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A fateful discovery turned Tiller from skin care to abortion

KANSAS CITY — George Tiller had planned to become a much lower-profile doctor — a dermatologist, in fact.

Instead, he became a Wichita late-term abortion doctor who enraged many conservatives nationwide. Yet he registered for decades as a Republican.

And he provided adoptions, not just abortions, to some women with unwanted pregnancies. But he only gave the babies to families who supported abortion rights.

It's hard to find neutral opinions about late-term abortions or Tiller, whose funeral was held Saturday after he was shot to death a week ago.

But somewhere between the polar views about him, Tiller lived a life more complex than the harsh glare of his public history might suggest.

Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican and abortion opponent, discovered a different Tiller from what she expected when she met him face to face during a tour of his clinic in 1997.

“You expect to see an individual with horns and a tail,” she said last week. “Here is a man that looks like any other man. He was a very polite, cordial, soft-spoken individual. He’s still a person.”

That didn’t change her mind, though, about what Tiller did at his clinic.

Tiller was born on Aug. 8, 1941, at Wesley Medical Center in Wichita. As a boy, he accompanied his father, physician Jack Dean Tiller, on house calls.

“I remember very vividly how the family doctor was treated,” he later said. “Here was someone important, someone who, if not placed on a pedestal, was treated with a great deal of respect. I wanted that.”

He graduated from Wichita East High School in 1959 and attended the University of Kansas on a swimming scholarship. He received a zoology degree in 1963 and graduated from the University of Kansas School of Medicine in 1967. After graduating from the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute Flight Surgeon School, he spent more than a year as a U.S. Navy flight surgeon.

Then his life took a series of unlikely turns.

In 1970, his father, mother, sister and brother-in-law were killed in a plane crash while on their way to a convention in British Columbia. Tiller's father was flying the turboprop when it crashed into a mountain slope east of Yellowstone National Park.

Tiller received a humanitarian discharge from the Navy and returned to Wichita to take care of his ailing grandmother and his deceased sister's 1-year-old son. He decided to close down his father's clinic and begin a career as a dermatologist.

But after he began seeing some of his father's patients, he decided he was needed because there weren't enough doctors in the area to absorb them all. So he made plans instead to phase out his father’s practice over three years.

It was then that he learned his father had performed illegal abortions, a decision prompted by guilt over the death of a woman he had refused to help.

“Dad had suggested that he had done some terminations of pregnancy back in the ’50s and ’60s,” he said. “Then when I got the practice I began asking these women if my dad had done an abortion for them. And I find that he did more than one or two or a few.”

Tiller kept his father’s practice open. In 1973 — not long after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion — he performed his first procedures at Wesley Medical Center.

While abortion opponents focused on the lives lost, Tiller’s concern became the lives of the women.

He said he was bothered by the insensitive handling of abortion patients, who were wheeled past the newborn nursery on their way to surgery. He also realized that he could perform abortions cheaper than the hospital’s $1,000 fee, so he began offering private procedures at his clinic for $250. By 1985, he had phased out much of his family practice to focus on abortion.

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