WICHITA, Kan. -- One of the nation's few providers of late-term abortions testified Wednesday that he relied on advice from his lawyers and a Kansas official before getting second opinions that prosecutors say were illegal.
Dr. George Tiller testified at his trial on 19 misdemeanor charges stemming from abortions he performed at his Wichita clinic in 2003. He is accused of breaking a state law requiring that two Kansas physicians without legal or financial ties sign off on any late-term abortion.
Dr. Ann Kristin Neuhaus provided second opinions on late-term abortions before Tiller performed them. Prosecutor Barry Disney has described Neuhaus as essentially a Tiller employee whose only income in 2003 came from patients she saw at his clinic.
Tiller recalled a June 1999 conversation with Larry Buening, who was then executive director of the Kansas Board of Healing Arts, which regulates doctors. Tiller testified that Buening suggested he use Neuhaus for second opinions.
Tiller testified that Buening said, "'Why don't you use Kris Neuhaus and that will take care of all of your problems?'"
Under cross-examination, Tiller said he relied on what Buening told him but acknowledged he later sought legal advice from his attorneys. When pressed, he said he ultimately relied on his attorneys' advice.
That distinction is important because the judge told attorneys before the trial began that relying on the advice of an attorney cannot be used as a legal defense to criminal charges.
If convicted, Tiller could face a year in jail or a fine of $2,500 for each misdemeanor charge. The medical board can use even one misdemeanor conviction to investigate revocation of his license.
The attorney with whom Tiller consulted, Rachael Pirner, testified Wednesday that she advised Tiller on what he needed to do to avoid a legal and financial affiliation with Neuhaus.
"We relied on the representation of Larry Buening in giving our advice to our client," said Pirner, who was expected to resume testifying Thursday.
Tiller has claimed the prosecution is politically motivated. An attorney general who opposed abortion rights began the investigation into Tiller's clinic, but both his successor, who filed the criminal charges, and the current attorney general support abortion rights.
Kansas law allows abortions after a fetus can survive outside the womb only if two independent doctors agree that it is necessary to save a woman's life or prevent "substantial and irreversible" harm to "a major bodily function," a phrase that has been interpreted to include mental health.
When the prosecutor questioned Tiller on Wednesday about the conversation with Buening, Tiller replied: "When she was working for me -- correction, when she was providing consultations for the patient ..."
Tiller, 67, said that based on Buening's assurances, he decided not to file a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the statute requiring two Kansas physicians to sign off on late-term abortions. He said Neuhaus had no financial or legal interest in his clinic and that consultations were done there for the convenience and safety of the patients and physicians.
Tiller testified that he and Neuhaus agreed in 1999 that she would charge patients $250 for consultations and come to his clinic one day a week. He wrote in his planner that day: "Kris glad to do this. Needed the money."
He said that in about five cases each year, Neuhaus would disagree with him about the necessity of a late-term abortion. When she declined to concur, the abortion was not done, Tiller testified.
Tiller estimated that he performed 250 to 300 late-term abortions in 2003, each costing an average of $6,000.
Tiller said he is one of three doctors in the U.S. who currently perform late-term abortions. The others are in Boulder, Colo., and Los Angeles, he said.
He also told jurors that he and his family have suffered years of harassment and threats from anti-abortion protesters. His clinic was the site of the 1991 "Summer of Mercy" protests marked by mass demonstrations and arrests. His clinic was bombed in 1985, and an abortion opponent shot him in both arms in 1993.
Case is State v. Tiller, No. 07CR2112 in Sedgwick County.
On the Net:
Attorney general's office: http://www.ksag.org/home
Tiller's clinic: http://www.drtiller.com