Meet the Wichita Women Standing Up to Anti-Abortion Extremists
South Wind Women’s Center in Wichita, Kan., she ducks down on the floor of the car. She wants to avoid being spotted by the anti-abortion demonstrators stationed at the entrance of the clinic’s parking lot.
This precaution started in April, when the extremist anti-abortion group Operation Rescue posted Chastine’s name and photo on its website, headlined “Identity of New Wichita Abortionist…Uncovered.” The post included a surreptitious audio recording of Operation Rescue head Troy Newman posing as a reporter and asking Chastine if she performs abortions at the Wichita clinic. Chastine is heard asking that he not identify her publicly: “I would like to keep my name off the record [because] of the crazy people with guns,” she says.
Newman’s years-long goal to make and keep Wichita abortion-free escalated when he moved Operation Rescue’s headquarters from Southern California to Kansas in 2002. At the time, he told Rolling Stone, his “single, shining goal” was to shut down Dr. George Tiller’s Wichita abortion clinic. He even ran a full-page ad in Catholic newspaper The Wanderer, reading, “Wichita isn’t big enough for George Tiller and me.” For seven years, he and his second-in-command, Cheryl Sullenger, who served two and a half years in prison for conspiracy to bomb an abortion clinic in California, spearheaded the stalking and harassment of Tiller—right up until the Sunday morning in May 2009 when Dr. Tiller was gunned down in his church.
So different cars, never taking the same route twice and an armed escort are precautions Chastine does not question.
Now Operation Rescue is redirecting its attention to South Wind. When the story broke early this year that a clinic providing a full range of women’s health care, including abortions, was opening, Newman told the Kansas City Star, “They can try to pretend it’s a full-service women’s center, but it’s just an abortion clinic…And they’re going to go out of business, because we’re going to make sure that it’s not economically feasible to run it.”
South Wind, which began offering services in April to women in western Kansas and parts of Oklahoma and North Texas, isn’t just any new clinic: It’s located in the same building that once housed Dr. Tiller’s clinic. Even before Newman moved to Wichita, Operation Rescue’s antiabortion protesters had flooded into the state in the summer of 1991 to blockade the clinic.
It had also been bombed and vandalized, and in 1993 Dr. Tiller was shot in both arms during an assassination attempt.
When Julie Burkhart, who had been Tiller’s political advisor and legislative director, formed South Wind, it was in part to carry on her mentor’s legacy—as well as to fill a void in a state with only three remaining clinics providing abortions, all more than two and a half hours by car from Wichita.
Dr. Chastine, who became involved with the Wichita clinic because she wanted to help women who have limited access to abortion and other reproductive-health care, agreed to fly to Wichita from her home in Illinois. But targeting abortion doctors is a familiar tactic for extremist groups; Chastine was soon on the target list. In addition to the clinic in Wichita, she faces protests at her family practice in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, even though she doesn’t perform abortions there.
Her problems in Illinois began after Troy Newman tracked her and posted her identity. A couple of weeks later, anti-abortion protesters showed up at her medical office and have continued to protest there every month, organized by Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League. A second-generation antiabortion leader, Scheidler is the son of Joseph Scheidler, author of the book CLOSED: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion. The older Scheidler is also credited with inspiring Operation Rescue’s use of clinic blockades and invasions. In fact, it was at a conference in Chicago involving Operation Rescue and the Pro-Life Action League where the idea of “justifiable homicide” of abortion doctors was first discussed.
“Troy [Newman] and I are friends and colleagues and we frequently communicate about what’s going on on the ground here [in Illinois] and there [in Kansas],” says the younger Scheidler. The Pro-Life Action League has tried to sully Dr. Chastine’s ratings on physician websites and has distributed flyers and mailed letters to other tenants in her office building, to surrounding businesses and to her landlord. “Our goal is to get [Dr. Chastine] to quit flying into Kansas by making sure her reputation is harmed here in Oak Park. We want abortion to be a stain on her career.
Despite the stresses surrounding her Illinois practice, Chastine remains determined.
“These people are bullies. They are terrorists, and I will not quit and let them get away with this behavior,” she says. “It’s why there is a shortage of providers and a lack of access. If more doctors stood up to the bullying then there wouldn’t be the stigma or the shortage.”
Chastine’s predicament has obvious ripples in Wichita. Burkhart admits it’s been difficult to recruit physicians. But like Chastine, Burkhart is immovable.
“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.”
Before anyone enters south wind women's center, an armed guard wearing a bulletproof vest checks purses and backpacks. Visitors must walk through a metal detector (to detect concealed weapons); phones, computers, cameras and other electronic devices are prohibited. Once inside, the warm light of lamps illuminates colorful paintings of flowers, and a gurgling water feature provides a soothing soundtrack. For the children who sometimes accompany patients, there are bookcases filled with games and books.
Burkhart’s staff is composed of young women, many of whom graduated college with gender or women’s studies degrees. Just outside her office are photographs of Dr. Tiller from his days in the Navy, and inside it are more pictures of Tiller and a bin of “Trust Women” pins—the pin Tiller wore every day to show his belief that women can be trusted to make their own health-care choices.
“After Dr. Tiller’s murder, I really became so disillusioned with the political process,” Burkhart says of her previous efforts as a pro-choice advocate. In a political climate in which a number of GOP-dominated state legislatures and governors have pushed forth bills to undermine abortion clinics’ sustainability, Burkhart chose a new path she felt would have a more direct impact on women’s lives.
“To go out and recruit more pro-choice candidates and try to defeat antiabortion legislation, even if we were lucky enough to pass good legislation, it all just seemed useless if we didn’t have the providers,” she says. “I thought, ‘What does the movement need now, and how can I play a part?’ I just began to feel the thing I had to do was reestablish a clinic here in Wichita.&rdquo
Her challenges were vast. Wichita’s pro-choice community was suffering from a kind of group PTSD. “Everyone was shell-shocked,” Burkhart recalls.
“People feared there would be more violence and just didn’t really feel that [starting the clinic] could be done.”
Raising money wasn’t easy, but eventually she secured contributions nationally and locally until she had enough to not only run the new clinic but also buy the building that had housed Tiller’s clinic. There were other barriers, too: architects who turned down the remodeling job because they didn’t want to work for an abortion clinic; the printer who declined to print South Wind materials; the difficulty securing trash pickup; even the taxi company that won’t service the clinic.
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.
When pressed if he’s worried that the tactics used against Chastine might incite some other “loon like Roeder” to shoot someone, he’s dismissive. “I’m concerned about getting shot by gangbangers in this YMCA,” he quips.
Newman has clearly devoted a huge amount of effort to preventing South Wind from succeeding: filing a nuisance complaint with the city questioning the compliance of the handicap parking spaces; complaining to the Kansas Board of Healing Arts within the week the clinic opened that it was illegally practicing medicine; and coordinating with Scheidler to pressure Chastine into quitting. Yet he still feigns an air of disinterest. He calls South Wind “just another firsttrimester abortion clinic” and says there are other clinics he’s focused on.
In fact, since the murder of Dr. Tiller, Newman and Operation Rescue have relentlessly targeted Tiller’s former colleagues who continue to provide laterterm abortions: Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who now travels between Nebraska and Maryland to practice, and Drs. Shelley Sella and Susan Robinson, who now practice in Albuquerque, N.M. All three, like Tiller before them, are subjects of intensive campaigns. Operation Rescue files medical-board complaints, posts news about the doctors on blogs and social media and publicizes their addresses and photos on its website, Abortiondocs.org.
Anti-abortion followers around the country are encouraged to help gather data to add to profiles of these and other abortion providers on the site’s searchable database, which also includes medical license numbers and doctors’ home addresses and phone numbers. In some cases, doctors have been photographed going about their daily lives in what appear to be surreptitously taken pictures.
“The Abortiondocs.org site is a one-stop resource for extremist targeting and stalking of abortion-clinic personnel,” says duVergne Gaines, legal coordinator for the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Clinic Access Project. Gaines, who has been to Wichita repeatedly and worked closely with the South Wind staff, is assisting the clinic in responding tothreats. “What alarms us is that the network of extremists targeting Julie Burkhart and Dr. Chastine is the same network that targeted Dr. Tiller— Army of God adherents, Operation Rescue and OR/OSA,” she says.
Two of the project’s law associates work out of the South Wind clinic to assist it in dealing with its many legal challenges. Gaines has also helped recruit and work with community volunteers to assist the clinic—from going to zoning meetings to escorting patients to documenting on-site interference by anti-abortion protesters. Among the regular protesters is Jennifer McCoy, a known follower of the Army of God, which advocates “justifiable homicide” of abortion doctors.
Putting the extremists’ tactics into perspective, Gaines explains, “The deadly attacks on doctors and clinics have not been the acts of some ‘loon’ or ‘lone wolves,’ but part of an orchestrated campaign of terror. And until this network is prosecuted and dismantled, we fear we are only buying time until the next murder.”
The terror campaign has clearly left its mark. Kerry Jacob, a board member of South Wind, says her mother is frightened every time her daughter talks publicly about the clinic.
“We used to be the Midwest, now we’re Alabama,” says Jacob, who grew up in Wichita. Kansas also used to have a pro-choice governor, Kathleen Sebelius, from 2003 until just a month before Dr. Tiller was murderedin 2009. Now the state is led by an extreme abortion foe, Gov. Sam Brownback.
But Burkhart still maintains optimism about the support for South Wind in the Wichita community.
“Our current governor and legislature don’t reflect the people’s overall beliefs in Kansas. People in this state are pro-choice. When you ask them if they think abortion care should be outlawed, you only find 15 percent of people who seem to be for no abortion period.”
Nonetheless, South Wind supporters know there are legal and publicsafety ramifications when key community leaders fail to speak out against extremists. For example, when the clinic first opened, the Wichita city attorney forbade Wichita’s Police Department from attending a briefing convened by the U.S. attorney for Kansas to coordinate local, state and federal law enforcement response to extremist threats. When asked about this, a pro-choice city council member declined to comment on the record.
“We tried early on to have a relationship with the city, but they say they have to remain neutral,” says Erin Thompson, an attorney representing South Wind who works alongside her father, Lee—Tiller’s longtime attorney. “But when it comes to issues of preventing violence and the public safety, there is no neutrality to be had.” The city attorney did not respond to Ms.’ requests for an interview.
While Burkhart says she has a great relationship with the beat cops in the clinic’s neighborhood, she also says that the city attorney’s failure to cooperate is distressing. She’s not confident that law enforcement or government at any level will go after the anti-abortion extremists to prevent potential violence.
“When a community’s leaders remain silent, they allow the extremists to set the tone,” says the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Gaines. “That’s exactly what happened to Dr. Tiller.”
“We were all very well aware how Dr. Tiller was demonized in this city,” says Vickie Sandell Stangl, a longtime Wichita resident and past president of the local NOW chapter, “and in many ways, there is a bit of guilt and shame that our community should have done more, spoken out more. [But] since Tiller’s death, the citizens of Wichita and the world are watching, and this time we’re not going to let our city officials be lax and not step in.”
In the midst of the threats, Burkhart and her staff go to work every day in offices where the walls are filled with congratulatory letters and cards from around the country, praising them for opening a new abortion clinic. Burkhart says she abides by one of Dr. Tiller’s favorite sayings: “solutions not problems.”
“My attitude going into this was that it can be done,” she says. “Nobody said it would be easy, but I’ve always loved this place, and everyone who works here has a sense of commitment and compassion for the women and the people who live here. Just because we have some right-wing leaders, why should we go without health care?”
For doctors like Chastine, it’s all about the women who need health care. “The work is so rewarding,” Dr. Chastine says. “It’s so fulfilling for me to be able to help women who would be almost without resources otherwise. People are so thankful. There’s nothing else that makes such a difference in someone’s life in such a short amount of time…that’s what keeps me going.”