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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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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.”

Stacie Stukin is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose byline has appeared in Time, Los Angeles Times, Glamour, Saveur, Yoga Journal and The New York Times.

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