What Exactly Were These Abortions Dr. Tiller Performed?

A 51-year-old anti-abortion activist is in custody in Wichita, KS, after he allegedly shot and killed Dr. George Tiller, 67. Tiller, who had provided abortions to women for over 30 years, was gunned down in the foyer of his church while he passed out the church bulletin. [NY Times]

Some anti-choice extremists think all doctors who perform any abortions should be killed. But Dr. Tiller, in particular, was a lightening rod for controversy because he was one of only three doctors in the country who performed abortions on women in the third trimester, also referred to as “partial birth abortions.” But why are abortions in the second or third trimesters so controversial? Here are five things you’re probably asking yourself right now.

  1. Why would someone get a late-term abortion?
    There’s no statistical information available on this, but serious fetal abnormalities and the health of the mother are extremely high on the list. [NPR]
  2. And uh, what exactly are they?
    There are two kinds of late-term abortions—D&E or D&X. “Dilation and evacuation” (D&E) is usually done in the second trimester and involves dilating the cervix and vacuuming the contents of the uterus. [WebMD]
    An “intact dilation and extraction” (D&X) is usually done in the third trimester. The cervix is dilated, the fetus is partially pulled from the uterus. [NPR]
  3. Why are late-term abortions so controversial?
    Well, first, because they sound pretty brutal. And because they take place closest to the end of the normal nine month gestational period for a healthy child. Meanwhile, pro-choicers feel strongly about late-term abortions because they most often occur when something is medically wrong and the health of the fetus or the woman is at-risk.
  4. How common are they?
    D&X abortions are very rare. In the year 2000, only 2,200 out of 1.3 million abortions performed in the US were D&X abortions. That’s about .02%.
  5. Are late-term abortions legal?
    Nope. Thirty-one states have bans against them. President Bush signed the federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act in November 2003. Districts in California, New York and Nebraska challenged the federal ban and district courts ruled it unconstitutional, as did appeals courts. However, when the three cases were consolidated into one case, Gonzales vs. Carhart and brought before the Supreme Court, the Partial Birth Abortion Ban was upheld, 5 votes to 4. The Supreme Court did agree, however, that the wording of the federal ban was vague and specified that D&X abortions are the ones outlawed. So why was Dr. Tiller able to perform them? Because “physicians technically would be able to seek [D&X] exemption on a case-by-case basis to address such health concerns,” according to the Guttmacher Institute. [Guttmacher Institute]