KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Some of them call him "Tiller the Killer" and think it's outrageous he isn't facing criminal charges. Others acknowledge they have read only a little about Kansas' best-known abortion provider.
But the ongoing public row over Dr. George Tiller and his Wichita clinic sparked conversation among abortion opponents Thursday during the first of three days of the National Right to Life Committee's annual convention.
A burst of publicity about Tiller came before the convention, and former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline, who tried unsuccessfully to prosecute the doctor, was the evening's main speaker.
Kline, an anti-abortion Republican, tried unsuccessfully to prosecute the doctor before leaving office in January, alleging that Tiller had performed illegal late-term abortions.
Paul Morrison, the abortion rights Democrat who unseated Kline, expects to finish his own investigation this month, but abortion opponents are skeptical he will charge Tiller.
Anti-abortion leaders and participants in the conference said Tiller continues to generate talk in their movement because of his heavy involvement in politics and because he performs late-term abortions. The Rev. Frank Pavone, leader of Priests for Life, said Tiller seems to be proud of performing such procedures.
"For those active in fighting against abortion, he's pretty well known," Pavone said. "His nickname is 'Tiller the Killer.' "
Marcus McDonald, who leads an anti-abortion group in Winfield, Ala., added: "How he can stay above the law — it's inconceivable to us."
Activists on both sides said only two doctors in the U.S. — Tiller and Warren Hern, of Boulder, Colo. — acknowledge publicly that they perform abortions in the final weeks before a baby would have been born. Both sides also agree other doctors probably do so but won't come forward publicly.
Hern said while he and his practice have been attacked by abortion opponents and policy makers, it hasn't been as intense as Tiller's recent experience because Kansans elected Kline attorney general in 2002.
"We have our detractors here in Colorado, but they have not had or exploited that kind of power against us — but they certainly want it," Hern said during a telephone interview. "This is a totalitarian, fascist group that will stop at nothing to interfere with the lives other people. It has to do with power."
Kline filed 30 misdemeanor criminal charges against Tiller in December in Sedgwick County District Court, alleging that Tiller performed 15 illegal late-term abortions in 2003 on patients ages 10 to 22.
Kansas law says a doctor can perform an abortion after a fetus can survive outside the womb only to save a woman or girl's life, or to prevent "substantial and irreversible" harm to "a major bodily function," which has been interpreted to include mental health.
Kline alleged that Tiller justified the abortions for mental health reasons, such as single-episode depression and anxiety, that weren't irreversible conditions. Tiller's attorneys have said the charges were without merit.
A judge dismissed the case against Tiller for jurisdictional reasons. Morrison took office and began reviewing the evidence Kline gathered — and, his office said, seeking more documents.
The latest twist came this week, when Dr. Paul McHugh, the former director of the psychiatry department of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who was hired by Kline to review records in the case, publicly questioned Tiller's justification for the abortions. Morrison demanded that McHugh stop talking publicly about the records, and McHugh did.
Morrison spokeswoman Ashley Anstaett said the attorney general worried that McHugh's statements would compromise the investigation. She repeated Morrison's promise that if he finds evidence of a crime, he will prosecute and won't be influenced by "the political campaign going on."
"I think they are trying to create publicity for their cause," she said of abortion opponents. "As a prosecutor, you do not try a defendant in the press. You try him in the courtroom."
Kline and abortion opponents saw Morrison's action as an attempt to silence McHugh and protect Tiller, who helped finance anti-Kline advertising in 2002 and 2006.
On Thursday night, Kline dismissed Morrison's actions as "theatrics." During a news conference, Kline questioned how thoroughly Morrison is investigating Tiller, saying that the investigation has shown no results.
Before Kline's speech to the convention, the committee showed an eight-minute excerpt from a videotaped statement from McHugh that has appeared on the Internet video hosting site YouTube.
Anstaett said Kline had an obligation when he was attorney general to advise McHugh that it would be in the best interest of any case not to make public statements.
"Phill Kline knows very well that the attorney general is thoroughly investigating Dr. Tiller and it's disingenuous of him to intentionally mislead Kansans and pro-life activists by making claims to the contrary."
Right to Life leaders view Tiller putting himself out front in the debate over abortion and seeking attention.
"Certainly, he has been particularly creative in the techniques he's used to capture a politician and apparently immobilize him," said Douglas Johnson, the committee's federal legislation director.
Tiller declined to be interviewed Thursday, as he has repeatedly in the past. Julie Burkhart, a lobbyist for ProKanDo, an abortion rights group associated with Tiller, said the doctor's political activity intensified in 2002 "as a matter of survival" because of campaigns for office of anti-abortion candidates, including Kline.
"I would say that every abortion provider in this country should be out front," Burkhart said. "I would hope that no provider in this country would apologize for being involved in the process."