By Sharon Cohen
WICHITA, Kan. —
When she arrives at her job every morning, Julie Burkhart enters a bunker-like building where a pipe bomb once ripped through the walls. She passes a metal detector, an armed guard and a photo of her former boss, who was murdered for the work he did there.
Burkhart has reopened the abortion clinic that closed four years earlier after its owner, Dr. George Tiller, was killed by a man claiming he’d acted to save the lives of the unborn. That stunning act of violence left even some abortion rights supporters wondering if it would be just too dangerous to start over.
This was, after all, the place where Tiller, vilified by critics for his late-term abortions, sometimes felt compelled to wear a bulletproof vest and drive an armored car to work. This is a city that had become weary of long years of pitched battles over abortion.
Burkhart, a Tiller disciple, understood that, but after weighing the arguments with others, she forged ahead, believing that women’s rights and health were at stake.
“I don’t feel it was courageous or brave,” she says. “It was just the right thing to do.”
There were obstacles along the way. Anti-abortion activists pushed for zoning changes to stop the clinic; they’ve not given up. Doctors had to be recruited from outside Kansas; some local ones shied away, worried about possible intimidation. Even routine steps — hiring an architect who didn’t fear a boycott — became an ordeal.
Burkhart faced her own travails. She watched protesters distribute fliers in her neighborhood, calling her a ‘’homicide promoter” and encouraging her to repent for “mass murder.” She heard Tiller’s killer say in a prison phone call that opening the clinic was “almost like putting a target” on her back.
Now, six months after the South Wind Women’s Center opened — even as abortion clinics closed around the nation — there’s a sense of accomplishment for Burkhart and her supporters. But there’s a wariness, too.
“Part of me is waiting for the other shoe to drop, whatever that shoe is,” Burkhart says.
How this clinic reopened in this staunchly red state is a story that reveals the changing dynamics of the abortion debate around the country: Determined supporters are navigating around — and challenging — new laws. Anti-abortion forces are buoyed by new political clout in statehouses. And both sides are entrenched as ever, fighting the same war they did decades ago.
“There definitely is a deep divide,” says Diane Wahto, a clinic volunteer. “I don’t think that’s ever going to end.”
Weeks after the South Wind clinic opened, Gov. Sam Brownback delivered his own abortion message: He signed a sweeping law declaring that life begins at fertilization.
Kansas is among several states this year where lawmakers have enacted new limits on abortion rights. At times, they’ve met fierce resistance, most memorably in Texas this summer when Wendy Davis, a state senator, became a national celebrity for her 11-hour filibuster. Her bid to stop tough new limits on abortion ultimately failed.
In the first eight months alone, nearly 70 restrictions were adopted across the country, bringing to about 200 the total passed since 2011. Some of these measures have regulated certain abortion clinics out of existence in Arizona, Texas, Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.
The new Kansas law bans sex-selection abortions, prohibits tax breaks for providers and prevents them from furnishing materials for public schools. There’s a push to go further with legislation that would prevent abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which usually happens around six weeks.
“Kansas is a state that in a few years has adopted nearly every abortion restriction there is,” says Elizabeth Nash, Guttmacher’s state issues manager. “It makes it incredibly hard to keep a clinic open and maintain it. You have to be tough and have a thick skin. You’re going to have to put up with a lot of harassment and a legislature that is determined to close your doors. It is an extremely hostile climate there. It’s going to take a lot of work and energy to surmount all that, but Julie can do it.”
Burkhart, a tall, red-haired Oklahoma native, has a determined but deliberate manner, a style honed as a lobbyist and spokeswoman for Tiller. She understands the conservative nature of Kansas and it shaped debate about whether to proceed.
“People around here don’t want to rock the boat,” she says. “They’d say, ‘Why do you want to necessarily stand out like that? Why do you want to draw attention to yourself?’ We were really nervous about this whole project.”
It took about four years before the clinic reopened at Tiller’s old address, an anonymous-looking building on a frontage road, surrounded by a tall wooden fence. Inside, Tiller’s memory is honored with photos of him and a list of his favorite sayings on the walls. An example: ‘It’s never wrong to do the next right thing.’
But much else is different. The name is new. There are new policies, most notably no late-term abortions: They’re generally performed until the 14th week of pregnancy, within the 20-week state ban. There are new strategies, too, for maneuvering around legal hurdles that didn’t exist even a few years ago.
Burkhart faces formidable opponents: Anti-abortion supermajorities in both legislative chambers. A governor who has vowed to create a “culture of life” in the state and signed every anti-abortion measure approved since he took office in 2011. And committed activists with clout.
Though she denounces some of Kansas’ new abortion laws as “absolutely outrageous,” Burkhart doesn’t expect much change until the political pendulum shifts — something not likely to happen soon.
Kansas, she declares, “is a predatory state when it comes to women’s rights. ... Until we can bring this state politically back to moderation, we’re going to be basically sleeping with one eye open.”
Her opponents, meanwhile, are encouraged. “The momentum is and has been on our side,” says Mark Gietzen, who as chairman of the Kansas Coalition for Life is more confident than he has been since he took up the fight 35 years ago. “We’ve never had such a pro-life climate in the history of this state.”
The clinic, he says, has actually increased unsolicited donations to his group.
Like many other states, the battleground over abortion in Kansas has shifted from mass protests to lobbying lawmakers.
“When all hope is lost is when you go to the streets. That’s where we were back in ‘91,” says Troy Newman, head of the Wichita-based Operation Rescue. “We’ve been able to impact the culture. We know we get more done through legislative changes and policy changes so we’re obviously more effective working in the system than standing outside.”
Newman was referring to the 1991 so-called Summer of Mercy when thousands of abortion opponents descended on the city, clogging streets with sit-ins, blockading clinic doors, filling the jails. The anti-abortion activist moved to Wichita more than a decade later, determined to close Tiller’s clinic.
The public clashes are long over, the acrimony is not. Burkhart says her opponents — she calls them ‘the antis’— are “nothing but busybodies and they need to move on and find another hobby.” Newman — who features an unflattering photo of Burkhart on his group’s website — minimizes South Wind’s importance, dismissing it as “a mosquito to swat. ... just another little abortion clinic in a one-horse town.”
And yet, the campaign to shut South Wind continues.
This summer, even as the clinic succeeded in getting a radio station to lift its ban on its commercials, it faced two new tests:
Anti-abortion groups renewed their push to stop abortions through zoning changes. And Operation Rescue filed a complaint with three agencies, calling for an investigation of the clinic’s political action committee.
“We make it our business to know what they’re doing,” Newman says. “It’s steady pressure to put her out of business through every peaceful and legal means possible.”
There are less visible pressures, too.
It took a few years to recruit two doctors; both live outside Kansas. One local physician who’d been interested backed off because of the “potential for intimidation,” Burkhart says. A search is on for a third doctor, but concerns about being ostracized among peers and possible violence, along with an unfriendly political environment, are powerful disincentives, she adds
“If you put all these things together, you have this recipe that tells physicians to stay away,” she adds.
As it is now, the two doctors are sometimes hidden from view when driven past the gates. One told Newman in a phone call she wanted to protect her identity from “crazy people with guns.” Newman identified himself as a reporter, not the head of Operation Rescue in the conversation; he told AP he has written for several websites and groups.
Burkhart says she doesn’t dwell on any possible dangers. “If I thought about it all the time, I frankly couldn’t do my job,” she says.
Last winter, she secured a temporary stalking order against a local pastor who led a protest in her neighborhood during which a sign was placed outside her house that read: “Where’s your church?” She took that as a death threat — noting Tiller’s murder in church.
In the spring, there was what Burkhart calls a “downright frightening” jailhouse phone conversation between an anti-abortion activist and Scott Roeder, serving life for Tiller’s murder. Roeder was recorded saying: “...For Julie ‘Darkheart’ to walk back in there and reopen a murder mill .... it’s almost like putting a target on your back, saying, ‘Well let’s see if you can shoot me.”’ Prison authorities punished him with 45 days of segregation.
In its first six months, the South Wind Center says it has recorded about 700 patient visits, mostly for abortions, though the clinic offers a range of women’s reproductive health services. Only a handful of protesters are at the gates on any given day.
“I think the fervor has died down a little but I think we’re sitting on the proverbial powder keg,” says Wahto, the volunteer. “Julie’s standing up at a time when everything seems to be going against us ... that sends a message we’re still here and we’re going to keep fighting.”
Gietzen concedes “Wichita is a pretty tough nut to crack,” but his group presses on, handing out literature, tracking license plates, partly to time protests by knowing when the doctors are there. Clinic observers, meanwhile, film the protesters’ activities.
Newman maintains there isn’t enough business for the clinic to survive. “If I never lifted another finger, that clinic is going to close,” he says. “Women aren’t pining away and saying I can’t wait to run down there for an abortion or two.”
Molly Rattler, South Wind’s operations director, says its presence speaks for itself.
“Some people in this city have an axe to grind,” she says. “They’ll do everything they can to see us close. They kept saying we wouldn’t stay open. But we’re here and there are people who need us.”
On Sept. 7, Gietzen was where he is every first Saturday of the month — praying with dozens of others at the clinic gates.
This day, he says, was special because of the visit of a 5-year-old girl born to a woman who had come to Tiller’s clinic and changed her mind about having an abortion after being handed literature by his group.
He thinks public sentiment is moving in his direction.
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” he says, “but I do know eventually we’ll win.”
For Burkhart, the timetable is also uncertain, but she predicts success, too.
“I think we’ve had more setbacks than anyone would have liked and it’s really discouraged a lot of folks, but I think we have to remember that time is our friend here,” she says. “Our hope is we’re going to be a signal that we can overcome this bad stuff — the anti-choice laws, the anti-choice rhetoric, the intimidation — ... and even in one of the toughest states in the toughest areas in the country, there is a way to prevail.”