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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.”

The following was originally published in Ms. Magazine's Summer 2013 issue

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.

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