The national battle over abortion, for decades firmly planted outside the Kansas clinic of Dr. George R. Tiller, has erupted here in suburban Omaha, where a longtime colleague has taken up the cause of late-term abortions.
Since Tiller was shot to death in May, his colleague, Dr. LeRoy H. Carhart, has hired two people who worked at Tiller’s clinic and has trained his own staff members in the technical intricacies of performing late-term abortions.
Carhart has also begun performing some abortions “past 24 weeks,” he said in an interview, and is prepared to perform them still later if they meet legal requirements and if he considers them medically necessary.
“There is a need, and I feel deeply about it,” said Carhart, visibly weary after a day when eight patients had appointments at his clinic here.
The late-term abortions, coming after the earliest point when a fetus might survive outside the womb, are the most controversial, even among some who favor abortion rights. A few of Carhart’s employees quit when he told them of his plans to expand the clinic’s work.
Opponents of abortion, who had devoted decades to trying to stop Tiller’s business with protests and calls for investigations, are now turning their efforts to stopping Carhart. Troy Newman, the president of Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group, said he had traveled from the group’s headquarters in Wichita, Kan., to Nebraska six times in recent months, portraying this suburb of fewer than 50,000 as a new battlefield in the abortion fight.
“We’re trying to get criminal charges against him, to get his license revoked, and to get legislators there to look at the law,” Newman said of Carhart.
State law in Nebraska bans abortions in cases when a fetus clearly appears to have reached viability, except to “preserve the life or health of the mother.”
Abortion-rights advocates say the need exists for late-term abortions, in cases of extraordinary genetic defects and other dire health circumstances, and some had worried that only a few physicians would be willing to provide such care after Tiller’s killing, an act prosecutors say was carried out by an abortion foe.
“He’s standing up, and so are some others,” Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, said of Carhart.
A few other doctors have long performed late-term abortions, and some said both the threats against them and their efforts at security had increased since Tiller’s death.
Carhart, 68, knew Tiller for years, and would make regular trips to his clinic in Wichita to perform abortions there, as other physicians did. Though Tiller’s clinic was not the only one in the country performing late-term abortions, it was a focal point for controversy.
Carhart, who has been performing abortions since the 1970s, is no stranger to the debate; he has been a litigant in two abortion-related cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court over a particular method of abortion referred to by critics as “partial-birth abortion.” And immediately after Tiller’s killing, Carhart offered to continue operating his clinic, but the Tiller family decided to close it.