CREDIT: Mike Hutmacher/The Wichita Eagle
An anti-abortion activist is alleging that a Wichita-area abortion clinic is “trying to provoke an incident” of gun violence in order to raise money from other reproductive rights supporters around the country. The clinic in question, South Wind Women’s Center, recently opened in the same building that used to house slain Dr. George Tiller’s former abortion clinic — which ceased operations after Tiller was shot and killed by an abortion opponent in 2009.
Mark Gietzen, the chairman of the Kansas Coalition for Life, made the comments about gun violence in an interview with the Huffington Post on Thursday. He said he believes that South Wind’s owner, Julie Burkhart, is hoping the volunteer clinic escorts who accompany patients into the building will get into an altercation with the anti-abortion protesters outside and provoke a shooting. Gietzen suggested that Burkhart would blame that violence on the anti-abortion protesters and fundraise off of it.
“I think she’s trying to provoke an incident so she can say, ‘Look, these pro-lifers did something,’ and people from California and New York and these other places will give her money,” Gietzen told the Huffington Post.
The anti-abortion leader also predicted that some of the women seeking abortions at Burkhart’s clinic might have family members who are angry about their decision to end a pregnancy. Their fathers or boyfriends might show up to the South Wind Women’s Center with a gun, he said. If someone like that “walks up carrying a gun, and he doesn’t want that abortion to happen, somebody is going to get a bullet in their head,” Gietzen said.
Burkhart told the Huffington Post that she doesn’t actually even have clinic escorts, because women can drive past the protesters right up to the clinic’s door. “We absolutely don’t have that strategy in mind,” she said, adding that Gietzen’s comments are “curious, shocking, and unnerving.”
The day before Gietzen spoke to the Huffington Post, he incited controversy by suggesting that Kansas’ new concealed carry law, which permits people to carry hidden firearms in public, increases the chance for gun violence at South Wind Women’s Center.
“With the new conceal-carry laws enacted since the closure of the Tiller abortion facility, the number of armed people present on site will likely be higher — not lower,” Gietzen said in a press release this week. “South Wind escorts antagonize and provocatively taunt the pro-life volunteers on the site in ways that make serious violence more likely.” He said that the nearby homes in the same neighborhood as the clinic would “continuously be in the line of fire.”
Other abortion opponents in the state have moved to distance themselves from Gietzen. Mary Kay Culp, the executive director of Kansans for Life, said that her organization “disagrees with and wishes to completely separate ourselves from Mr. Gietzen’s controversial remarks” about gun violence at the clinic. Cheryl Sullenger, the senior policy adviser at Operation Rescue, said that it’s “inappropriate” to link concealed guns to the debate over whether the clinic should continue operating.
Even if Culp and Sullenger don’t want to endorse suggestions about heightened gun violence at the clinic, the three anti-choice groups do agree that South Wind poses a threat to the neighborhood. They are currently asking the city of Wichita to re-zone the area so South Wind won’t be able to perform abortions anymore. They claim that, since the clinic attracts noisy demonstrators who sometimes clash with clinic staff, it’s too disruptive to the residential neighborhood — essentially, blaming South Wind for their own protests against it.
The late Dr. George Tiller is perhaps the most prominent symbol of the consequences of anti-abortion harassment. In the wake of his murder, Kansas has been viewed as a particularly hostile place for abortion providers to practice, and Julie Burkhart had a difficult time finding doctors who were willing to come work at South Wind. Indeed, as she has worked to re-open Tiller’s former clinic, she has experienced the potential dangers firsthand. Protesters have picketed outside of her home, and just a few months ago, an anti-abortion activist was recorded as saying it would be a “blessing to the babies” if someone shot Burkhart — while he was having a conversation with the man who killed her former colleague, Dr. Tiller.