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Meet the Wichita Women Standing Up to Anti-Abortion Extremists

“There is an attitude that if you provide abortion care then you should have to put up with harassment and intimidation, and I’m not sure we would say that to anyone else in any other profession.”

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And then there are the threats and harassment. Burkhart knew she would likely be a target; she had experienced it before.

Right after Tiller’s murder, someone installed on her back patio a person-size cross made of four-by-fours, resplendent with gauzy white cloth. More recently, a frightening conversation discussing Burkhart and South Wind was recorded (and put on YouTube) between David Leach—an Iowa extremist who identifies himself as the “secretary general” of the anti-abortion extremist network Army of God, and who signed petitions declaring that killing abortion providers is justified—and the incarcerated Scott Roeder, who murdered Dr. Tiller.

The two men discuss the national gun debate, the Bible and their imprisoned mutual friend Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon (the Army of God adherent who attempted to assassinate Tiller). When the conversation turns to South Wind, Roeder refers to Burkhart as “Julie Dark Heart” and says that reopening Tiller’s clinic is “almost like putting a target on your back, saying, ‘Well, let’s see if you can shoot me.’”

He goes on to quote Michael Bray, the “lifetime chaplain” of the Army of God and the man who first advocated murdering abortion doctors, saying, “Pastor Mike Bray said, ‘If 100 abortionists were shot, they would probably go out of business.’ I think eight have been shot, so we got 92 to go. Maybe she’ll [Burkhart] be number nine.”

Burkhart is very concerned about her personal safety and that of her staff, all of which causes her substantial stress. That said, she has an uncanny ability to focus on the task at hand. “You know, I just can’t lay down and let them do what they want,” she says. “Why should any of us have to withstand this harassment and intimidation? It’s not right; it’s like blackmail.”

Burkhart doesn’t just face protests at the clinic, but at the home she shares with her husband and young daughter. In fact, she has a temporary protective order against local extremist Mark Holick, the Wichita regional director of another extremist group, Operation Rescue/Operation Save America (OR/OSA), based in Charlotte, N.C. Holick, who has said he meets and corresponds with Scott Roeder, led protests two years ago in Wichita against Dr. Mila Means, a family practitioner who had hopes of expanding her practice to provide abortions. But the protests became so disruptive, she was forced to abandon her plans after her landlord sued to evict her.

In November 2012, months before South Wind opened, Holick and other protesters distributed a WANTED-style flyer in Burkhart’s neighborhood with her home address prominently featured, along with her picture and text describing her as an “abortion-homicide leader…who is conspiring to take the lives of precious children in Wichita again.”

Holick and his followers showed up again in February 2013, this time to position a large sign pointing toward Burkhart’s house and reading, “Where’s your church?”—which she took as a direct threat. Holick declined to be interviewed for this story, but his lawyers argue he has a First Amendment right to free speech. Burkhart’s lawyers, however, are adamant that, “In the context of the history of violence against abortion providers in Wichita, particularly that Dr. Tiller was murdered in his church, these statements are incitements to violence and are not First Amendment-protected communications.”

A judge will soon rule on Holick’s challenge to the protective order. On an unusually hot June afternoon in Wichita, Operation Rescue’s Newman—who has agreed to an interview in the lobby of the local YMCA before starting his workout—denies that actions by himself and other antiabortion extremists create an environment that might incite violence. He calls Scott Roeder a “loon” and says it’s not fair to confuse a picket line with violence.

 
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