The Wichita Police Department says that a man is in custody after he brought knives and an improvised explosive device into the Kansas abortion clinic that was previously operated by Dr. George Tiller, who was gunned down by an anti-abortion activist in 2009.
The South Wind Women’s Health Center, which opened to the public in 2013 after the building was closed for several years following Tiller’s murder, was temporarily evacuated on Monday afternoon after security officials found knives and a small bomb in a man’s backpack.
No one was harmed, though a police spokesperson said that the small explosive device was set to explode and could have been dangerous if it had not been removed. Wichita police, along with the FBI, are now investigating the potential bomb threat.
“Today, our staff and local law enforcement handled a threat to the safety of our patients and staff promptly and effectively. The systems that we have in place to protect our patients and staff worked,” Julie Burkhart, who runs the clinic, said in a statement.
Burkhart is no stranger to potential safety threats, and has spoken openly about the fact that tightening security at her clinic was one of her top concerns before she re-opened it to the public two years ago. Just a few weeks after she opened South Wind — which does not offer abortion services as late into pregnancy as Tiller used to provide them — one anti-abortion activist suggested that it would be “a blessing to the babies” if someone shot Burkhart in the same way that Tiller was killed. A few months later, a different right-wing activist alleged that Burkhart’s goal was to “provoke” gun violence at her workplace.
Tiller’s death rocked the reproductive rights community and led the federal government to dispatch U.S. marshals to protect doctors at other health centers. Six years later, it’s still dangerous to work at an abortion clinic. Incidences of stalking and harassment have been on the rise, and anti-abortion protests sometimes follow employees home to their private residences. In response, some abortion providers have resorted to wearing disguises or taking different routes to and from work. Others have left the profession.
Opponents of abortion also sometimes vandalize clinic buildings to prevent staff members from doing their jobs. Earlier this year, a masked intruder allegedly methodically destroyed security cameras at Mississippi’s last abortion clinic. And last year, an abortion clinic in Montana was forced to close after an anti-choice activist broke in and destroyed nearly everything inside; it still hasn’t been able to re-open, effectively ending abortion services altogether in Northwest Montana.
The suspect says that his friend made the explosive device and he didn't mean to bring it into the clinic. Authorities now say they don't believe he intended to harm anyone. But Burkhart says that she's glad her security protocols were effective. "With what happened with him and other instances of violence across the country, we enacted security protocols," she told CNN. "I'm very concerned that someone would come in the building with weapons."