In the Shadow of Death

Many of you probably remember the tragic saga of Dr. George Tiller, the Wichita abortion provider who was gunned down in the vestibule of his church on a Sunday morning in 2009. (Note: I wrote a review of the leading book on these events for the Washington Monthly last year). While Tiller was famous as a rare provider performing late-term abortions, he was also the only abortion provider of any kind in Wichita, a fairly large city if also a hotbed of anti-choice activism long before Tiller’s murder.

Jenny Deam of the the L.A. Times has written a poignant story about the Kansas doctor who has sought, unsuccessfully, to take over Tiller’s basic practice (it does not appear she intends to provide anything other than first-trimester abortions) in Wichita. But thanks to harassment not only from the anti-choice activists of Wichita but those of the Kansas legislature (and its governor, former Senator Sam Brownback), Dr. Mila Means has yet to unpack Tiller’s slowly rusting equipment:

In summer 2010, Means began going each weekend to Kansas City, Kan., to learn first trimester abortion procedure. She approached Jeanne Tiller about buying her late husband’s equipment. It cost $20,000, which cut deeply into her practice’s meager budget. She remembers how creepy it felt to walk through Tiller’s boarded up clinic shadowed by his widow’s bodyguard.

As 2010 ended, Means told her office landlord of her plans. Word leaked and protesters materialized quickly. Posters circulated with her picture on one side scrawled with the words “child abuser”; the other side urged protesters to “reach out” to her at her home and office….

In spring 2011, some of the most sweeping antiabortion measures in the nation became Kansas law, including the defunding of Planned Parenthood and the imposition of building specifications and medical equipment requirements — both of which Means said would put abortion providers out of business. Both laws were stayed pending court challenges.

Now, with abortion-related laws being debated in several states, eyes again turn to Kansas. In February, Kansas lawmakers introduced new antiabortion measures that Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has promised to sign, including a bill to stop tax deductions for abortion-related expenses. Other provisions would require that patients hear the fetal heartbeat and shield doctors against lawsuits if they do not inform patients of problems in pregnancies.

It’s not clear how long MIla Means can hang onto her plans to offer abortion services in the very shadow of her predecessor’s death. But it’s hardly an isolated situation:

The turnaround in Kansas is pretty amazing in a short period of time,” said Elizabeth Nash, states issues manager for the Guttmacher Institute, a New York nonprofit research organization that supports abortion rights. She sees Kansas as the centerpiece of a stripe that runs from North Dakota to Oklahoma where abortion is starting to disappear.

It’s dawning on a lot of Americans that legalized abortion, which every Republican presidential candidate and most GOP Members of Congress are sworn to repeal to one extreme degree or other, is seriously imperilled. But in some places, like Wichita, it’s already only a memory.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.