In Wichita, the Ground Zero Of the Abortion War, a New Clinic Rises

After a provider’s murder, women in Wichita, Kansas, have had to travel hundreds of miles for an abortion. Julie Burkhart intends to change that, reports Allison Yarrow.

Antoine Doyen/Getty

WICHITA, KANSAS—Nationally, the abortion war is over, and the “pro-choice” forces have won. A record 70 percent of Americans now support the Roe v. Wade decision, reached 40 years ago this week, that legalized the procedure nationally.

But at the state level, it’s a different picture, as the Republicans who swept into many of the nation’s statehouses in the 2010 Tea Party revolution have passed an ever-increasing number of provisions—a record 92 provisions in 24 states in 2011—creating onerous regulations for abortion providers, raising the bar for what women must do before having the procedure, and cutting off Medicaid coverage of its expense. Those pressures, along with the prospect of protests or even violence, have discouraged new doctors from entering the field, so that the number of providers has plunged by a third since the early ’80s to less than 1,800 nationwide, leading Time magazine to declare this month that “at the state level, abortion-rights activists are unequivocally losing.”

In Wichita, perhaps the ground zero of the abortion wars, Julie Burkhart is working to open a new clinic in the shell of the one that had been owned by her boss and mentor, Dr. George Tiller. Women’s Health Care, which he’d opened in 1975, was shuttered in May 2009 when Tiller, who unapologetically performed late-term abortions and had been a longtime target of anti-abortion protesters, was shot and killed by one of them, Scott Roeder, while the doctor was at Sunday services at the city’s Reformation Lutheran Church.

The last abortion provider murdered in America, Tiller literally left a huge hole in the map, with the closest remaining providers—in Kansas City and the Oklahoma towns of Norman and Tulsa—all about 200 miles away.

After his murder, Burkhart, his former legislative director, a 46-year-old abortion-rights activist with fiery hair and long nails, fled the area, where most of her family lives, “never wanting to step foot back in the state of Kansas again.” But she also helped form the Trust Women Foundation, which spent almost three years raising the million dollars it would take to open a clinic and eventually deciding to buy the practice from the Tiller family, which it did in August. Now she’s racing to open her facility, South Wind Women’s Center, even as anti-abortion protesters aim to use every letter of the law to try to delay or stop her.

Already, southern Kansas women are calling the clinic phone, asking where to go to end pregnancies, and even wandering in to inquire: “Are you open yet?”

“You can’t say, ‘Oh, check back in four to six weeks.’ It’s not that kind of thing,” says Burkhart, who, along with her fledgling staff of three young women, students and recent graduates of nearby colleges, are pecking at keyboards and choosing flooring and paint. A colorful Christmas tree is still standing in the lobby, donated by a local supporter, along with a pink feather boa framing a sign that reads “Trust Women.”

Construction is underway, but South Wind Women’s Center has struggled at every juncture. Hiring staff and doctors unafraid of the area’s violent history—before he was murdered, Tiller had seen his clinic bombed in 1985, was besieged by protests during Operation Rescue’s 1991 “summer of mercy,” was shot in both arms in 1993, and was tried and acquitted in 2008 for 19 misdemeanor charges of circumventing the letter of a state law requiring a second opinion before performing an abortion—has been a significant challenge for Burkhart. She’s found three doctors who will work at the clinic—two performing abortions, and one overseeing holistic women’s health-care services like Pap smears and prenatal care—but is careful to conceal their identities.

Both of the doctors who will be performing abortions will fly to Wichita regularly, as Burkhart was unable to find any local doctor willing to perform the service or one elsewhere willing to move to the area. One of those two doctors, a woman in her 30s who will fly in for two days a week to operate on women 13 weeks and under (the clinic will treat women up to 16 weeks), spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition that her name not be used, to avoid tipping off the anti-abortion activists who she said could “show up on my doorstep with signs and bullhorns.”

“It makes me very uncomfortable that they’re so desperate to know who the doctor is,” said the doctor, who added that “the physicians doing the procedure are subject to the brunt of the harassment and almost all of the violence.”

She connected with Burkhart after volunteering to become a traveling doctor through an initiative aimed at curbing the national abortion-provider shortage. “The question they posed was, if not you, then who? I didn’t have a good answer.”

Still, while she says she knew that “any place needing someone to travel would be hostile,” she hadn’t expected to be matched with Wichita, a place that’s achieved iconic significance among anti-abortion activists. Her husband expressed serious concern, and her best friend recommended she buy a bulletproof vest. It took her a month to decide to accept the job, and she’s told only a few people about it.

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Though licensed elsewhere, to perform abortions in Kansas required her to complete what she called a tedious and complex licensing procedure, requiring fingerprinting and a raft of recommendation letters, as well as applying for local hospital admitting privileges to comply with a law currently enjoined. “I can’t let them succeed in harassing people out of providing medical care,” the doctor says of virulent anti-abortion demonstrators.

Burkhart, too, had encountered her share of intimidation. She’s been called a “killer” in anti-abortion literature and had protesters picket outside her house, where she lives with her husband and 12-year-old daughter.

It’s a familiar ordeal here. When local family practitioner Mila Means purchased Tiller’s office equipment in 2012 and announced that she would provide abortions up to 15 weeks as part of her practice, she encountered fierce resistance. Protests outside her office led her landlord to file a nuisance suit to boot her, and personal attacks included at least one apparent death threat—penned by anti-abortion activist Angel Dillard, a confidante of Tiller’s murderer.

“They 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,” Dillard wrote to Means.

Burkhart, who began working in abortion services in the late ’80s, faces similar treatment today. The most organized and vocal anti-abortion groups aim to block the clinic’s opening, less by contesting the medical services they will provide than by a death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach, using building permits and zoning ordinances to try and derail the opening. The National Right to Life affiliate based in Wichita aims to rezone the clinic’s neighborhood—located just off U.S. 54 in Wichita’s business district—as a residential space, which would oust medical services. Operation Rescue has filed a cease-and-desist order, claiming that hammers are flying illegally and the construction crew lacks proper permits, a charge Burkhart denies.

Operation Rescue’s mercurial leader Troy Newman, who relocated the organization’s headquarters to Wichita in 2002, explicitly to run abortion out of town, knows costing the clinic additional funds to open could prevent it from doing so.

“At the end of the day, she still has to turn a profit,” he says of Burkhart. “We have been successful creating hurdles and roadblocks and regulations that cost the abortion industry money and thereby put them out of business.”

Burkhart tried to hire about half a dozen architects before finally finding one willing to work on the facility and familiar with Kansas codes and law—in case that person need testify in court. “We looked at other sites, but really this was the perfect place,” she said. “He [George Tiller] really put a lot of thought into the way he constructed this building.”

Already the clinic will incur extra cost to gain an ambulatory-surgery-facility license. This means enlarging hallways, doors, and janitorial closets, unnecessary for their work, Burkhart says, but to comply with the enjoined law being challenged by a Kansas City provider and to try to predict other “punitive” measures that might be legislated in the future “meant for one thing, to drive providers out of business,” Burkhart says.

Abortion restrictions already in place in Kansas include mandatory counseling intended to “discourage abortion,” a 24-hour waiting period, mandatory ultrasound, telemedicine prohibition when administering the abortion pill, parental consent for minors, and a ban on insurance coverage for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. Looming threats—in the form of an already-passed omnibus House bill—could include a sex-selection ban, a loss of insurance deductions, and omitting abortion instruction from state-university medical students’ curriculum.

“When Roe v. Wade is overturned, we want Kansas to create the law,” says Kansans for Life legislative director Kathy Ostrowski.

In the meantime, anti-abortion groups have focused on steadily increasing the barriers to entry for women who want an abortion and for doctors who’d want to perform them.

“We see patients from Wichita and every little town in between here and there consistently,” says Tulsa’s Reproductive Services clinic manager, Jennifer Atkinson, who estimates it treats around 10 Kansas women each month who “jump through several hoops” related to travel and accessing a pregnancy termination in a legislatively unsympathetic state. “Let’s say it’s a surgical two-day procedure. Not only are women looking at time away from home, families, and jobs, but they’re looking at travel expenses. There’s no support for these women, no organization that will pay their gas or provide reliable transportation.”

Norman’s Abortion Surgery Center scheduled appointments for a handful of Kansas women while I was in the office, and its proprietors agree they have seen a significant increase in Kansas patients since Wichita’s clinic shuttered. But Kansas women needing financial aid for abortions provided by the nonprofit Peggy Bowman Second Chance Fund through clinics can only use those moneys in the state of Kansas, rendering Kansas City clinics the only options for them. “We don’t actually pay transportation costs, but we were willing, say, if a clinic asked for $300, we’ll pay $350 to give women that extra $50 to pay for gas,” explains the fund’s namesake and former director, Peggy Bowman. Oklahoma operates a similar need-based fund, but it’s also only available to that state’s women.

What has cropped up in the clinic’s place are more Crisis Pregnancy Centers that counsel women to stay pregnant rather than abort, says Ostrowski, pointing to 80 in the state. Those centers, which one anti-abortion activist described as “the darlings of the pro-life movement,” now outnumber abortion providers nationally and have been criticized for at times purposefully confusing women in need about their mission, which is to discourage abortions and provide alternative arrangements, and for offering misleading information.

Ostrowski says the CPC located next door to where Tiller’s clinic stood has seen more women in recent years. “Women are better served in Kansas today than they have been ever before,” she says.

Past the regulatory hurdles and the CPCs, the region also has an active group of loud, unaffiliated protesters who simply detest abortion and don’t belong to any cohesive group. “The Wichita community has a very strong protester number, and they are very loud and visual,” says Atkinson. In the fall, anti-abortion pastor Mark Holick organized a protest on the lawn of Burkhart’s home. She made sure her daughter wasn’t there that day.

“My attitude was, how dare you come to the place where I live,” she says. “It made me angry.” Burkhart avoided them by going to the clinic to plant bushes. Her neighbors wrote her supportive emails and called the cops on the trespassers. She returned home after they had gone.

Burkhart’s young staffers discuss such instances with a tinge of excitement in their voices. Part-time archivist Lorelei Galbreath keeps a stack of folders as tall as a newborn on her desk. They are filled with memos, thank-you notes, Christmas cards, and threats, a written history of abortion opposition and support and the clinic itself that she is scanning for digital preservation.

“It’s a huge project that will take a long time, but it will be invaluable to learning reproductive history in the Midwest,” says the Wichita State senior, who’s double-majoring in women’s studies and history.

“Thanks so much for the help that was MY CHOICE,” reads a card from a woman who had an abortion in 1993, the year Tiller survived being shot in both arms and insisted on working the very next day. There are written remnants of the 1991 “summer of mercy,” when thousands of anti-abortion protesters mobilized in Wichita and descended upon Tiller’s clinic and 1,600 arrests were made at sit-ins. Some more-recent correspondence addressed to Burkhart beg her to find Jesus and halt her work, while others outright threaten her.

“The women who die from back alley abortions deserve it. An eye for an eye,” read one, signed “A pediatric nurse.”

For Burkhart, Tiller’s death created what remains a “hole in the universe” for herself and many others in south Kansas. Kristen Neitzel, the assistant pastor at the church where Tiller was murdered, said the church won’t discuss its fallen member or the abortion clinic opening in part to commemorate his work.

“We’ve healed and moved on,” she says.

Others wish to support abortion rights and the doctor’s work quietly. Galbreath recalls wearing a shirt with “In memory of George Tiller” written on the back. “Someone on campus came up to me and said, ‘I like your shirt,’ but it was a whisper,” she said.

Burkhart still hears Tiller’s words quite loudly. “One of his sayings that really resonates with me is that abortion isn’t a medical matter; abortion is not a cerebral matter. It is a matter of the heart. Until you know the heart of a woman, you don’t understand her decision making and what she wants in her life. To me that makes a lot of sense. You can’t mandate a woman feel a certain way.”

These words ground her firmly in her professional mission and have informed her own life. When Burkhart found herself pregnant and unmarried living in Seattle after having left Kansas, she knew immediately what was in her heart. “No way in hell was I going to have an abortion, because I wanted the baby. So it was the flip side of that coin.”

Inside South Wind Women’s Center, Burkhart’s daughter arrives along with a family friend bringing paint and the friend’s two young girls. The children scamper around the empty clinic lobby in tiaras, filling the place with laughter. Burkhart’s daughter pauses for a minute to tell her mom she is scared of the “creepy” empty surgery space, which looks like where “zombies might have run people out.”

Her mother shakes her head. “We’re working on it.”