Abortion doc and the F-word

A Los Angeles Times profile this week of a would-be Kansas abortion doctor follows a pretty straightforward path.

It’s as simple as 1-2-3:

1. Brave doc steps in to fill the void left by the slaying of Dr. George Tiller.

2. Brave doc encounters threats and abuse from radical abortion opponents.

3. Brave doc presses forward despite the spooky climate in a state with some of the nation’s most sweeping anti-abortion measures.

The top of the story:

Reporting from Wichita, Kan. — Out near the city’s edge, where fast-food joints and subdivisions seem to spring from farmland overnight, the casualties of an unfinished war sit untouched in a doctor’s basement.

Dr. Mila Means, a 55-year-old solo family practitioner with neon red hair and neo-hippie style, doesn’t remember how or when she heard that Dr. George Tiller had been gunned down in his church.

She knew him only slightly as their paths crossed in medical circles. Mostly, she knew of him — as the lone abortion provider in a city of nearly 400,000, as a symbol of the country’s abortion wars.

After his killing on May 31, 2009, the decision to step into his place did not come as an epiphany but rather over time, with sad reluctance.

The general tenor of the story (read: fawning) aside, I wish the Times had, at least, dealt with the religion ghosts that haunt this report.

The story only vaguely addresses the background and motivation of Means:

In summer 2010, Means began going each weekend to Kansas City, Kan., to learn first trimester abortion procedure. She approached Jeanne Tiller about buying her late husband’s equipment. It cost $20,000, which cut deeply into her practice’s meager budget. She remembers how creepy it felt to walk through Tiller’s boarded up clinic shadowed by his widow’s bodyguard.

The decision marked a full circle for Means, who grew up in Wichita with parents who supported abortion rights. In her 20s, though, she joined a fundamentalist church with a rigid antiabortion stance. Her own beliefs were more ambivalent.

Forgive me for not wanting to take the Times’ word for it, but I’d love to know more about this “fundamentalist” church with the “rigid” anti-abortion stance. By whose definition is it fundamentalist? By whose definition is its abortion stance rigid?

At the same time, the paper fails to quantify Means’ own beliefs — then or now — in any concrete way.

Readers do learn this:

She once applied as medical director of a pregnancy crisis center that talked women out of abortion but said she did not get the job because she could not agree that abortion was never justified. She now sees that time in her life as a passing phase before her politics drifted left.

That’s the full extent of the reporting on Means’ thinking. As a result, the story ends up reading like a hollow puff piece. Did anyone think to ask how her religious views changed, from her days as a would-be crisis pregnancy center worker until today?

Image of Kansas anti-abortion protest via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jeff

    Can anyone imagine these sentences appearing in The LA Times?

    “The decision marked a full circle for Jane Doe, who grew up in Boston with Catholic parents who supported unborn children’s rights. In her 20s, though, she joined a liberal-fundamentalist political party with a rigid pro-abortion stance. Her own beliefs were more ambivalent.”

  • Dave

    Bobby, I agree the story gives just enough of her faith path to be irritating in its incompleteness. Do we ding the reporter or an editor?

  • sari

    Um, Jeff, that’s exactly that was said about Elizabeth Santorum in last Sunday’s NYT article.

    Ms. Garver and Dr. Allen spent six years together, but she left him when she met Mr. Santorum. Her relationship with the politically conservative, aspiring politician brought the young woman back into the family fold — and seemed to change her political orientation.

    “It’s a total 180,” Mr. Greenberg said. “Her change could not be more extreme.”


  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Do we ding the reporter or an editor?

    Can we ding both? :-)

  • Martha

    I find this story very interesting, for how thin it is. And as a minor quibble, “neon-red hair”? Either the photograph that accompanies the article is an old one and the doctor has since dyed her hair a startling shade, or the reporter doesn’t know the difference between “neon-red” and “copper”.

    So Dr. Tiller was the “the lone abortion provider in a city of nearly 400,000″? I wondered about that, given that there was a fleeting reference to Planned Parenthood later in the story, so I did some Googling and there are Planned Parenthood centres in Kansas and Mid-Missouri; one centre in Kansas City does do abortions, but the centre in Wichita says “This health center doesn’t provide abortion services — but we can help you. Call us for a referral list of health care providers in your area that offer abortion services.”

    So either there is another doctor than Dr. Means who has set up, or the Wichita centre sends referrals all the way to Kansas City, or something. I’d like to have seen a little more information on that, as well as why the doctor wanted to buy Dr. Tiller’s second-hand equipment (was it purely on a cost basis? That does seem to be taking the legacy aspect a little far), would she be taking up Dr. Tiller’s mantle as the late-term abortionist (we only get mention of her training in first-trimester abortions) and what made her drift away from and then back to her parents’ abortion rights support – as well as what this “fundamentalist church” was – Baptist? Catholic? Brother Billy-Bob’s House of Hellfire?

    A remarkably thin story all round – as you say, the only image we get is “Brave doctor stifled by sinister political scheming” and that’s it, folks.

  • Jeff


    Don’t pretend you’re dense, because you’re not. The question isn’t someone coming full circle through changes of views, but how that story would be framed and what kind of diction would be used to frame it if the change were from right to left to right or, as in the case of my example, from pro-life to pro-abortion to pro-life. The positions of the Democratic Party and “The Church of Planned Parenthood” will not be described as “rigid” or “fundamentalist,” even thought they manifestly are, where abortion is concerned. Nor will either that party or that “church” be described as “pro-abortion,” even though they manifestly and fundamentally and rigidly are.

  • tioedong

    there is not only a “religion” ghost, there is a medical ghost.

    Where did she practice medicine?
    She was a “family practitioner” not a Gynecologist. So did she do deliveries as an FP (as I did)? Did she dispense methotrexate or other abortion causing pills from her office, which is a procedure within the skill of your average family practitioner? Why did she need to “learn” how to do early abortions? (This procedure is similar to what we do for diagnosis and treatment of non pregnancy related problems)

    Tiller did late term abortions. Is she trained to do this dangerous procedure, and if so, where did she train?

    Is she licensed in Kansas? Was the “Kansas city” where she learned how to do abortions in Kansas, or the larger city in Missouri (which means she would have needed a Missouri license too)?

    Finally, the really important question: How many malpractice suits have been filed against her, and what were the outcomes? (I’ve had two such suits filed, one was withdrawn and I won the other).

    Believe it or not, much of this information is on line.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Last July, the NY Times also ran a profile of Dr. Means.

    Her hair is a bit brighter in the NYT story, but the religious language isn’t much better:

    In 2001, she even interviewed to work at a local pregnancy crisis center that counsels women not to have abortions (she did not get the job, according to both parties, because she expressed her belief that abortion was acceptable in cases of rape or incest). A decade later and no longer a regular churchgoer, she disavows her old views as the result of “religious brainwashing.”

    The LA Times story appears to mostly go over the same ground as the earlier NYT article.

    There was also a profile of her in the Wichita Eagle last June.

    Seems like a lot of press for someone who really hasn’t done much except express intentions.

  • david s

    On the editorial front, I’d also ding the writer and editor for the opening cliche: “Out near the city’s edge, where fast-food joints and subdivisions seem to spring from farmland overnight…”

    Ah Kansas, that mythical flyover land where people are against abortion and burger joints spring from cornfields. Or should I understand that the country’s economic doldrums aren’t affecting Wichita?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Or should I understand that the country’s economic doldrums aren’t affecting Wichita?

    Well, Boeing announced last month “that it would close its Wichita facility, affecting 2,160 employees and the company’s more than 80-year legacy in the Air Capital. Boeing plans to move work from Wichita to other, newer sites in Oklahoma City and San Antonio.”