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Slaying of George Tiller Focuses Attention on Late-Term Abortions

Warren M. Hern, left, is a doctor in Boulder, Colo., who performs late-term abortions. Bellevue, Neb., doctor LeRoy Carhart, right, worked with Tiller.
Warren M. Hern, left, is a doctor in Boulder, Colo., who performs late-term abortions. Bellevue, Neb., doctor LeRoy Carhart, right, worked with Tiller. (Ed Andrieski - AP)

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By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 5, 2009

When Susan Fitzgerald went in for a routine ultrasound near the end of her pregnancy, she was expecting good news. Instead, she was stunned to learn that the fetus had a rare condition that left his bones so brittle he would live less than a day.

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"It was unbelievable," Fitzgerald said. "You think by the third trimester you're home free. It was devastating."

Desperate to end the pregnancy, she flew from her home in New England to Wichita, where George Tiller was one of the few doctors in the country willing to perform an abortion so late in a pregnancy.

"It was very difficult, but I knew it was the most humane thing I could do for my baby," Fitzgerald said. "It was absolutely the right thing to do. I'm just so grateful that Dr. Tiller was there for me."

Her story is one of dozens that have surfaced in the past week during candlelight vigils, at memorials and on blog postings since the shooting death of Tiller. An antiabortion activist has been charged in his slaying.

Tiller's death has focused attention on abortions late in pregnancy. While it is clear that they account for a tiny fraction of the 1.2 million U.S. abortions each year, much about the procedures is unclear, including exactly how many are done, by whom and under what circumstances. The government does not collect detailed data, and doctors who perform them publish little information.

"This is an area that we just don't know much about," said Stanley K. Henshaw, a senior fellow at the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research group that has the best available data. "The information just isn't available."

More than 88 percent of abortions are done in the first trimester, and most doctors will not perform them beyond 22 or 24 weeks because of moral qualms, social stigma, legal concerns, inadequate training or lack of experience. Barely 1 percent of procedures are done after 21 weeks. At 37 weeks, a baby is generally considered full-term.

But 2001 data from 15 states and New York City indicate that perhaps as many as 2,400 abortions were performed after 24 weeks in the United States that year, Henshaw said, most of them probably in the 25th or 26th week.

A survey of 1,819 providers found that at the time, 18 clinics and 12 hospitals performed abortions at 26 weeks. Because the overall number of abortion providers has dropped since 2001, the number offering procedures that late has probably fallen, too, and the number performing abortions even further along in the pregnancy is probably much smaller, Henshaw said.

'Targeted for Violence'

"We know it's a very small handful," said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, the largest group of abortion providers, who would not be more specific. "Given the fact that these people are targeted for violence, I don't necessarily want to name other providers that we know are providing necessary reproductive health care in these circumstances."

Abortion rights activists argue that late-term procedures are performed only when absolutely necessary -- often when devastating abnormalities in the fetus or life-threatening problems in the woman are discovered.


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