For activists on both sides of the debate over legalized abortion, the criminal trial of Dr. George Tiller, which begins today in Wichita, is an oddly unfulfilling culmination of a struggle that has wrenched Kansas for years.
Tiller, 67, is one of a handful of doctors in the country who terminate very late-term pregnancies. He virtually has become Public Enemy No. 1 to people who oppose abortion. For years, prosecutors and activists have tried to bring him down, and for years, Tiller has survived legal and physical challenges.
In 1986, his clinic was bombed. In 1991, it was blockaded for six weeks. In 1993, he was shot in both arms by an abortion opponent. He has been investigated twice by grand juries that have found no cause to charge him with crimes.
Relentlessly pursued by then-Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline, a Republican, Tiller was charged in 2006 with illegally performing late-term abortions. The charges were dropped due to a technicality about jurisdiction.
Kline was a lame duck by the time he filed the charges against Tiller. A month earlier, Kansas voters, tired of what they perceived as Kline's intrusiveness — which included a successful, years-long fight to obtain some of Tiller's patient records — turned him out of office in favor of Democrat Paul Morrison, who favors abortion rights.
But the following year, to the delight of abortion foes, Morrison charged Tiller with 19 misdemeanor counts of violating a technical aspect of the 1998 Kansas law that regulates late-term abortions.
If Kansans were surprised by Morrison's filing charges against Tiller in 2007, they were even more surprised later that year when the attorney general was accused of sexual harassment by a female subordinate with whom he had had a two-year extramarital affair.
He resigned in 2008.
The Democrat appointed to replace Morrison as attorney general, Steve Six, inherited the Tiller prosecution.
"The Attorney General's Office is not very excited about this case," said Joseph Aistrup, a political science professor at Kansas State University. "If Tiller is convicted and it does lead to his clinic being shut down, the ironic twist is almost overwhelming. It would be a pro-choice attorney general that shut him down."
"It's sort of a weak ending to a very intense drama," said Peter Brownlie, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri.
"In some respects," said Aistrup, the political science professor, "most of us in Kansas would prefer that Tiller go away — not because of opposition or support for what he does, but the publicity has been so negative over the course of time."