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Matt Scholfield: 'Summer of Mercy' changed Kansas' politics

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Friday, July 15, 2011, at 6:38 a.m.
  • Updated Friday, July 15, 2011, at 6:40 a.m.

Twenty years ago, I stood on a curb and watched what I assumed was a one-time event, no more than the latest in a long line of news stories. I was wrong. It was a social movement, one that would continue to resonate 20 years later.

It was summer in Wichita, and therefore unbearably hot and humid. I was one of what began as a modest number of journalists standing behind yellow tape watching what was called the "Summer of Mercy." By the end, it was a movie-esque journalist pack scene.

It was a protest, organized by a group called Operation Rescue, backed by a sizable but, to that point, not particularly political gathering.

Anti-abortion protesters had targeted physician George Tiller. Back then, Tiller was known nationally not as a murder victim, a man gunned down in his church by an anti-abortion radical, but for performing abortions. His clinic performed abortions at all stages, but he was known for the late-term ones.

If you favor abortion rights, these are the truly tragic and most necessary cases — wanted pregnancies that developed horrible complications. If you oppose abortion, inside Tiller's clinic they were simply killing babies.

The protesters would show up each morning, beginning around 7. What would follow would be hours of singing. Very rarely, a young woman seeking an abortion would drive down the street toward the clinic and the singers would fling themselves over a police barricade, blocking the street by sitting. After which police would put each in plastic handcuffs and bring in a school bus to haul them off to jail.

It was tedium that somehow managed to look action-packed on television news.

What I thought was the story of the summer were the protests. But the protests, after lasting six weeks or so, passed. What changed that summer was Kansas politics.

In some ways, the change was direct. Two future Kansas congressmen came out of those protests. One, Tim Huelskamp, got arrested and then later elected to the Kansas Senate, and in 2010 he took over now-Sen. Jerry Moran's 1st Congressional District seat. The other, Todd Tiahrt, didn't get arrested but hung around, gathering signatures and supporters. Several other protesters ended up in the Legislature. There were dozens and dozens more, however, who ended up on local boards or as election commissioners, or playing bigger roles in their local GOP.

It was a shift in Kansas. And it was a shift that seems to have been completed this summer.

Back then, abortion moved deep within Kansas politics, and it never occurred to me that abortion could work as a popular political issue.

The summer empowered the anti-abortion debate. In the coming years, it got uglier and uglier. Doctors were murdered elsewhere. A hand grenade was left outside Tiller's clinic. He was shot in both arms. And finally, in 2009, Tiller was murdered.

Even then, in the wake of the murder of a doctor killed for performing what is and was a legal procedure, the Kansas Legislature this past session set about dismantling abortion and anything lawmakers thought touched it.

While the state stared at a budget crisis, they passed laws affecting at best a couple of procedures a year and ladled paperwork on to state judges. They approved regulations that they dumped on abortion providers at the last minute, clearly hoping to close a couple of clinics.

Next year is likely to be more of the same.

Matt Schofield writes for the Kansas City Star.

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