After Dr. George Tiller was murdered in 2009, his Wichita-area abortion clinic closed its doors — and ever since, women in the area have had no choice but to travel up to 200 miles to get to the nearest clinic. Now, women’s health advocate Julie Burkhart wants to change that.
But that decision isn’t without its risks. There is perhaps no greatest symbol of the dangers of anti-abortion harassment than Dr. Tiller, who was gunned down simply for providing Kansas women with reproductive services — and that type of violence hasn’t dissipated in the years since his death. As Burkhart works to re-open Tiller’s former clinic as the South Wind Women’s Center, security is one of her top concerns:
Safety and security have played significant roles in the decision to reopen this clinic and provide abortion services in Wichita for the first time since the murder of Dr. George Tiller in 2009.
“We will have a security company working for us after we open. We also have other security measures in place, just the typical things that businesses have these days,” say Burkhart. She is reluctant to provide to many details because of concern about possible threats from anti-abortion activists in the community.
Burkhart says during the long process of reopening the clinic she’s been scared at times. In recent weeks demonstrators have twice camped outside her home. She says her passion helping women make their own reproductive health decision outweighs any fear.
Anti-abortion groups are already doing their best to block Burkhart’s group from opening the clinic, attempting to delay construction by complaining to city officials that the building’s zoning contracts weren’t issued correctly. Some of the contractors working on the building have already been harassed. The site of the clinic, as well as Burkhart’s own home, have been picketed by abortion opponents.
And Burkhart has struggled to find abortion doctors who will agree to relocate to Kansas to put themselves in the middle of the fight. In areas like Wichita, where there are already tight abortion restrictions and a lack of women’s health resources, abortion doctors often aren’t willing to wade into a hostile environment to provide reproductive care. Rising levels of anti-abortion harassment, as well as increasing numbers of restrictions placed on abortion doctors that aren’t required for other types of medical professionals, have contributed to a problematic abortion provider shortage across the country.
Nonetheless, Burkhart is committed to finding a way to open the South Wind Women’s Center sometime this spring. Women have already been calling the clinic to ask when they can schedule appointments, and Burkhart — who used to think she would “never want to step foot back in the state of Kansas again” after her colleague Dr. Tiller was killed — is ready to take a risk to ensure those women get the care they need.