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Wichita clinics to be open with increased security during week of heightened anti-abortion protests

Abortion protesters block the entrance to physician George Tiller’s clinic during the “Summer of Mercy” protest in 1991.
Abortion protesters block the entrance to physician George Tiller’s clinic during the “Summer of Mercy” protest in 1991. File photo

Abortion clinics say they will provide services as usual, even if hundreds of demonstrators show up outside their clinics for the 25th anniversary of Wichita’s largest anti-abortion protest.

South Wind Women’s Center and Planned Parenthood both invest heavily in security measures year-round, but the two clinics said they’ve worked closely with the Wichita Police Department and the FBI to coordinate heightened security throughout the week of July 16-23.

The clinics have decided not to counter-protest during the event dubbed the “Summer of Justice.”

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“We are not here to be part of their sideshow – their circus. This is not fun and games,” said Julie Burkhart, founder and CEO of Trust Women, the foundation that opened South Wind Women’s Center, the only surgical abortion clinic in Wichita.

“Our work is not to oppose antis, it’s to help people’s lives and give people the health care they deserve.”

Abortion-rights groups in Wichita hosted a “Repro Rally” in Old Town on Saturday morning, a week before the “Summer of Justice,” to gather community support for reproductive rights.

Trust Women, Planned Parenthood Great Plains, the Peggy Bowman Second Chance Fund, Wichita NOW (National Organization for Women) and the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Wichita sponsored the event.

Trust Women also will host a #ShowSomeMercy Celebration on Friday, an RSVP-only event at South Wind the night before the reunion is set to begin, and a book reading July 21 at Watermark Books, 4701 E. Douglas. David S. Cohen, co-author of “Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism” will read from the book, which chronicles violence among the anti-abortion movement, some of which focuses on events in Wichita. Burkhart was interviewed for the book.

Planned Parenthood also has planned a social media campaign and website with the theme “Summer of Normalcy” in hopes of showing the normalcy in abortion services and overall health care from Planned Parenthood.

“They’re over here yelling and being sensational,” Laura McQuade, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, said of the anti-abortion protesters. “We want to open a space for the rational, the calm, the everyday.”

The group also coined the hashtag #KnowWhatsNormal “to try to destigmatize and normalize not only access to those services but the conversation around those services,” she said.

McQuade said the overall focus is to soften anti-abortion rhetoric.

“The more we sensationalize, the more we politicize, the more we stigmatize, we make it harder for people to see (abortions) as a normal reproductive thing,” she said.

Abortion-rights victories

This year’s protests come on the heels of two major abortion-rights victories:

▪ A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the state could not defund Planned Parenthood. The ruling came from a lawsuit Planned Parenthood filed against the state when the health department, at the direction of Gov. Sam Brownback, tried to pull the organization’s money for Medicaid, the state and federal health insurance program for people with low incomes or who are disabled.

▪ On June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down some abortion clinic restrictions in Texas, saying the widely copied restrictions placed an undue burden on women seeking abortions. Kansas had enacted both laws at the heart of the case – that clinics meet hospital standards and that doctors obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

Clinic security

Over the past few weeks, Burkhart said she’s seen an uptick in the number of anti-abortion protesters outside the South Wind clinic, 5107 E. Kellogg.

Usually about a handful of sidewalk counselors protest each weekday outside South Wind.

But Burkhart said the clinic recently has seen up to about 20 protesters during the course of a day.

“We don’t know what they’re up to – that’s a bit unsettling when strange faces are outside looking around,” she said.

Burkhart worked at a former Wichita abortion clinic during the “Summer of Mercy” in 1991. She was home from college at the time. She’s gone on to commit her career to ensuring abortion access, starting the Trust Women foundation on that principle.

“I’m a veteran,” she said about the abortion debate. “So for me, it’s more of a nuisance that they’re going to come here and disrupt our business for a week. But I can tell you we take security very seriously – security will be very tight.”

South Wind spends between $65,000 and $75,000 a year on security, Burkhart said.

South Wind always warns patients before their visit that protesters will be outside the clinic gates, but the organization said it will provide additional information and entrance instructions for appointments during the “Summer of Justice.”

Planned Parenthood also said it would offer patient escorts that week. In late March, Planned Parenthood began offering the abortion pill at its Wichita clinic, 2226 E. Central.

Much of the 1991 protests centered on what’s now South Wind, which was then owned by George Tiller, a physician who performed late-term abortions and was shot to death at his church in 2009.

The clinic was firebombed in 1986, and in 1993 Tiller was shot and wounded outside the clinic.

Officials with Operation Save America have said they want to put an end to what they started in 1991.

Burkhart said she finds that phrase unsettling.

Rather than answering to man-made laws, Burkhart said, “they somehow answer to a higher power, and what they do, in terms of advocating violence, is somehow acceptable,” she said.

‘Domestic terrorism’

Corey Swertfager, president of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Wichita, was scheduled to sing at the Repro Rally and took a week of vacation from his job as an engineer to help watch over South Wind during the “Summer of Justice.”

“That’s really a small sacrifice compared to what day-in, day-out Julie and everyone providing health care has to put up with,” he said.

He said he and other volunteers will look for any erratic behavior.

“I applaud people for having strong convictions,” he said. He went on to add, “it’s one thing to have First Amendment rights, but it’s another to make people fearful of their lives. It’s an act of certain domestic terrorism.”

“The vast majority of people that are protesting these abortions are doing it out of the goodness of their heart, and I appreciate that. But what happens is, as that becomes normalized, the fire of radicals then feel like they have the right to antagonize people to the point of fear, and even the point of death.”

Gabriella Dunn: 316-268-6400, @gabriella_dunn

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