Wichita, the Sequel: A Clinic Reopens at Ground Zero in America’s Fight over Abortion

In mid-February, on the first day of lent, Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas, held a small, quiet service, with a female and male pastoral team preaching about a gentle God who is slow to anger and quick to forgive.

The church, a multicolored brick building with stained glass windows that look like rolling waves, is flanked on one side by a domed Greek Orthodox church, and on the other by a field stretching out to a subdivision. Just inside its doors in 2009, 67-year-old Dr. George Tiller, one of the few late-term abortion providers in the United States and an usher at his longtime church, was shot and killed by a man named Scott Roeder.

To abortion rights advocates, the murder was the tragic culmination of a decades-long campaign by abortion opponents who had stalked Dr. Tiller; barraged him with nuisance lawsuits; blockaded and bombed his clinic; shot him in both arms in a previous, failed assassination attempt; and helped inspire Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly to begin a nightly television harangue against the doctor he condemned as “Tiller the Killer.”

Dr. Tiller had been forced to wear body armor, travel with a guard, rebuild his clinic as a virtual bunker, and appear in court regularly to defend himself against legal complaints in a state where grand jury investigations can be launched by a few thousand petition signatures. When Roeder was caught after the murder, fleeing halfway across the state, he had the phone number of an Operation Rescue leader on his dashboard—the tip of the iceberg in terms of the broader connections he’d built with anti-abortion extremists.

The church, Roeder would later testify, emerged as the only place he could find a shot at Tiller, around the elaborate security measures the doctor had learned to follow at his clinic and home. “Justifiable homicide” activists—those who believe murdering abortion providers is biblically sanctioned—had identified the church online, on a web page dripping with digital blood, and anti-abortion activists had frequently protested at Reformation Lutheran, sometimes entering and jumping up mid-service to cause a disruption. Nonetheless, it was a shock on May 31, 2009, when Roeder entered the building and shot Tiller as he performed his usher duties, with his wife Jeanne singing up front in the choir.

Four years later, the church doesn’t speak to the media about the murder. “They put that in the past,” an administrator told me, handing back my card. But they may be the only ones who can say that in Wichita, which for 20 years has been the epicenter of America’s fight over abortion.

This week, as Julie Burkhart, one of Dr. Tiller’s former colleagues, reopens her mentor’s former clinic as the South Wind Women’s Center, that fight begins again.

Full-Spectrum Care

South Wind Women’s Center is now housed in a building so central to Wichita’s recent history that it’s often referred to simply by its street address: 5107 E. Kellogg Drive. The clinic is a flat-roofed, largely windowless structure, partially enclosed by a tall wooden fence and fronting on a busy road that doubles as a state highway. Inside its nearly 10,000 square feet, Julie Burkhart, a resolute 46-year-old Oklahoma native in jeans and cowboy boots and with dark red hair, has spent the last several months overseeing a million-dollar renovation.

Casual but cautious as she answers questions about the new clinic, Burkhart seems conscious of the thin line she treads as the face of the new facility—appealing to the better nature of a Wichita community that many abortion rights activists blame for enabling Tiller’s death. She sets her jaw as she runs quickly through the list of groups opposed to the clinic, hurrying to get to the Kansas she’d prefer to discuss: the one with a progressive history as a free state—eventually—during the Civil War, that supported women’s rights, and generated the Brown v. Board of Education case that desegregated schools. It’s an optimistic read on history, but that’s the position that Burkhart is in.

Once it’s up and running this week, Burkhart says, she hopes the clinic will become known for offering not just abortions (up until 14 weeks—less than the 20-week window currently allowed by Kansas law), but also comprehensive women’s health services, from family planning to prenatal care.

The offering of full-spectrum care is both a philosophical and strategic goal, underscoring the argument commonly made by abortion providers that the procedure should not be separate from other aspects of women’s health. But to some extent the success of this strategy depends on how many women will be willing to treat basic reproductive health needs as a political choice. “We need to find women who will drive through the picket line,” says Burkhart.

Over the past four years, Burkhart said, many local women have had to travel to other cities and states to end unwanted pregnancies. All the other clinics are about a three hour drive away, which, combined with a mandatory 24-hour waiting period, can transform the procedure into a two-day commitment—prohibitive for many lower-income women with inflexible jobs. Burkhart recounts phone calls she’s received from local ministers counseling young women who are desperate to find out where they can go.

Burkhart began working for Dr. Tiller in 2002, when she joined his staff as a spokesperson and a political advocate, working on a political action committee they established to lobby the state government in Topeka. She represented him during the years in which the anti-abortion movement pursued Dr. Tiller on multiple legal fronts—when an overzealous state attorney general subpoenaed scores of clinic records for adult women under the threadbare pretense of investigating statutory rape, or protesters who stood in front of clinic staffers’ cars in order to sue for assault.

The fight over the clinic became so pervasive that the invasion of privacy, the vigilance and hostility of anti-abortion groups, and the implicit threat of violence became a fact of everyday life. She remembers coming across Dr. Tiller’s bulletproof jacket, lying on his office couch, and not being fazed.

The threats that made that body-armor necessary are already returning in the few months that Burkhart has owned the clinic. The news of the building’s sale from the Tiller family (who have maintained their privacy since the murder) to Burkhart broke last September, far earlier than she had planned, leading her to believe that anti-abortion groups had positioned someone in state offices in Topeka to monitor whether the building was sold.

“Divinely-Inspired” Violence

Anti-abortion groups had already been active in shutting down other attempts to reestablish abortion services in the city. When a local physician with a private practice, Dr. Mila Means, began training across the state to learn to provide abortions, opposition activists in Kansas City are thought to have photographed her license plate and relayed the information back to Wichita. There, Operation Rescue and other groups pressured landlords not to rent to her, threatening that to do so would bring on daily protests of up to 100 people outside the office and permanently lower the property’s value.

Another extremist in the area, Angel Dillard—shown in the documentary film What’s the Matter with Kansas volunteering for Kansans for Life—sent Dr. Means a letter with a death threat, warning her to look under her car every day for a bomb:

Thousands of people are already looking into your background, not just in Wichita, but from all over the U.S. They will know your habits and routines. They will know where you shop, who your friends are, what you drive, where you live. You will be checking under your car every day—because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it.

When the Department of Justice took legal action against Dillard, she defended the letter as divinely inspired—an expression of free speech and freedom of religion.

Burkhart had trouble finding doctors for her own clinic, when she started exploring the idea of reopening the practice several years ago. One in-state doctor expressed interest, but after his local hospital learned about it, Burkhart said, they threatened to terminate his contract. An anonymous doctor who will work at the clinic described to the LA Times how they’ve planned for her protection: flying in every other week, then being driven to the clinic while she lies down in the back of the car to avoid being seen.

Burkhart has faced threats of her own. In January, one local group of protesters, Spirit One Christian Ministry (previously in the news for protesting the establishment of Wichita’s only Islamic center, and for planning a full-sized replica of the Wailing Wall as a memorial to the “abortion Holocaust”) held what they euphemistically call a “neighborhood visit” to Burkhart’s home. They protested outside her house with graphic signs and walked door to door to distribute a flyer to her neighbors that contained her picture and address, and an invitation for people to help lead her to Jesus Christ and repent of being a “mass murderer.” Flyers like this, frequently referred to as “Wanted-style” posters, have been ruled as tantamount to death threats elsewhere in the country.

“It doesn’t take too much to know that it’s a call for violence,” Burkhart said.

But anti-abortion groups in the area steadfastly refuse to admit that their rhetoric or tactics contribute to a violent atmosphere. Operation Rescue President Troy Newman made a cartoonish display of his group’s ostensible nonviolence when we spoke in February. “We don’t talk about silver bullets around here!” he laughed. “We enlarge images—we don’t blow them up.” He further claimed to have forgotten Scott Roeder’s name, confusing Tiller’s assassin with Sandy Hook mass murderer Adam Lanza or Gabby Gifford’s shooter Jared Lee Loughner. Despite the example of Newman’s own colleague, Cheryl Sullenger, the Operation Rescue staffer whose number Roeder was carrying after the murder, and who was herself convicted in 1988 of conspiring to bomb a San Diego abortion clinic, Newman expressed bafflement that people might link anti-abortion activism with violence.

He’s not the only one. “There is nothing on that flyer that is even remotely violent-prone,” Spirit One Christian Ministry’s leader, Mark Holick, a 52-year-old charismatic pastor, told me in a fast food restaurant in Wichita. While he acknowledged that distributing Burkhart’s address could help someone like Scott Roeder—whom Holick has visited and corresponded with in prison—plot an attack, he rationalized that, “In light of the amount of shedding of innocent blood they’re doing to these children, this pales in contrast.” And anyway, Holick reminded me, Tiller wasn’t killed at his home, but his church.

As though to cover their bases, at a later neighborhood visit to Burkhart’s home, protesters held signs asking her, “Where’s Your Church?”

There Goes the Neighborhood

In Wichita, anti-abortion organizing has the feel of a thriving industry. On one street alone, within a few blocks, are the offices of Operation Rescue (headquartered in a former abortion clinic), a neighboring crisis pregnancy center, Kansans for Life, and the Kansas Family Policy Council. Other groups abound across the city, and there have been as many strategies for fighting Burkhart’s new clinic as there are distinct groups.

Mark Holick vowed to maintain a constant presence outside the clinic, and to travel to protest outside the homes of both out-of-state doctors and administrative staff who work there. In the fall, shortly after the announcement of the clinic sale became public, Kansans for Life held a “sidewalk counseling” training session, drawing around 30 people to their offices to learn how to impede patients entering the clinic, offering them anti-abortion literature and accosting them with graphic images, trying to dissuade them from having an abortion.

The group also attempted to have the city re-zone 5107 Kellogg as a residential property, although it has been in use as a medical facility since the 1950s, collecting 14,000 petition signatures to push for a city planning commission hearing. Their argument, ironically, was that the disruption anti-abortion protesters would bring—coming to the neighborhood in groups as large as 500 for some regular events, with smaller protests around the clock—would constitute a nuisance and safety concern.

“We told the city that if the clinic opens that won’t be a peaceful neighborhood anymore,” explained the organization’s development director David Gittrich, a 66-year-old former grocer with white hair and red suspenders. “Most of the time [in a planning commission] you’re trying to provide for the future, and rarely if ever do you know from the past what it’s going to be like. But in this case, we know exactly what it’s like.”

Operation Rescue’s Troy Newman, a fratty San Diego activist who moved his group to Wichita—“purgatory,” in his mind—in 2002 in order to target Dr. Tiller’s clinic full-time, rolled his eyes at the rezoning idea. And indeed, Gittrich’s zoning appeal was shot down by the City Planning Commission in March. Newman’s plan instead centers on the same death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy of obstructionism and nuisance complaints that they’d waged against Tiller’s clinic for years before the murder. They had already begun this winter, with public challenges about whether Burkhart had the correct permits for her renovation—“these stupid regulations” Newman derided, but which he nonetheless used as a weapon—and forthcoming probes about whether or not the clinic can be cited for minor code violations.

With an air of boredom, Newman ran through the list of tactics he’d turn to if he couldn’t prevent the clinic from opening. They’ll run their “Truth Truck”—a large vehicle with side panels covered with images of late-term aborted fetuses—and plant 200 crosses outside the clinic every day. They’ll limit the number of clients willing to enter by making women “run a gauntlet of pro-life literature and information,” and intimidate potential vendors and contractors out of doing business with Burkhart by tarring them as abortion collaborators online.

With help from national partners in other cities, they would also track down staff members in Wichita or out of state and protest outside their homes. Most effective, he said, would be Operation Rescue’s increasingly dominant strategy of “constricting the clinics out of business” through the enactment and enforcement of onerous regulations regarding clinic staff’s hospital privileges or the physical set-up of the facility.

And meanwhile, on the state level, Mark Gietzen, Chairman of the Kansas Coalition for Life (a peer of Newman’s who frequently drives Operation Rescue’s “Truth Truck” and organized sidewalk counselors outside Tiller’s clinic) is now working in nearby Topeka to advance several laws that he thinks will close the South Winds clinic—and all of Kansas’ clinics—in one fell swoop.

It might be the “Heartbeat bill” under consideration, which would prohibit abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected, effectively making almost all abortions illegal, or one of the several other proposed laws that would pose severe challenges to Roe v. Wade. Already this term, the deeply conservative Kansas legislature has passed bills banning sex-selective abortion and “wrongful birth” lawsuits, protecting doctors who don’t advise patients they may be carrying a pregnancy with significant complications. The state’s governor, former senator Sam Brownback, signed three anti-abortion bills in his first months in office in 2011, and a “conscience clause” for anti-contraception pharmacists followed the next year.

Dividing Friends and Family

Besides the tactics of the opposition, the clinic faced challenges just getting consensus from the pro-choice community. While nationally, abortion rights advocates celebrated the move once it was announced, and lauded Burkhart’s and her staff’s courage, locally, the decision was a harder sell.

When the announcement of the clinic sale was made last fall, says Vickie Sandell Stangl, President of the Great Plains Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and a supporter of the new clinic, “You could just hear people sigh or moan.” The police, she’d heard, were not happy about the news, and the increase in disputes they’ll likely be called in on. But they weren’t alone.

There was a sense of battle fatigue in the abortion rights community as well. “The most challenging thing in the beginning was all the conversations we had,” said Burkhart. “People wondering if we should even put up that fight again, or just let it alone.” Some in the community suggested that the movement focus on pregnancy prevention and contraception instead.

“You have to look back at the history here,” said Burkhart. “This city has been embroiled in an abortion debate since 1991 in a very hard-boiled way. It has divided family and friends. People who don’t want to be involved in this issue get involved in this issue.”

“It’s gone on for so long,” agrees Cassie Tinsmon, chair of the board of Burkhart’s PAC Trust Women, “that it’s become one of the only things Wichita is known for.”

In 1991, Operation Rescue invited anti-abortion activists from around the country to descend on Wichita for what they called The Summer of Mercy: protests that brought Wichita to a standstill for seven weeks as demonstrators blockaded Wichita’s abortion clinics, particularly Dr. Tiller’s, and were arrested in massive numbers. One local activist told me that nearly 25 anti-abortion groups had been birthed during the Summer of Mercy, some of which are still active. The protests so shaped the city that, 22 years later, both sides recall the fight vividly.

Faced with what was initially meant to be a week of protests, Wichita officials requested that the clinic close, and Dr. Tiller complied—kind of. In fact, says Peggy Bowman, who worked for nearly a decade as Dr. Tiller’s spokesperson, the clinic never closed, but instead snuck inside a number of late-term patients who couldn’t delay their abortions, and kept them there, sleeping on cots and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for several days until everyone’s procedures were done.

But the belief that the clinic had closed only encouraged the protesters to stay and escalate their tactics, declaring they would make Wichita an “abortion free zone” forever. The summer became a circus, says Bowman, as police, who were initially helpful in escorting patients in, were directed by city leadership to leave the protesters alone. “That began the real trauma of the seven weeks.”

Both anti-abortion protesters and abortion rights clinic defenders remember the summer like it was last year. David Gittrich described for me the anti-abortion civil disobedience tactic of “baby steps”: walking so slowly to a police bus that it might take three or four hours to progress a few feet away from the blocked clinic gate, and an entire day to open a path for patients to enter. (According to Gittrich, police allowed this so that they wouldn’t have to carry the demonstrators away and risk hurting their backs.)

The massive arrests that took place those months became a rotating door, with protesters back on the streets within hours, and clinic staff members facing constant harassment at their homes. Bowman had firecrackers set off on her doorstep in the middle of the night, salt spread on her lawn to kill the grass, and even a terrifying early morning incident when she was chased at 70 mph on the highway by a car whose occupants appeared to be aiming a gun at her.

“I was shocked that the city would not enforce the law. They would basically let the antis do whatever they wanted to do: put up all these crosses, harass patients as they came in, run into the middle of the street, jump into people’s cars,” said Sandell Stangl, who made a documentary about the summer called Who Owns a Woman? She feels the city’s refusal to enforce the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act in 1991 paved the way for the violence to come 18 years later. “The city has blood on its hands. Dr. Tiller wasn’t killed because he was a doctor, but because the city allowed it to get out of hand.”

The debate in the years between touched many people in Wichita. Mary Harren, the local representative of Catholics for Choice in Wichita, says that half of her extended family stopped talking to her when she came out as pro-choice. And, though she remains a devout Catholic, she says she hasn’t been to mass in a traditional Catholic Church for nearly 30 years out of her disgust at the involvement of the local hierarchy in Wichita’s abortion fight—so invested that, at one local parochial school, students received extra credit for protesting at the clinic, leading some to come back with outlandish stories about witnessing buckets of crying fetuses removed from the clinic.

“We’re not saying Julie shouldn’t do it,” Harren said, but she worries about what anti-abortion groups will do next. When Harren, who presided over a baptism for an aborted fetus for one grieving family during Dr. Tiller’s time, came to a blessing ceremony after Burkhart bought the building, she found her eyes searching for the exit, subconsciously bracing for an outside attack. “I’m not trying to predict there will be violence,” she said. “We just care. We care.”

Battle Fatigue

Those worries have combined with a general sense of weariness among some of the women who have been defending women’s right to abortion in Wichita for decades now, and who find themselves exhausted at the prospect of a fight that seems like it will never end. Many of the women who had been on the front lines of clinic defense or public relations during the Summer of Mercy or the years that followed are now at or approaching retirement; some are ill, and a number doubt how much they can physically invest this time around.

Diane Wahto, a former college English instructor and co-founder of a pro-choice flash protest group called ZAP, described herself as an active “foot soldier” for the movement, staging guerilla demonstrations (like tying tampons to former Operation Rescue head Randall Terry’s car) well into her 50s. But she doesn’t think she’ll be able to return to the fight in the same way again. “I think a lot of the older people who have been active, well, we’re just old and tired. We just don’t have the stamina that it takes.” She praises the young people who are involved, but notices that there aren’t as many as she wishes there were. While the ’70s and ’80s witnessed a strong feminist movement in Wichita, today there’s a sense among many that young progressive adults decamp for other cities, where the culture is not so hard.

Peggy Bowman and Vickie Sandell Stangl echoed that sense of exhaustion, and frustration at being “back at square one.” “I’m very tired. I’ve been involved in this fight since 1980. It seems unbelievable,” said Bowman. But nonetheless, she said, she was excited for the clinic’s opening. “I think everyone knows this is significant, particularly because it is Dr. Tiller’s clinic. His loss was huge. Any little thing that brings a piece of him back is a big deal.”

For their part, anti-abortion leaders in Wichita seem determined to deny the importance of the new clinic, despite the variety and intensity of their efforts so far. In an interview in his office at Operation Rescue headquarters, Troy Newman played it cool. “To me it’s just another first-trimester abortion clinic and I’ll shut it down,” he said, rocking back in his chair in an office adorned with Old West paraphernalia. Newman’s own organization had made a lowball offer to buy the clinic after Dr. Tiller’s death—an offer abortion rights advocates say was never entertained—and predicts that the clinic won’t make enough money to stay afloat.

Newman backed up his confidence by pointing to the front of his own office building, where Operation Rescue left the original sign hanging from when it was a clinic that provided abortions, stamping the word “closed” over the old clinic logo. The office’s entryway walls are hung with a number of other signs, like trophies from clinics Operation Rescue claims to have shut down.

Far from being tired, Newman boasted,

“I’m here to make people tired of abortion. It works great—they get tired of you, the pro-lifers, first. But we don’t go away, and once they settle into the fact that we’re not going away—that we’ll be dropping press releases every time they kill someone, hurt someone, violate a health standard, call 911—over time that translates into a higher level of pro-life sentiment.”

“They might not support me as a pillar of virtue,” he continued, “but they generally come around.”

On Monday, Operation Rescue publicly released the name, photo and workplace of one of an out-of-state doctor, a woman in her early 30s, who will be working at the clinic. In audio the group posted, a man who sounds like Troy Newman posed as a reporter to speak to the young doctor, who said she’d been hoping to keep her name protected from “crazy people with guns.”

Newman didn’t have a response for that, but it’s safe to assume he’ll keep tirelessly on. And even for Wichita’s war-weary clinic supporters, that’s reason enough to return to a fight they wished was long over.

“I think we know that this is a path that we as women have to follow,” reflected Mary Harren. “It’s inevitable, looking at history and what our sisters went through, getting suffrage, that this is what happens.”

“If they want this fight, fine,” agreed Burkhart, “but we’ll win in the end. It will cost us a lot of time and money and heartache, but women will have their rights.”