There is perhaps no greater symbol of the devastating effects of anti-abortion harassment than Dr. George Tiller, the Kansas-area abortion doctor who was gunned down in 2009. His clinic has been closed ever since his murder — and now that a women’s health group has purchased the building with the intent of re-opening it to the public, they have struggled every step of the way.
Even though the landmark Roe v. Wade decision has guaranteed legal abortion services for the past four decades, increasing levels of anti-abortion harassment have continued to plague the health clinics that serve women across the country. And Wichita — which hasn’t had another abortion clinic since Dr. Tiller’s closed, forcing women in the area to travel at least 150 miles to the nearest clinic — is no exception, as the anti-choice community does everything in its power to prevent Dr. Tiller’s legacy from living on:
Anti-abortion groups are trying to block or delay the reopening of the clinic through a rezoning petition and complaints to the city that permits haven’t been issued as required for the clinic’s indoor remodeling.
“Once they get the permits we’ll be off to the next thing — we will try to persuade contractors not to work there,” said Cheryl Sullenger of the Wichita chapter of Operation Rescue.
The attempted roadblocks cast in front of the clinic before it even opens are not discouraging leaders of the organization that bought the building, where abortions, family planning and other gynecological care would be offered.
“We will continue to move forward to see that women have their rights,” said Julie Burkhart, who worked with Tiller’s clinic for eight years on political and legislative issues. “It’s incredibly important because women in this region need access to good medical care.”
Burkhart, who describes her quest to re-open the clinic as “absolutely one of the most difficult things I have had to do in my life,” is gearing up for a long fight. The site of the clinic and her own home have both been picketed, and anti-abortion brochures have referred to her as a “killer.”
Wichita residents on both sides of the debate agree that Dr. Tiller’s prominent history has made the fight over the new clinic especially contentious. The fact that Kansas is particularly hostile to abortion rights may also be a factor. Research has linked anti-abortion legislation to violent anti-abortion harassment, pointing out that anti-choice legislators may indirectly sanction protests that target abortion providers by allowing attacks on reproductive freedom to become law.