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NATIONAL | fall 2005

The Last Resort
Abortion providers in Kansas and Mississippi hold
ground despite states’ attacks.

Julie Peterson knew something was wrong when she began having severe contractions in her 29th week of pregnancy. She and her husband were eagerly planning for the birth of their second child in October 2004, but her doctor’s diagnosis drew them up short. Julie (not her real name) had developed hydrops, an extremely rare condition in which the fetus is unable to process fluids as a result of anemia or a genetic disorder. The condition had caused the pregnant woman to gain 15 pounds of fluid in her uterus, and if she carried the fetus to term, her doctor said, she could hemorrhage,
become sterile or face far worse: “My life was at risk,” she says.

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Her doctor recommended that she have an abortion, but late-term procedures are not available in New York City, where she lives. “After 24 weeks [of pregnancy], that’s that,” Julie says. “You have no choices in New York state.” In fact, in the entire western hemisphere, there are only two clinics to which women in Julie’s position can go to receive a safe late-term abortion: one in Kansas and one in Colorado. After deliberating for several weeks and consulting other doctors about her fetus’s chance for viability, Julie flew to see Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kan.

Every year, several hundred desperate women from across the country and around the world find their way to Dr. Tiller’s bunkerlike clinic. Dr. Tiller fills a niche that few other doctors would envy but that he is passionately committed to serving: He regularly performs late-second- and third-term abortions for women who are ill, have been raped, are the victims of incest or are carrying fetuses that suffer from genetic abnormalities. Not surprisingly, Tiller has been the target of vociferous anti-abortion protests for years and has come into the crosshairs of violent extremists. His clinic was bombed in 1986, and in 1993 he was shot six times at point-blank range by Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon, an anti-abortion terrorist associated with the Army of God.

For Julie, Tiller’s clinic was a blessing. “I felt very fortunately that I was put into Dr. Tiller’s hands,” says Julie. “I’ve never regretted it.” But today, as Julie enters the last month of another pregnancy, this time without complications, Tiller’s clinic and others like it—clinics of last resort for women who need late-term abortions or don’t have other abortion providers in their state—are under fire from anti-choice state officials who want to shut them down.

Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline, who opposes legalized abortion, has
subpoenaed the complete medical records of about 80 of Tiller’s patients
who underwent late-term abortions, including details of their sexual histories,
contraceptive practices and psychological profiles. Kline says he is looking to prosecute violations of the state’s prohibition on sex with girls under age 16; why, then, did he request the records of women over 16, and only of women who’d had late-term abortions (when Tiller’s clinic offers early abortions as well)?

Abortion-rights supporters accuse Kline of a fishing expedition designed to intimidate women and close practices such as Tiller’s. His clinic has filed a brief in the state Supreme Court to block the subpoena; they are still awaiting the court's decision.

“These wildly intrusive subpoenas are just one more example of how out of control anti-choice politicians have become under President Bush’s leadership,” said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Kansas isn’t the only state where abortion providers are being harassed by anti-choice officials. In Indiana, Attorney General Steve Carter has subpoenaed the records of low-income girls who received family-planning
services in what he claims is an attempt to determine whether clinics are properly reporting sexual abuse of girls under 14.

The end result of such intrusive actions is starkly illustrated in Mississippi, a state that had six abortion providers in 1996 but today is serviced by one lone clinic—the Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Every rule or regulation to hamper access to abortion services exists in the state, from a
24-hour waiting period designed to make getting an abortion a drawn-out
procedure requiring an overnight stay for women who have to travel to the
clinic, to a law requiring minors to have the consent of both parents for an abortion, to the requirement that women seeking to have an abortion be given medically inaccurate information that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. The number of abortions in the state has declined dramatically—from 8,814 in 1991 to 3,605 in 2002—despite the fact that the state has the third highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation.

“Mississippi is a laboratory for anti-abortion regulations,” says Susan Hill, president of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, “They brew it up here because they know no one is going to stop it in the state Legislature. If it works, they send it on to other states.”

The Jackson Women’s Health Organization is regularly harassed by officials—not a surprise in a state where the governor declared the week leading up to the anniversary of Roe v. Wade “a week of prayer regarding the sanctity of human life.” According to Hill, the clinic has already had several random inspections this year when they are only supposed to have one. “It’s a way to put pressure on us,” she says. This year, the state Legislature passed a law banning early-second-trimester abortion at abortion clinics, but in June a federal judge declared the measure unconstitutional. But even with that small victory, Mississippi now has such an impenetrable web of abortion restrictions, says Hill, that anti-choice forces admit they have run out of ways to limit access.

Should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade and thus return abortion law to the states, Mississippi will undoubtedly rush to ban abortion
completely and put the state’s last abortion provider out of business. “Tragic is too soft a word for it if we are forced out,” says Hill. “Most women in the
state are already poor and it would hit young, single women the hardest. …It
would be a disaster for the women of Mississippi.”