.

“You are not obliged to investigate any matter you choose not to investigate,” the jury’s instructions read.

The public has been able to petition to seat grand juries in Kansas since 1887. Prosecutors answer legal questions and help produce witnesses and evidence sought by the jurors.

That differs from federal law, under which prosecutors decide which cases to bring to a grand jury.

“State grand juries don’t need the signature of a prosecutor to file charges,” Buchanan told The Eagle.

The leader for Operation Rescue said he hoped for an aggressive prosecutor for this grand jury. That’s why Troy Newman said his group and Kansans for Life sought to disqualify Foulston’s office.

“We have a serious situation of the appearance of impropriety,” Newman said Tuesday.

Anti-abortion groups see Foulston as aligned with abortion rights supporters. Foulston has said the duty of her office is to follow the law.

Anti-abortion groups empaneled a grand jury in the spring of 2006 to look into the death of a woman who had visited Tiller’s clinic. The grand jury brought no charges in the woman’s death, echoing the findings of state medical authorities. The groups publicly blamed Swegle for not pushing the charges.

That fall, then-Attorney General Phill Kline tried to file criminal charges against Tiller in Wichita. Foulston pointed to a state law that said Kline needed her permission to file a case in her district. A district judge sided with Foulston and dismissed the charges.

“It’s all about abortion politics and abortion money,” Newman said. “The public has lost trust in this DA”

Tiller’s lawyers, meanwhile, said there would be no investigation without the push from the two anti-abortion groups.

“Hopefully the grand jurors will very quickly see that this proceeding is a political witch hunt brought by a few people who disagree with a woman’s constitutional right to choose, decide not to squander taxpayer money on it and go home,” said Wichita attorney Dan Monnat, who represents Tiller.

Grand juries may determine their own schedules but have 90 days in which to conduct their investigation. If they need more time, a judge has to approve it.

Tiller still faces 19 misdemeanor charges filed in June, accusing him of having an improper business relationship with another doctor who gave second opinions on late-term abortions at the clinic.

Both sides in that case are awaiting a judge’s ruling on a motion by Tiller to dismiss those charges.

Reach Ron Sylvester at 316-268-6514 or [email protected]. All content © 2008 THE WICHITA EAGLE and may not be republished without permission.