Hundreds of people from around the country are expected to converge in Wichita this summer for a week of anti-abortion rallies, protests and prayer vigils marking the 25th anniversary of the “Summer of Mercy” campaign.
“Some of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in my life happened right here in Wichita,” said Rusty Thomas, director of Operation Save America, an anti-abortion group based in Waco, Texas.
“What I’m writing in my brochure is: ‘Some of you were there. This is our reunion.’ ”
Operation Save America is a successor to Operation Rescue, whose 46-day “Summer of Mercy” campaign in 1991 resulted in nearly 2,700 arrests as protesters blocked access to clinics where abortions were performed.
This summer, July 16-23, the group plans to partner with local churches to organize protests against abortion. Its agenda includes “street activities” outside South Wind Women’s Center, a clinic operating at George Tiller’s former practice on East Kellogg, Thomas said.
“There’s a proverb that says, ‘We make our plans but God directs our steps,’ ” he said. “We go to these evil places and address that evil and hopefully overcome it and set the captive free.”
Julie Burkhart, founder of Trust Women, an abortion-rights nonprofit that established South Wind, said she’s aware of the milestone anniversary and will be “taking security here at the clinic very seriously” during the planned protests.
“Pregnancy is a very personal thing. Whether a woman wants to carry a pregnancy to term and be a parent, or adopt, or have an abortion – those are all things that are a matter of the heart,” Burkhart said.
“So the disruptiveness that they’re going to bring this summer is certainly not welcome because it scares our patients, and they find it intimidating.”
Thomas, the Operation Save America official, said the group’s strategy has shifted recently.
This year’s event will include constitutional scholars and guest speakers who argue that Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that established a constitutional right to abortion, “impugns the law of God” and should be ignored.
“We’re talking about defying it,” Thomas said. “Just flat-out defying it.”
Citing the “doctrine of the lesser magistrate,” a concept in Protestant thought, Thomas said activists are looking for a governor, sheriff or other local official who will disobey the Supreme Court decision outright and order an end to abortion.
“Any human law that directly violates the commandment of God is no law at all,” Thomas said. “You have to have the lesser magistrate to restore law and order, to check the lawlessness that’s coming out of Washington, D.C.
“What we want to produce here is a paradigm shift in how we view government, how we view God, how we view abortion,” Thomas said.
Burkhart, the Trust Women founder, said that strategy “seems like vigilantism and people just wanting to take things into their own hands.”
“I think that leads to potentially very dangerous territory,” she said.
“And whose God are we talking about? Because I think we have a lot of different perspectives and belief systems in this country when it comes to God, so whose God is going to be represented?”
Thomas said local and national anti-abortion activists gathering in Wichita will be a peaceful presence.
“Not only do we not advocate violence, but we’ve been on the forefront of rebuking others who do,” Thomas said. “That’s very important that you understand the spirit in which we come.
“We don’t overcome evil by becoming evil. You don’t become what you’re seeking to end.”
Remembering that summer
The “Summer of Mercy” protests in 1991 targeted Tiller, who performed late-term abortions and other services at his Wichita clinic.
Crowds of protestors showed up each morning at the East Kellogg clinic or other clinics in Wichita and spent hours singing and praying. Occasionally, a patient seeking an abortion would drive toward the clinic and protestors would fling themselves over a police barricade, blocking the entrance by sitting or lying in the street.
Police arrested thousands of protestors for trespassing, putting them in plastic handcuffs and transporting them to jail in vans or buses.
“It was like Old Testament-caliber miracles took place,” said Thomas, who traveled from Florida to Wichita to be part of the 1991 protests.
“I can remember being at Tiller’s gate and people driving by – businesswomen, construction workers – literally being apprehended by the spirit of God, pulling over and saying, ‘I’m on my way to work, but I can’t go. What do you want me to do?’ Then being arrested and being taken to jail, weeping all the way,” he said.
“Something happened in 1991 that began to turn the tide of abortion in America.”
Today, Wichita’s South Wind clinic is the only abortion provider for at least 150 miles in any direction. Nationwide since 2011, at least 162 abortion providers have closed or stopped performing abortions – the swiftest annual decline in the number of abortion providers ever, according to Bloomberg News.
Burkhart is planning to open another clinic in Oklahoma City this summer, which would be the first to open in that state since 1974.
“We have a health care crisis in this part of the country, and we see fewer providers because of the stigma that’s been placed on physicians who provide abortion care,” she said.
Burkhart was home from college on summer break in 1991 and worked as an office assistant at a former abortion clinic at Market and Pine during the protests. She said the experience cemented her convictions.
“Even though I was in favor of a woman’s right to have an abortion, it really solidified that even more for me,” she said. “To walk through that – I definitely have vivid memories.”
She later met and worked for Tiller, the physician at the center of protests who was shot and killed by an anti-abortion protester while attending church in 2009. She considered leaving the abortion-rights movement after Tiller’s death but eventually established Trust Women and opened South Wind in 2013.
“Even though we have all of these obstacles on the books, hoops that women have to jump through … abortion care remains incredibly safe,” Burkhart said. “We want to make sure women continue to have access.”
Rob Rotola, senior pastor of Word of Life Church, said his north Wichita church has agreed to be the host site for nightly rallies during this summer’s anti-abortion events.
“The marking of the anniversary is not particularly what’s important to me,” Rotola said. “Just the activity that goes on in exposing what they do at these places and the fact that there are options for women.”
David Gittrich, state development director of Kansans for Life, said the 1991 protests in Wichita brought international attention to the abortion issue and helped turn the tide politically in the state.
“Really what it did was make people think about it,” Gittrich said. “And when people have to think about it rather than just gloss over it or talk about it in the abstract, they have to make up their mind.”
The protests ushered in more conservative state lawmakers and other public officials, Gittrich said. A vast majority of Kansas’ elected officials – 30 out of 40 state senators and 90 out of 125 representatives – claim to be anti-abortion, he said, in addition to the governor and those who hold other statewide offices.
“I think Kansas is pro-life. There aren’t many people who still think abortion is a wonderful thing,” he said.
“I think Kansas is starting to recognize the value of families and recognize the value of children and recognize that this experiment called abortion was horrible and has left many women devastated.
“I think Kansas is becoming a state that loves their families.”